Forgetting the Forever Wars

John Ramming Chappell

Nearly two decades after 9/11, a consensus has emerged: the United States needs to end its forever wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. This month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the sweeping legislation that authorized the War on Terror. Legislators have also proposed bills to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF, which the Trump administration cited as legal justification for the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. President Biden backed both efforts, becoming the first US president to support repealing and replacing the authorizations. Many attribute forever wars to the hubris of theunipolar moment,” when the United States became the last superpower standing after the fall of the Soviet Union. But this explanation is incomplete. Forever wars have been a near-permanent fixture of American policy since the colonial era.

Repealing the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs is a promising step, but truly ending the forever wars will require reckoning with the history of American militarism. 

The United States would not exist without a state of perpetual war against Native American nations that began well before its founding. The American Revolution was fought, in no small part, for the right of American colonists to wage war against Indigenous people west of the Appalachian Mountains in violation of the Proclamation of 1763. The issue of westward expansion into Native American lands even featured among the complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence, which claimed the monarch “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages…” Violating the Proclamation was neither the first nor the last case of double-dealing in a long line of broken treaties, wars of expansion, and extermination campaigns. Even though these wars were fought against sovereign nations, histories of American foreign policy usually exclude them altogether or portray them as unfortunate byproducts of the United States manifesting its destiny.

The US government offered Native Americans a false choice between assimilation and extermination. From President George Washington’s plan to civilize Indigenous people to the Dawes Act’s fracturing of tribal lands in the name of personal enterprise, the civilizing mission fuelled cultural genocide. As campaigns of conquest drew to a close, forced assimilation efforts accelerated. General Richard Henry Pratt, who pioneered the residential school model at the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, said, “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” 

After consolidating its continental holdings, the United States went abroad in search of monsters to destroy. U.S. overseas imperialism in the late 19th century established a pattern that would repeat itself a century later, as the unipolar moment gave way to the War on Terror. The consolidation of American power preceded a renewed military overreach.

Yellow journalism and jingoism propelled President William McKinley into a “splendid little war” against Spain, which, after 19th-century revolutions across the Americas, had seen its empire reduced to a few outlying colonies. A likely accidental explosion aboard the USS Maine in Havana Harbor provided a pretext for the Spanish-American War, which reached beyond Cuba to include the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

The US Army arrived on Philippine shores well-accustomed to counterinsurgency. Many American officers were fresh off of suppressing Indigenous uprisings. The postbellum period saw the killing of Lakota war chief Crazy Horse and the surrender of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe in 1877, the surrender of the Apache leader Geronimo in 1886, the killing of the Lakota chief Sitting Bull in 1890, and the subsequent massacre of over 150 Lakota civilians at Wounded Knee. All of these events produced top-ranking military officials in the Philippines, where the vast majority of US generals (Robert Kaplan reports 26 of 30) had participated in counterinsurgency campaigns in the American West. 

By the time the Philippine War broke out, permanent conflict was already a time-honored American tradition.

After 300 years of Spanish rule, Filipinos were on the cusp of independence. Emilio Aguinaldo, a young revolutionary leader, had enlisted American Admiral George Dewey’s help and won a series of victories against Spain with the understanding that he would lead an independent Philippines after peace negotiations. However, when Aguinaldo’s forces and American troops besieged Manila and Spain conceded to the Americans alone, it became clear that the US government had other plans. In the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the United States paid $20 million to annex the Philippine Islands. 

Despite opposition from anti-imperialists like William Jennings Bryan and Mark Twain, the McKinley administration took up the “white man’s burden” and embarked on a colonial project in its new territory. Policymakers cited the importance of Christianizing the already-deeply-Catholic country, the United States’ responsibility to provide “our little brown brothers” with supervision while they developed “Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills,” and the desire to benevolently assimilate Filipinos. 

Since then, foreign policy elites have largely shed the overt racism of their 19th-century forebears. But the paternalism has endured. The civilizing rhetoric of the McKinley era bears an uneasy resemblance to the ways in which US officials justified the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–as efforts to liberate oppressed people, restructure societies according to liberal democratic values, and enforce “the boundaries of civilized behavior.”

When Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed an independent republic in 1899, guerilla warfare against the United States ensued. Aguinaldo, who President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed a “renegade Pawnee” and the “Osceola of the Philippines,” sustained armed resistance for two years. In response, the US Army employed scorched earth tactics, concentration camps, and torture techniques that included waterboarding. Most sources agree that as many as 200,000 Filipinos perished due to the war, and Ken De Bevoise estimates indirect deaths may have reached 775,000. 

Although the Philippine War nominally ended in 1902, an insurgency persisted on the island of Mindanao until 1913, making the conflict the United States’ second-longest after the war in Afghanistan. Independence came in 1946, in large part due to a xenophobic effort to repel Filipino workers from the mainland United States. Discriminatory laws and racial violence showed that even decades of Americanization could not overcome American racism. 

American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere carry the legacy of the forever wars of yesteryear, even as their details fade into historical amnesia. On the 2016 campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly told an apocryphal story about General John Pershing. Pershing, Trump claimed, executed Muslim insurgents in Mindanao with bullets dipped in pig blood during the Philippine War. After an ISIL-inspired attack in Barcelona, Trump tweeted, “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”

Wars against Indigenous people have seeped into military vocabulary. For example, military personnel have long referred to enemy territory as “Indian country” and named Army helicopters after Native American leaders and groups to “suggest an aggressive spirit and confidence.” Similar to Roosevelt comparing Aguinaldo to Osceola, the Obama administration used the codename Geronimo to refer to the killing of Osama bin Laden. 

Repealing the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs would be a laudable step towards restoring Congressional oversight over the use of force. However, an American propensity to fight counterinsurgencies without realistic exit strategies or objectives stretches back centuries. Since the dawn of the republic, the myth of the civilizing mission, paired with a desire for aggrandizement, has led the United States through the all-too-familiar territory of forever wars. Efforts to remake the world in our image at gunpoint have elicited protracted resistance. Truly ending the forever wars will require pursuing a more restrained foreign policy when it comes to the use of military force and accepting the limits of American power.

Image: The US Army published “Knocking Out the Moros: The US Army in Action” in 1963. The anachronistic depiction of the 1913 Battle of Bud Bagsak in the Philippines was designed for display in US Army facilities, and the poster’s caption notes that the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol was developed to “stop fanatical charges of lawless Moro tribesmen. Source: Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

John Ramming Chappell is a J.D. and M.S. in Foreign Service candidate at Georgetown University, where he focuses on progressive foreign policy and national security law. 

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