n the final scene of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's heart-stopping thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Maya, a CIA operative and the movie's heroine, is strapped into a seat on a military transport plane staring into the middle distance, looking depleted. The film's dramatic arc follows Maya's near-messianic quest to take out "UBL." Intense and headstrong, she battles the weary fatalism of her bosses, suppresses all moral doubt about the use of torture to extract leads, and sticks to her theory of the case with feverish conviction. The movie's harrowing, climactic kill operation is Maya's vindication. But then, having identified bin Laden's body in a hangar at Bagram Air Base, she finds herself all alone in a cavernous cargo hold, a thousand-yard stare on her face. When a cheerful crew member tries to engage her, she looks away. "Where do you want to go?" he asks.
Maya never answers--and the audience is left wondering whether her struggle is over. Has she exorcised her demons? Can she free herself from the grip of the "forever war"? Those questions, in a way, are as much about America as they are about Maya. Zero Dark Thirty, which opens in theaters this week, has already stirred controversy by reigniting a debate about the efficacy and ethics of torture. But nearly a decade after the last detainee was waterboarded by the CIA, the more relevant question raised by the film may be: when and how will the war on terror finally draw to a close?
It's a question that President Obama has quietly discussed with his closest advisers. He has raised the issue publicly only in the vaguest terms: when he said, to rousing cheers on election night, that "a decade of war is ending," it sounded more like a reference to Afghanistan and Iraq than a statement about the war on terror as a whole. Yet behind the scenes Obama has led a persistent internal conversation about whether America should remain engaged in a permanent, ever-expanding state of war, one that has pushed the limits of the law, stretched dwindling budgets, and at times strained relations with our allies. "This has always been a concern of the president's," says a former military adviser to Obama. "He's uncomfortable with the idea of war without end."
It is still considered politically treacherous for anyone, especially Democrats, to question whether war is the right framework for fighting terrorism. But just as the intelligence and military communities were criticized 12 years ago for having had too much of a "pre-9/11 mentality," some in the administration have now begun to gingerly ask whether we today have too much of a post-9/11 mentality. Or, as one adviser to Obama recently put it to me, "Is it time to start winding down the state of emergency?"
While no one believes Obama would ever actually declare the war on terror over, there have lately been a handful of signals that his administration is growing more open to scaling back the country's war footing. Even as Obama continues prosecuting the drone war--last week, the CIA took out a high-ranking al Qaeda commander in Pakistan--the White House appears to be looking to rein in the military and the CIA. Three senior administration officials tell Newsweek that John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, has proposed significant bureaucratic shifts that could place the CIA's drone program on a much tighter leash. Meanwhile, the military is increasingly acknowledging the limits of lethal operations in the war on terror. Ironically some of the most innovative thinking comes from the Special Operations Command, the tip of the spear in the shadow wars. Adm. William McRaven, who led the bin Laden mission, has placed an increasing priority on non lethal approaches to achieving the military's strategic goals. These days, America's elite warriors are more likely to be involved in training local security forces, building schools and sewage systems, and conducting village stability operations than launching daring night raids or lethal strikes. …