We need to rethink what it means to be at war. Where do we draw the line between war and peace? And when do we, as a nation, work earnestly to defend ourselves from outside threats?
A declaration by Congress isn’t necessary for America to be at war. If it were, WWII would be our most recent. Likewise, an authorization of military force does not meaningfully separate conflict from peace. The last authorization approved by Congress was written to allow for the invasion of Iraq. But what about America’s ongoing campaign against ISIS or its widening involvement in the devastating war in Yemen?
For at least the last few decades, war has been harder to identify with precision. Rapidly advancing technology, increasing distance from battle, and fewer deaths have obscured war and its implications—at least for most Americans. The fallouts of war are farther away from us, and we are farther away from having a meaningful understanding of what threatens our stability and security as a nation.
Like it or not, we’re already, kind of, at war. Not with North Korea, not with the “news media”—but with Russia. Russia is fighting us in an invisible, but by no means less urgent, war. And it’s time we come to terms with it.
The scope of Russia’s attacks on our democracy is breathtaking, and to Russia’s great advantage, it is also incredibly difficult to encapsulate in a single sentence or depict in shocking cable news footage.
Russia hacked both the Republican and Democratic national committees, slowly releasing e-mails sent from the latter over the course of 2016. They stole and weaponized John Podesta’s emails in a successful effort to fuel intra-party fighting among Democrats and keep “Hillary’s emails” in the headlines for as long as possible. Russian operatives successfully took out ads on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to stir up grievances, and used bots to artificially distort our national political conversation. As CNN recently reported, “even Pokémon Go” was used in the extensive Russian efforts to interfere in our election.
Perhaps most ominously, Russia targeted the voting systems of at least 21 states. Here in Illinois, Russian hackers successfully downloaded at least 90,000 voters’ registration files. While these findings are preliminary, they raise the specter that actual vote counts may have been affected as a result of Russia’s attacks—which is a truly grave possibility.
We often think of war as bloody, replete with gunshots and bomb detonations, and we imagine cyber attacks knocking out New York City’s electric grid, arousing chaos. But as former Russian commander-in-chief Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky said, successful information warfare “can be much more important than victory in a classical military conflict, because it is bloodless, yet the impact is overwhelming.” The cyber attacks launched by Russia last year did not kill anyone (a distinction that remains important), but they managed to affect our political decisions and imbue our democracy with division and mistrust. They likely helped to narrowly push Donald Trump over the top in last year’s all-important election. So it is prudent that we begin to consider the attacks for what they are: attacks on the cornerstone of our political system.
War is changing. Rather than cling to our old understanding of how states advance their interests through attacks on an adversary, we should take heed of the lessons of 2016 and take Russia’s meddling in our election as seriously as we would if Russia had fired shots at American soldiers.
The subversion of our democracy by Russia and the election of Donald Trump will only be an anomaly if we work to make it one. Unlike conventional warfare, this invisible war cannot merely be fought by the Commander-in-Chief and Department of Defense. Powerful players— government officials, politicians, Silicon Valley, the news media, and others—need to critically reflect upon their failure to adequately respond to Russia’s intrusion in our election. Most importantly, these stakeholders need to work to develop defenses and best practices before the next wave of attacks quietly and invisibly hit our homeland. The weapons may have changed, but the stakes remain as high as ever.
Dylan Stafford is a second-year in the College.