"It is well that war is so terrible," Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said, "lest we should grow too fond of it." For him, and generations of military leaders before and since, the carnage and other costs of war have driven a sense of reluctance to start a conflict, or even to join one already in progress.
Caution about going to war has formed a central aspect of the American public character. George Washington worried about being drawn into foreign wars through what Thomas Jefferson later called "entangling alliances." John Quincy Adams admonished Americans not to "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Their advice has generally been followed. Even when it came to helping thwart the adventurer-conquerors who started the twentieth century's world wars, the United States stayed out of both from the outset, entering only when dragged into them.
This pattern briefly changed during the Cold War, with the launching of military interventions in Korea and Vietnam. The former was fought to a bloody draw; the latter turned into a costly debacle. Both were quite "terrible," costing tens of thousands of American lives and untold treasure -- nearly 100,000 lives and trillions of dollars -- reaffirming Lee's reservations.
Operation Desert Storm -- a lopsided win against a weak opponent in Iraq -- seemed to break the pattern, ushering in President George H.W. Bush's "new world order." But the military experiments in regime change begun by his son -- an unexpectedly long and bloody slog through Iraq and Afghanistan -- reawakened traditional concerns about going to war, propelling Barack Obama to the presidency and energizing Ron Paul's support within the GOP.
Even Obama's "intervention-lite" in Libya proved unsatisfying, unleashing much suffering and uncertainty about the future of that sad land. And a furious debate rages about the practical and ethical value of drone bombing campaigns and "targeted killing" of our enemies -- due in part to the deaths of innocents caught up in these attacks, but also because of the possibility of fomenting rabidly anti-American sentiments, perhaps even revolution, in places like nuclear-armed Pakistan.
But now, somehow, it seems that war may no longer seem so terrible.
How has this come to pass? The culprit is the bits and bytes that are the principal weapons of cyberwar. It is now possible to intervene swiftly and secretly anywhere in the world, riding the rails of the global information infrastructure to strike at one's enemies. Such attacks can be mounted with little risk of discovery, as the veil of anonymity that cloaks the virtual domain is hard to pierce. And even when "outed," a lack of convincing forensic evidence to finger the perpetrator makes heated denials hard to disprove.
Beyond secrecy, there is also great economy. The most sophisticated cyber weaponry can be crafted and deployed at a tiny fraction of the cost of other forms of intervention. No aircraft carriers needed, no "boots on the ground" to be shot at or blown up by IEDs. Instead, there is just a dimly lit war room where hacker-soldiers click for their country, and the hum of air conditioners keeping powerful computers from overheating. Cool room, cool war.
The early returns seem to suggest the great efficacy of this new mode of conflict. For example, the Stuxnet worm, a complex program of ones and zeros, infected a sizeable proportion of Iran's several thousand centrifuges, commanding them to run at higher and higher speeds until they broke. All this went on while Iranian technicians tried fruitlessly to stop the attack. The result: a serious disruption of Tehran's nuclear enrichment capabilities -- and possibly of a secret proliferation program.
The sabotage occurred without any missile strikes or commando raids. And, for now, without any open acknowledgment of responsibility, although reporters and others have pointed their fingers at the United States and Israel. It is loose lips in high places, not sophisticated "back hacking," that seem to have divulged the secret of Stuxnet.