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Perpetual war, endless war, or a forever war, is a lasting state of war with no clear conditions that would lead to its conclusion.[citation needed] These wars are usually situations of ongoing tension that may escalate at any moment, similar to the Cold War. From the late 20th century, the concepts have been used to critique the United States Armed Forces interventions in foreign nations and the military–industrial complex such as the Vietnam War and the Soviet-Afghan War, or wars with ambiguous enemies such as the war on terror or war on drugs.


Poor military planning is one of the major reasons that a forever war can occur. If the territory gained in a war is not occupied or controlled properly, this can allow a deadly insurgency to occur, potentially stretching out a conflict that never ends.[1] Similarly, warfare that is fought irregularly, such as rebellions in Africa, do not have a set of military objectives in mind, usually because these rebel groups intend to commit war crimes against the civilian population.[citation needed] Thus, the lack of actual military goals can in itself be a reason that a forever war can occur. A very large defense budget may also be a factor in the transpiration of a forever war.[2] As of 2018, the United States has an inflation-adjusted military budget that is greater than its budget for World War II, which enables it to fight continuously in Iraq and other countries.[2]

Civil wars are prone to military stalemate which can prolong the war indefinitely.[3] A lack of democracy is associated with an increased risk of civil war.[3]

Forever wars can occur in order to keep money flowing into institutions, such as the military–industrial–congressional complex (MICC).[2] Thus, forever wars can serve as domestic political engines, as policy makers promote policies of continuing and expanding wars.[4]

Forever wars can be to the benefit of small armed groups, who may achieve political goals by wearing down a larger group or country. For example, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the beginning of the war on terror, Al-Qaeda aimed to involve the United States in a prolonged guerrilla war in Afghanistan, challenging its will to fight such a long war.[5]

Wars between ethnic or ideological groups can become forever wars, as such wars are harder to end with a negotiated peace deal due to the different interests of the two sides.[3] An additional barrier may arise in the case of religious wars if one or both parties believe that the other must be destroyed.[3]

In current events

The concept of a perpetual war has been used since opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War. James Pinckney Harrison argues in The Endless War: Fifty Years of Struggle in Vietnam (1981)[6] that the Vietnam War was "endless" due to the success of the communist revolution in nationalizing the people.[7] The concept was used by Trần Văn Đôn, a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, in his book Our Endless War: Inside Vietnam (1978).[8]

American historian James Chace argues in his book Endless War: How we got involved in Central America (1983)[9] that US policy in Central America is based upon the assumption that US hegemony is threatened within the region. According to Chace, US involvement in Central America worked towards resisting the domino effect of the spread of a "communist take-over", largely through establishing the credibility of US military.[10] Though these policies were meant to deter conflict, they themselves created the conditions for instability in the region, which furthered a US response. This resulted in a self-perpetuating, or "endless", loop. He additionally argues US investment in pursuing an expanding military presence in Central America reflects an endless preparation for war.[11]

A key argument of Chace is that much this military involvement stems from a logic of US paranoia in reaction to the Cuban Revolution. A similar argument is put forward by David Keen, political economist and Professor of Complex Emergencies at the London School of Economics.[12] His book Endless War? Hidden Function of the 'War on Terror' (2006)[13] argues that the United States' strategies and tactics in the war on terror use a "militaristic state-cased framework". This framework, though "counterproductive", has an "inner logic" and a "psychological function" of responding to the trauma of September 11 attacks.[14]

Noam Chomsky posits that a state of perpetual war is an aid to (and is promoted by) the powerful members of dominant political and economic classes, helping maintain their positions of economic and political superiority.[citation needed]

British journalist Robert Fisk, a critic of Western policies in the Middle East, argues that recent Western conflicts against the Middle East, after the end of the Cold War, have been part of a new perpetual war.[15] He suggests that former U.S. President George H. W. Bush launched attacks on Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan to distract the population from his domestic political problems. In addition, he claims that despite victorious claims after the first Gulf War that Saddam Hussein had been "defanged", he was again the target of Western attacks until his execution in 2006.

