The Word War
Whatever happened to the “War on Terror”?
The word went out four days before Admiral Michael Mullen was sworn in as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On September 27, 2007, an “all hands” email was sent to the members of the Joint Staff’s J-5 section, its directorate for strategic plans and policy. It read: “Today, we have received clear direction from Adm Mullen (incoming CJCS) regarding the phrase ‘Global War on Terror’. He does not like this reference and we are not to use this in any future correspondence. Review your letters, orders, JSAPs [Joint Staff Action Processing], and presentations to ensure this reference is removed. Ensure strict compliance.”
Perhaps this edict will be overruled; perhaps it will have been overruled by the time this essay appears. But it is notable as one in a long series of examples of prominent Americans’ terminological disquietude with the phrase “War on Terror.” In 2005, then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld trotted out the phrase “Global Struggle against Violent Extremism” as a replacement before it was struck down by the Bush White House. The usually clear-eyed political reporter and essayist Joe Klein has advocated a “Global Police Action against Terrorists.” Among 2008 presidential candidates, while Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have said that they do believe America is in a War on Terror, former Senator John Edwards has disagreed, decrying the term as a “bumper sticker” slogan. Among Republicans, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has said it “served its purpose for awhile” but should now be replaced with the infantile “The Terrorist War against Us”–the national security version of kindergarten arguments over “who started it.” Even President George Bush, the leader most associated with the “War on Terror” told an audience at Tippecanoe High School in Tipp City, Ohio in April that: “Now we’re involved in a–I call it a ‘Global War against Terror.’ You can call it a ‘Global War against Extremists,’ a ‘Global War against Radicals,’ a ‘Global War against People Who Want to Hurt America.’ You can call it whatever you want, but it is a global effort.”
The roiling conversation over how to name the conflict that began on September 11, 2001, speaks to an unease that surrounds both nouns in the phrase “War on Terror.” For some, it is the word “terror” that sticks in their craw. It is better to have a “War on Islamofascism,” say neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz. Other literal-minded souls concur. “Why would we declare war on a tactic?” asks retired General Anthony Zinni, a Scowcroftian realist. But a “War on Terror” is not the same as a “War on Terrorism,” and wars are often named in ways that do not spell out the name of the enemy. What we now call “World War I” was commonly referred to as the “Great War” or the “War to End All Wars” until the early 1940s. Indeed, wars are rarely named in ways that explain every dot and tiddle. One wonders whether some of these same pedants would have insisted that Franklin Roosevelt summon the nation into a “War on Nazism, Fascism, and Imperialism.”
But, more than the word “terror,” it is the word “war” that has been the source of significant discomfort. This is in large part because American leaders continue to depict the war in terms that do not ring true. When Bush discusses the conflict, the historical analogy he returns to most often is that of the military battle waged by Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and armies of millions against Hitler’s Reich and Hirohito’s Empire. On the other hand, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, would habitually describe the war as “primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world”–something akin to the low-grade efforts against narco-traffickers in the “war on drugs.” Neither analogy–nor the policy approaches that stem from them–makes sense.
Despite all the blunders and bluster that have so far surrounded the term, the phrase “War on Terror” is the right one. It is just that the nature of “war” has changed dramatically from that envisioned by either Bush or his critics–and the “terror” we’re fighting is not the one that has been conventionally portrayed.
Rightly understood, the War on Terror is not primarily, though it to some extent is, a military conflict. In the Information Age, war is not solely a function of the clash of armies, or is it primarily a test of intelligence-sharing and police raids like the war on drugs. The threat we face is not just from terrorist cells, but from a cancerous worldview. The War on Terror is best compared to the Cold War–a long-term, global, ideological struggle that will be waged on every continent, occasionally flare into armed conflict, and be ultimately won not by imposing our will but by the power of our good works and example in convincing ordinary people around the world that democracy and open markets are a better choice for them than religious despotism and closed economies.
Both parties have mentioned such a foreign policy strategy. But beyond the intermittent rhetorical flourish, neither has embraced its full ramifications.
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