War begins an inexorable march towards exhaustion. The resources we fight with are limited and the burden of their use only increases with time and the workings of violence, chance, and planning. Every culture handles that trinity a little differently creating experiences and possibilities too numerous to be known by any individual, war is too big. Its size conceals the fullness of its opportunities and pitfalls from those who move forward along the few paths they know.
There are two complementary ways to describe the enormity of war. First, it is a human phenomenon whose complexities multiply according to the number of people involved. Active duty servicemen are generally a small segment of a society and yet an entire society can be transformed when faced with occupation. Then opportunities to fight increase, a farmer can become a part-time soldier relying on tools like ambush and community intimidation to grind out victory. War is open to as many changes and interpretations as there are lives it affects.
Second, as the most visceral human action war draws a response from all aspects of life. It siphons wealth from civilizations, it builds and destroys political credibility, and it polarizes the religious into zealots and pacifists. War's effects rebound back onto itself creating criticism, support, opportunities, and constraints that were unexpected at its outset. The influence that even intangibles like faith and the economy have, combined with the endless changes wrought on the shape of war by individual participants, make for complexity beyond understanding.
War quickly exceeds our ability to know it, so we make it smaller. We discard approaches and possibilities until we have something we can grasp and practice at the expense of resources we are —to sacrifice. In the United States we rely on a volunteer force, augmented by advanced technology and massive sums of wealth. Our military is tailored to quick decisive engagements with minimal casualties and reflects the American consensus on what war should be, even when not employed that way. The forces that shape the way we fight are numerous, powerful, subtle and beyond our ability to master completely.
Likewise, the people we fight have their own narrow approach to conflict. Instead of mirroring the capital intensive military the United States fields they have forged a way of war that plays to their patience and extensive local knowledge while bypassing their lack of wealth. War brings these two approaches into contest and practitioners on both sides are forced to adapt. Some adaptations can be supported from our niche, spending more money to develop vehicles that can survive I.E.D.s is very much in line with how the United States fights.
However, when we adapt further away from our preferences and competencies we add a steep learning curve to an already heavy burden. Searching far afield from our finite knowledge of war for a more appropriate response to the current fight has led us down rough and unfamiliar paths. In addition to the wealth war is normally paid for with; time has been spent lavishly and with time more lives have been spent bitterly. We are quickly becoming more exhausted than our opponents because, forgetting where we came from, we press into the unknown. Those concerned about public policy must have a deep respect for our natural limitations as war-makers before accepting life's most brutal challenge.