In 2011, the United States launched a new television show in Afghanistan called Sesame Garden. It was an Afghan-themed version of Sesame Streetdesigned to win local hearts and minds. Unfortunately, the producers had to cut the Count von Count character because Afghans had not heard of Dracula and could not comprehend the fangs.
The fate of the Count epitomizes the new Age of Alien Warfare—defined by U.S. military operations in culturally unknown environments. From the War of 1812 to today’s campaigns in the Middle East, both Washington’s enemies and the local populations have become steadily less familiar in terms of language, religion and social traditions. Alien warfare reached its apogee with the post-9/11 mission to refashion Afghanistan—a landlocked country seven thousand miles away, with a largely unknown culture and a literacy rate lower than that of America in 1650.
The rise of alien warfare has crippled America’s capacity at both waging war and making peace. Paradoxically, as U.S. power grew, the nation’s record on the battlefield deteriorated alarmingly. From 1812 to 1945, the United States had a miniscule peacetime army but won most major campaigns. After World War II, Washington constructed the most expensive military machine that ever existed, yet it suffered an era of military reverses. Reeling from battlefield failure, Washington was forced to negotiate a way out of the quagmire. But alien warfare impeded effective diplomacy and prolonged difficult campaigns. In culturally unfamiliar environments, the United States could neither win wars nor end them.
Over the last two centuries, America’s major wars have become increasingly alien experiences. By major war, I mean operations where the United States deploys over twenty-five thousand troops and there are at least one thousand battle deaths on all sides combined. Alien warfare refers not only to the unfamiliar nature of the environment, but also to the degree of direct engagement with another culture. Conventional interstate wars, where Washington faces the uniformed military of an enemy country, tend to be less alien experiences because there is only limited interaction with the adversary’s culture. The combatants meet on a defined battlefield and try to destroy each other’s forces. By contrast, nation building and counterinsurgency, where Washington seeks to create order within a foreign society, tend to involve much greater engagement with foreign cultures. The goal is to win the loyalty of the people by creating new power structures, overseeing elections and building infrastructure. Therefore, the most alien kind of war involves a culturally distinctive environment and sustained nation building.
America’s major wars can be divided into three phases. The first era, from 1812 to 1914, was a time of neighborhood wars, where conflicts were…