Similarly, Ted Koppel described the war on terror as "Our Children's Children's War".[16] Critics of Western policies have used the term "perpetual war" in reference to non-military "wars", such as the "War on Drugs", "War on Poverty", "War on Cancer", Lou Dobbs's "War on the Middle Class", the "War on Terrorism",[17] the "War on Women", or Bill O'Reilly's "War on Christmas".

In socioeconomics and politics

The economic make-up of the 5th century BC Athens-led Delian League also bears resemblance to the economic ramifications of preparing for perpetual war. Aspects of any given empire, such as the British Empire and its relation to its domestic businesses that were owned by a wealthy minority of individuals, such as the East India Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, and De Beers, manifest an observed relationship between a minority of individuals influencing Empire or State policy, such as the Child's War in India, the Anglo-Mysore Wars in India, the Anglo-French conflicts on Hudson Bay in Canada, and the Second Boer War in South Africa, follow a pattern where the Empire allocates resources pursuing and sustaining policies that financially profit the Empire's domestic business's owners.[18]

Military–industrial complex

The concept of a military–industrial complex was first suggested by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower[19] and the idea that military action can be seen as a form of market-creation goes back at least as far as speeches beginning in 1930 prior to the publication of War Is a Racket in 1935. On January 16, 1961, President Eisenhower delivered his farewell speech expressing great concern for the direction of the newfound armaments industry post-WWII. While recognizing the boom in economic growth after the war, he reminded the people of United States that this was a way of profiting off warfare and that if not regulated enough it could lead to the "grave" expansion of the armaments industry. For his warning of the thirst to profit from warfare through weapon production, Eisenhower coined the term "military industrial complex". He said, "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."[20] Eisenhower feared that the military–industrial complex could lead to a state of perpetual war as the big armament industry will continue to profit from warfare. Additionally, NSC 68 can be used as a reference to understand U.S. President Harry S. Truman's reasoning for the continued build up the United States' nuclear arsenal and how this contributed to the Cold War. This concept is still present in today's policies as William D. Hartung states in his article "The Doctrine of Armed Exceptionalism".[21]

Cold War

The Cold War was a time of extreme tensions between the Soviet Union's interest of expansion of Communism and the NATO countries which operated on a dominantly capitalist economy. The Soviet Union was viewed as a threat to the American national government as well as its citizens. When the Soviet military reached Afghanistan, the United States took action in training the people of the Middle Eastern nations to combat the Soviet Army. During the Soviet–Afghan War under the Carter administration, the CIA gave a lot of aid and training to the Islamic Jihadists and helped fund Wahhabi Universities in Afghanistan, Pakistan as well as Iraq. In 1979, Osama Bin Laden was assigned to the CIA and received U.S. military training. In 1985, President Reagan met with Islamic Jihadists at the White House. Under Reagan's presidency, these Islamic Jihadists were known as "freedom fighters", but were later relabeled as "Islamic terrorists" under President George W. Bush's administration.[22] It should also be noted that non-Jihadist Islamist resistance fighters were also aided by the CIA during the Soviet-Afghan War, and these groups became the Northern Alliance, but since the support was funnelled through Pakistan's ISI, Massoud received less support than the more radical factions.

War on terror

Main article: War on terror

Traditionally, the term "war" referred to the physical and conventional act of engaging in armed conflict. However, the implications of what war entails has evolved over time. The war on terror has often been cited as a perpetual war, being a war with "no specific battlefield and the enemy isn’t an army."[23] The war on terror has been directed at countless "enemies," as it has no clear target. Georgetown University Historian Bruce Hoffman describes traditional war as a war that "ends with the vanquishing of an opponent, with some form or armistice or truce- some kind of surrender instrument or document."[23] In contrast, the war on terror continues with no end in sight.

The war on terror was declared in 2001 by President George W. Bush, following the September 11 attacks, but as early as 1996, Osama bin Laden of Al-Qaeda made a threat to the United States, by making a declaration of war. The growing tensions of the Middle East are suggested by Laurence Andrew Dobrot to be very wide cultural misunderstandings and faults the West for not making peace with the Middle East. As the deputy director for the Missile Defense Agency's Airborne Laser Program, Dobrot examines the hostility which has been continuous not only since 2001, but since the birth of Wahhabism.[24]

Dobrot proposed that the U.S should recognize the cultural hostility of the tribal Arabs in order to make the first steps towards progression of making peace.

