Concept of Easy War

Key Judgments

Easy War, the conception that war has minimal impact on Western states and their citizens, provides a useful analytical framework in order to critique and study how Western states become involved in military conflicts. In using this framework, it is understood that the over reliance on technologically advanced military capabilities, and omission of serious review of military doctrine, will lead to Western militaries continuing reliance on methods that make wars Easy due to allowing the state to easily become involved in conflict. However, easy war overlooks that while it is easier for states to commit to conflict, the burdens on citizens have not all but disappeared, but have intensified in certain cases or

  • The concept of easy war revolves around the ability of Western states to sell the idea of waging war to its citizens due to its minimal impacts on them, thereby increasing the ability of Western states to commit war by limiting domestic opposition to it.
  • The ability to commit to and persuade the public that an impending conflict is an easy war largely functions on the basis of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) that developed in the 1980s, culminating in the 1991 Gulf War, and continuing throughout the 1990s.
  • The success that Western militaries have had from these the wars of the 1990s has led to a cognitive dissonance associated with current military capabilities and doctrine, whereby many strategic thinkers and policymakers ignore the failures in these wars and believe that because their militaries are technologically superior, victory is certain and cheap.
  • While there is some truth to the precepts of Easy War, by and large citizens are still affected in significant ways, but changes in how Western states conduct warfare has changed how they are affected and increased how critical citizens are to certain variables.
  • The repercussions of the United States’ (US) wars shows the fallacy of easy war when taking into account: decreased spending on infrastructure and social programs, massive national debt, ambiguity about the righteous cause of its actions, and an increased sensitivity to causalities in war.


The success of military operations by Western states throughout the 1990s has led to a reliance on the use of technology and concepts of RMA whereby governments can sell war to its citizens as easy. The ability to sell a war as easy to a state’s population is a result of the systemic change in how Western states organize their military, technological advances, and society interacts with the military. Due in large part to the overwhelming victory in the 1991 Gulf War, many policy makers incorrectly believed that advancements in military technology would allow Western states to ignore the supremacy of politics in war and win with overwhelming force.[1] It took until the invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq that convinced Western states that technology does not always mean victory when you have to acknowledge the politics of the situation. However, there remains a risk that Western states will not learn from these wars, but rather remain committed to easy war with the use of air and sea power as a means to limit costs and lives. In such an event, there would be little to no chance of true success or resolution to these conflicts.

Easy war has two problems that must be addressed. The first problem is that military advancements and change means citizens are not adversely affected by the war and can be sold to them as easy of cost, conscious, and effort.[2] Second, subordinate to Western ways of war making it easy on citizens, the reduced impact on citizens then limits or removes a significant amount of public pressure on the government when seeking to enter into a conflict, thus allowing Western states greater freedom to conduct war.

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Easy war is described by Paul Starr as a war that is “easy in the sacrifices it demands of us, easy on our consciences, easy on our pocketbooks.”[3] The primary attributes of easy war include: not having to face the adverse effects of mass mobilization, rationing, increased taxes or economic burden, rationing, few causalities, and being guaranteed of our righteous cause while still minimizing civilian deaths.[4] All of these variables are then sold to the public to show that the government not only should conduct war, but that the state is so effective that the citizenry can go about their lives without a worry, knowing that their government is doing good abroad. Easy war is contrasted with the major wars of the 20th century; largely that of the total war environments of World War 1 and World War 2 where citizens had to make significant sacrifices for the good of the country and to ensure full effort by the state in these conflicts.[5]

Easy war is a result of the obsession in RMA that emerged from the 1991 Gulf War and Post-Gulf War where the primary military technological innovations were in the areas of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); advanced command, control, communications computer applications, and intelligence processing (C4I); and precision fire.[6]  The result of these advancements in military technology meant that the fog of war became easier to overcome, that communication between all levels of the military became quicker, and that targets could be hit with pinpoint accuracy from safe distances.[7]  With the overwhelming victory that these advancements helped to achieve in the 1991 Gulf War caused the belief that focusing purely on advancing military technology would not only ensure that the US and Western states would have dominance in war, but that adversaries would not even threaten the West.[8]

The culmination of this thinking led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iraq in particular was described and sold as being an easy war where the US military would be in and out of Iraq in 90 days, but these conflicts overlooked that military hardware is not everything.[9]  These wars ignored what some strategists argued that “military preeminence without an appropriate strategy to shape and utilize it is both dangerous and fleeting.”[10] The result of ignoring the strategy to understand the political components of warfare led to protracted and costly wars that were in no way the easy wars the public was sold on.


Although the critiques on the Western ways of easy war are well founded and offer good critiques, it broadly overlooks the changing landscape of warfare in general and its overall effects on the state and its citizens.Western states have done away with some of the major mechanisms to support states in conflict that disproportionately affects citizens, ie mass mobilization, rationing, drafts, but these are not the only ways that citizens can be affected. These mechanisms are equated with and closely tied to total war, which is not the dominant type of warfare in the 21st century. Rather, warfare for Western states in the 21st century has thus far been largely focused on addressing asymmetric and unconventional threats. To face these new threats Western states have relied upon technology in order to avoid the costs of total war, but with these methods come with new costs of non-traditional war.

