Spinning Wheels of War

The Office ended its run on NBC last May after nine seasons on the air.  However, many viewers felt in their hearts that the sitcom was never quite the same after the departure of its star, Steve Carell, two seasons earlier.

The moment Carell’s character, Michael Scott, chose Holly over Dunder Mifflin and flew off into the sunset seemed like the perfect, natural conclusion to the series.  In its final years, The Office was just “spinning its wheels,” as the TV parlance goes.  Sans Michael Scott, the show might have retained its charm, but it had lost its purpose.

While the real world is not generally as neat as the world of television sitcoms, Americans often view reality through the prism of their favorite fiction.  While this is not always helpful or terribly intelligent behavior, it can nonetheless help us to understand why we feel the way we do regarding our country’s place in the geopolitical universe.

Not all of these feelings are wrong.

To wit:  If one thing has been made abundantly clear amidst the United States’ almost-war against Syria, it is that the American people have had it up to here with military interventions in the Middle East, carried out under the banner of “the war on terror.”

Every last public opinion poll reflects the same general trend:  Americans prefer less involvement in foreign affairs, not more, and preferably none at all.  We have neither the time nor the cash to fix all the problems here on the home front, let alone to right every atrocity committed by others (and by us) overseas.

It is sensible enough to surmise, as we have, that the leading cause of this sentiment is the experience of watching the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars become a bit messier and more complicated than we initially thought, and learning that not every crisis can be solved with brute force—even when that force is exerted by the U.S. military.

But allow me to introduce an additional (but not necessarily alternative) explanation for our collective antipathy toward foreign entanglements:

So far as the American public is concerned, the war on terror is over, and has been for quite some time.

The war began in New York on a crisp Tuesday in September, and it ended in a lavish fortress in Abbottabad, Pakistan some nine-and-a-half years later.

Ever since a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden and deposited his corpse into its watery grave, the American war machine has just been spinning its wheels when it comes to conducting the war on terror.

The fact is, we Americans like our wars to be black and white, with easily-identified heroes and villains and, more important still, beginning and ending dates that are clear and unambiguous.

We understood the September 11 attacks to be one bookend of a great worldwide struggle between civilization and fanaticism, and with the demise of Public Enemy No. 1 on May 1, 2011, we were provided the other one.

Deep down, of course, we know the world is not that simple.  We know, for instance, that al-Qaeda is not the sort of organism that ceases to exist once you cut off its head—if the group can be said to possess a head at all.

What is more, we were explicitly warned in the earliest days after 9/11 that our country was engaged in “a different type of war” that may well prove more open-ended than past conflicts, with an enemy that claims no particular home base and does not abide by the same rules of engagement as we do.

Yet we have nonetheless clung to the idea that war is finite.  That we embark upon a given conflict with a particular, concrete objective, and that once that objective is either accomplished or proved impossible, we can pack up and go home.

Simplistic and antiquated as this assumption might be, we have every right to continue holding it.

However noble the objective of massacring large numbers of al-Qaeda members might be, it has proved one that is limitless by definition:  For every jihadist we kill, another one sprouts up in its place, and the cost of bombs and bullets required to destroy them only seems to increase.  (Our current drone program attempts to rectify this, but drones have proved problematic in their own right.)

And so the question must continue to be asked:  How much longer will this go on?  Will it ever end?  Has the so-called war on terror eclipsed its natural lifespan, or does it simply not have one?

By continuing to actively repel the forces of fundamentalism around the world, does the United States fight a war with a real and worthwhile purpose, or is it just spinning its wheels?

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