Every day for more than a week, U.S. and allied warplanes have bombed targets inside Syria. While the as-yet-unnamed operation may seem a lot like war to those being pounded, it hardly feels that way to most Americans. With no U.S. boots on the ground and no reporters beaming back up-close scenes of the action, Americans are witnessing the new war from a distance. They see the fighting mostly via footage from airborne targeting cameras edited by the Pentagon, or cell-phone and social-media posts from those on the ground, the suspect provenance of which means they give an unreliable picture of what’s really going on.
But distant air wars have a way of coming home, in time. That’s because the biggest drawback of any war fought solely from above is a military one. Limiting the war to air strikes cuts the risk to U.S. military personnel, but it also makes it harder–perhaps impossible–to achieve President Obama’s declared objective, the destruction of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda-linked Khorasan group.
Air campaigns have a mixed history. The U.S. and its allies launched Operation Desert Storm in 1991 with a 43-day aerial bombardment, but driving Iraq out of Kuwait ultimately required the deployment of more than 500,000 ground troops. The 1999 NATO-led air campaign to get Serbian forces out of Kosovo dropped 28,000 bombs over 78 days, cost an estimated $3 billion and killed nearly 500 civilians. Only after President Bill Clinton suggested that he was willing to deploy ground troops did Operation Allied Force change the reality on the ground.
In both of those wars, the U.S. had the advantage of taking on organized militaries commanded by heads of state, albeit dictatorial ones. Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic may have been strongmen, but they were nonetheless responsible for far more than battlefields and so were subject to pressures the zealots of ISIS are unlikely to feel.
The air war that most closely parallels the one the U.S. is conducting against ISIS is Operation Unified Protector, the NATO-led seven-month effort over Libya in 2011. Begun to protect Libyan rebels and civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s army, the air strikes played a critical role in Gaddafi’s ouster and eventual killing. For a time, that outcome looked like a clean air-war victory.
But the resulting chaos has changed that view. That’s why the Pentagon has made it clear that its aerial campaign is open-ended and that destroying the jihadists will probably require ground troops in the end. That will give Americans time to get familiar with this new Middle Eastern war. And for the Pentagon to come up with a name for it.
This appears in the October 13, 2014 issue of TIME.
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