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While Western states sell the public on minimal costs of wars, this is no such thing as cost free. By August 2016 the total costs of the US’ wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria have amounted to $4.79 trillion.[11] Complicating this further is that most of these costs add to the US’ debt. Interest costs from this debt will at least be $7.9 trillion as a result of these wars, which has been shown to have directly affected the ability of the US to in infrastructure and tens of thousands of jobs.[12]  Comparatively, the cost of the US’ involvement in the NATO intervention in Libya cost approximately $1.1 billion.[13] Though this shows that a reliance on air power alone, and working with NATO allies, can significantly lower the costs of war, it is by no means free and was only possible due to NATO supporting rebel forces on the ground in Libya.

Second to cost, but no less important or severe, is that there are no such thing as bloodless wars and Western states must recognize there are human costs to every war. Despite promises of minimal loss of life that is associated with selling easy war, causalities in Iraq and Afghanistan were in no way low. US military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq from initial invasion up to March 3rd 2017 have amounted to 6,766.[14] Compared to the total wars of WW1 and WW2, this seems minor, though in the age of professional and small Western militaries, causalities are more significant. A possible result of this as the public becomes accustomed to limited or no casualties, the public will become hyper-sensitive and less accepting of deaths, thus providing a public pressure on the state to not seek war. In addition, what must be accounted for are the short and long term effects on civilians. In its intervention of Libya, NATO had no casualties and limited civilian casualties to 72 deaths.[15] However, the intervention directly led to Libya’s current Civil War that has caused over half a million people to flee the country, ongoing fighting, and the Islamic State to gain a foothold in the country.[16]

Once it is recognized that there are serious costs in war, it must be acknowledged that the advancements in military technology does not replace strategy or replace diplomacy and political settlement. These facts were once again overlooked in Western state’s involvement in Libya and currently in Iraq/Syria where the focus is to bomb first and consider the political repercussions afterwards. While Western states may no longer view that a state can be rebuilt in 90 days, there still remains an overall lack of attention to politics. General H.R. McMaster succinctly stated: “Be skeptical of concepts that divorce war from its political nature, particularly those that promise fast, cheap victory through technology.”[17] Not only are politics essential to avoiding and ending conflict, but can minimize the intensity of the conflict by addressing grievances of communities.[18] Ultimately, even when addressing the political situations of emerging conflicts is essential to the resolution of unconventional conflicts; Western states will continue to struggle with unconventional enemies in their effort to reconcile its Western values while meeting its security needs.

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Despite the heavy investments and advancements in military technology to achieve it, there is no such thing as an easy war. War remains a costly, deadly, and complex affair that requires the recognition that technology cannot solve everything. The cognitive dissonance of this fact whereby Western states are ignoring politics and diplomacy to pursue war to solve complex political problems is evident from conflicts more than from the past five years, but since 2001. More recently, from Libya to Syria, Western states still believe in easy war, but the public is finding this less and less persuasive. As the public increasingly becomes critical of the heavy debt and costs of war, the impact on lives, and the moral ambiguity associated with being involved in such wars, governments will no longer be able to persuasively argue that a war is easy.


Casualty Status. United States Department of Defense. March 03, 2017.

“Civil War in Libya.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed March 01, 2017.

CNN Wire Staff. “CNN Fact Check: Comparing costs of Iraq, Libya missions.” CNN. Accessed March 01, 2017.

Crawford, Neta C. “US Budgetary Costs of Wars through 2016: $4.79 Trillion and Counting Summary of Costs of the US Wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Homeland Security.” Costs of War, September 2016.

Mcmaster, H. R. “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.” The New York Times. July 20, 2013. Accessed March 01, 2017.

Owens, William A. “The Emerging U.S. System-of-Systems.” National Defense University Strategic Forum, Institute for National Strategic Studies, No. 63, February 1996.

Starr, Paul. “The Easy War.” The American Prospect. Accessed March 01, 2017.

“Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya.” Human Rights Watch. October 19, 2015. Accessed March 02, 2017.

[1] H. R. Mcmaster, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War,” The New York Times, July 20, 2013, accessed March 01, 2017.

[2] System of systems

[3] Paul Starr, “The Easy War,” The American Prospect, accessed March 01, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Owens, William A., “The Emerging U.S. System-of-Systems,” National Defense University Strategic Forum, Institute for National Strategic Studies, No. 63, February 1996, p. 1-2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] H. R. Mcmaster, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War,” The New York Times, July 20, 2013, accessed March 01, 2017.

[9] Paul Starr, “The Easy War,” The American Prospect, accessed March 01, 2017.

[10] Strategy and RMA page 2

[11] Neta C. Crawford, “US Budgetary Costs of Wars through 2016,” Costs of War, September 2016.

[12] Ibid.

[13] CNN Wire Staff, “CNN Fact Check: Comparing costs of Iraq, Libya missions,” CNN, accessed March 01, 2017.

[14] Casualty Status, United States Department of Defense, March 03, 2017.

[15] “Unacknowledged Deaths,” Human Rights Watch, October 19, 2015, accessed March 02, 2017.

[16] “Civil War in Libya,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed March 01, 2017.

[17] H. R. Mcmaster, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War,” The New York Times, July 20, 2013, accessed March 01, 2017.

[18] Ibid.

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