The Crusades arose as European expansion was growing at the peak of unified Islamic dominance. On September 16, 2001, in a speech, President Bush referred to the war on terror as a crusade. He said:

No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft - fly U.S. aircraft into buildings full of innocent people - and show no remorse. This is a new kind of -- a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while. And the American people must be patient. I'm going to be patient.[25]

Andrew Bacevich described Bush's naming of the war on terror as a crusade as something which does not make the war separate, rather something that shows that it is part of an "eternal war."[26]

War on drugs

Main article: War on drugs

The 1960s gave birth to a rebellious movement that popularized drug use. "Hippies" sought to expand their minds with the use of hallucinogens like LSD, whilst many soldiers returned from the Vietnam War with heroin habits. Demand for drugs skyrocketed in the 1960s.[27]

The War on drugs was declared by President Nixon in June 1971. It was later picked up by the Reagan administration as First Lady Nancy Reagan spread the message with her slogan "Just Say No" to drugs. Though coined by Ronald Reagan, the policies which his administration implemented existed stretching back to Woodrow Wilson's presidency. Security measures were taken under Reagan to restrict drugs. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 was passed so that pharmaceutical companies may keep track of the distributions and maintain restrictions on certain types of drugs. In 1988 the Office of National Drug Control Policy was set to pass more regulations and restrictions on drug policies, though the media labeled the agency directors as "drug czars."[28] The average annual funding for eradication and interdiction programs increased from $437 million during Carter's presidency to $1.4 billion during Reagan's first term.[27] Under George Bush's administration, a significant increase of actions were taken toward the war on drugs, including militant force, student drug testing, and drug raids.[29]

The war on drugs received criticism from political figures, such as President Barack Obama and Pat Robertson. Robertson said that the war on drugs must come to an end as there is a mass incarceration of drug users, who did not commit any violent acts, serving time. He says, "We here in America make up 5 percent of the world's population, but we make up 25 percent of jailed prisoners",[30] in reference to the war on drugs.

War memorials

With the advent of perpetual war, communities have begun to construct war memorials with names of the dead while the wars are ongoing. The Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial in Irvine, California was dedicated in 2010 to American troops who lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with space for 8,000 names (approximately 4,500 used at time of construction) and the intention to update it yearly.[31]

Views of influential writers

Thomas Hobbes

See also: Bellum omnium contra omnes

Political Philosopher Thomas Hobbes succinctly wrote in 1651 that a hypothetical state of nature was a condition of perpetual war. The following quotation from chapter 13 of his book Leviathan explores the causes and effects of perpetual war:

So that in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.

The first maketh man invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. They first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. For 'war' consisteth not in battle only or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known, and therefore the notion of 'time' is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. ...

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time or war where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Sun Tzu

Ancient war advisor Sun Tzu expressed views in the 6th century BC about perpetual war. The following quotation from chapter 2, Waging War, of his book The Art of War suggests the negative impacts of prolonged war:

Sun Tzu said: ... When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, the men's weapons will grow dull and their ardour will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength ... There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare ... In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

Alexis de Tocqueville

See also: Democratic peace theory

Historian Alexis de Tocqueville made predictions in 1840 concerning perpetual war in democratic countries. The following is from Volume 2, chapter 22, "Why Democratic Nations Naturally Desire Peace and Democratic Armies, War", 18th paragraph, in his book, Democracy in America:

No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country. Not indeed that after every victory it is to be apprehended that the victorious generals will possess themselves by force of the supreme power, after the manner of Sulla and Caesar; the danger is of another kind. War does not always give over democratic communities to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it must almost compulsorily concentrate the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands of the administration. If it does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it. This is the first axiom of the science.

Relationship with the democratic republic

The development of a relationship network between people who wield political and economic power as well as those who own capital in companies that financially profit from warfare have a relationship to records influencing public opinion of war through the influence of mass media outlets. These may also include the presentation for the causes of war, the effects of war, and the Censorship of war. The following authors, have suggested that entering a state of perpetual war becomes progressively easier in a modern democratic republic, such as the United States:


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See also


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