Wars Without Victory

The United States must rethink the meaning and role of its military and security.

U.S. Army soldiers attached to the 2nd platoon, C troop, 1st Squadron (Airborne), 91st U.S Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team operating under the International Security Assistance Force walk on the side of a hill during a patrol near Baraki Barak base in Logar Province, on Oct. 10, 2012. (MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/GettyImages)
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For our myriad enemies, both state and sub-state, there is no longer any overriding reason to work out what strategists call "force multipliers," or to figure out any useful "correlation of forces." Today, whether we understand this or not, these enemies can wreak authentic havoc without first having to subjugate us.

This is, at least in part, a terrible truth. But it remains critical nonetheless. Moreover, it remains vital not because we have done something wrong. Rather, it is only the natural consequence of constantly evolving national and terrorist military technologies.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This particular technological evolution can't be stopped or reversed. Our current and growing American vulnerabilities in the absence of any prior defeat simply represents a fact of strategic life that must be endured and then suitably exploited. To ensure that these vulnerabilities remain tolerable, however, we will soon have to fashion, together with very bold new ideas for productive international alignments, a new and comprehensive military orthodoxy. This will have to involve certain refined deterrence, preemption, and war-fighting options.

Together with a correspondingly fresh look at nuanced arrangements for active and passive defenses, this new orthodoxy will need to reconsider exceedingly complex interpenetrations and intersections among these arrangements. In the more formal language of science and strategy, these interactions are called "synergies."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Special Operations Be Given More Autonomy?]

Surprisingly, there is also a significant upside to these changing meanings of victory and defeat. Here, what is true for America, is also true for its principal enemies. These assorted foes must now also confront potentially huge homeland vulnerabilities in the absence of any prior military defeat.

Properly understood by our leaders, this largely unforeseen mutuality of weakness could soon be turned to our own critical advantage. Once we can acknowledge that our strategic goals may now have to be more modest than traditional ideas of "victory," our indispensable exercise of world power could begin to become more thoughtful, and hence more meaningful.

  • Read Michael Noonan: Defense Spending Is Declining, Sequestration or Not
  • Read Mieke Eoyang and Aki Peritz: The Case for Missile Defense
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.