Let us not go again to war. Let us not go to war because we cannot afford to “win” another war. There would be no winning this war. There is only losing, at a cost that staggers every dimension on all sides — in lives, in money, and in the squandered opportunity to do anything better with our collective time and resources on this already beset planet.
I’m speaking here of war with Iran, our current precipice. But I issue the warning more generally, too. Bookmark this page and pull it up as prophylaxis anytime the drums of war begin rattling anew: War isn’t just tragic. It is increasingly dumb and pointless, too.
War is becoming an outdated means of human conflict resolution. Technology is turning armed conflict into an endeavor increasingly dominated by what war scholars call “asymmetric warfare” — meaning that weaker powers like Iran can now marshal so much strength that they are no longer very weak, exacting a mighty cost of victory even to the world’s preeminent global superpower. Then there is climate change, which has ratcheted up the opportunity cost of every conflict; anytime we are fighting each other, we are absconding in the larger and more important fight for the habitability of the planet.
You may debate whether any particular historical war worked out well for its agitators. But there should be no debate that many of America’s recent wars have ended in misery for all. Our politicians talk of war as a last resort, but that is only to keep up appearances, because the truth is too terrible to admit: that our ever-more-expensive war machine (a cost of nearly $740 billion in 2020) can buy us little peace. Rather than a last resort, war now offers no resort. War can no longer be defended as the thing to do after everything else has failed. War must instead be seen as failure itself.
I had thought the futility of war might be grasped by most American politicians by now. One of Donald Trump’s rare bright spots as a candidate was his departure from the post-9/11 Bush-Cheney doctrine that doubled down on heedless U.S. military interventionism. In his oft-stated aversion to “endless war,” Trumps sentiment matched the public’s — a Pew poll this summer showed that most Americans, including most military veterans, now believe that our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been worth fighting. Trump seemed to be heeding the public’s caution back in the summer when he abruptly called off a strike against Iran in retaliation for its shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone.
But in killing Iran’s most important military leader, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Trump opened the door to war. Now Iran is retaliating, and a cycle of escalation looks possible — even if, for now, Trump is backing away from further conflict. It’s beginning to feel a lot like 2003 again, with some of the same pundits and politicians who were in favor of a war with Iraq now repeating similar talking points about Iran. While noting that he’d like to avoid war, Trump himself has suggested that war with Iran would be a cakewalk: “It wouldn’t last very long, I can tell you that,” the president told Fox Business in June.
Don’t fall for it. It’s plain dishonesty: How could anyone who has lived through the quagmire of Iraq and Afghanistan think war with Iran will be anything but long and brutal? In those conflicts, America’s overwhelming military might stumbled on local culture, geography, ethnic and religious rivalries, and most of all the determination of an entrenched, committed foe that could melt in and out of the local population.
As Vox’s Alex Ward points out, Iran has almost three times as many people as Iraq did when we invaded in 2003. It also has treacherous geography, and it controls a great many proxy forces across the Middle East and even in likely sleeper cells in Europe and Latin America. Iran also possesses a sophisticated cyberwar operation — it is believed to be behind recent hacks into American banks and other targets and to have spread disinformation and propaganda on social networks around the world.
The United States would overwhelm Iran in a conventional head-on war, but like China and Russia, Iran has adopted a deep capacity to mount “hybrid war” — conflict that involves both conventional and unconventional means of war. (For example, Iran could expand its operations on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, dealing a costly rise in global energy prices.) As Ward concludes: “A U.S.-Iran war would be a bloody hell during and after the fighting.”
This gets to the immense folly at the heart of our military might. Though the United States spends more on the military than the next nine countries combined, we have not been able to purchase much peace through strength. That’s because our strength is clearly of a type, and our years in Iraq and Afghanistan have made plain our vulnerabilities.
Among other shortcomings, our military is still buying mostly big, old defense technologies (like aircraft carriers and bombers) from the military-industrial complex, even if many of these technologies face obsolescence under a future of artificial intelligence, unmanned battlefield robots and other cyberweapons. Our country’s efforts at adopting artificial intelligence technology in the military might not be enough to counter our rivals, including Russia and China.
The upshot is this: The United States holds military supremacy over the world’s waters and the airspace, but our control is limited and contestable. The last two decades have made clear that even for America, war is never simple. We should fear it. We should avoid it.
And we ought to look for more fruitful things to do with our money and our lives, like making life on earth more livable, not less.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.