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Impearls: War against what?

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Earthdate 2005-08-10

War against what?

Michael Totten had a piece in his blog last week titled “War, Struggle, or Counter-insurgency?”, on the subject of what is it we're fighting in Iraq and elsewhere, i.e., the so-called “war on terror,” and just what it should properly be called.

Antiwar folk have a field day, of course, chortling over how one cannot sensibly make war on a “phenomenon” or “metaphor” or “tactic” — ridiculing the very idea as akin to the truly metaphorical “war on drugs” and “war on poverty.”  As Mark Steyn, back on March 14, 2005 in an article in The Irish Times, quoted eminent British historian Corelli Barnett as saying:  “It is misleading to talk of a ‘war on terrorism’…  You cannot in logic wage war against a phenomenon, only against a specific enemy.”

Now, personally, I don't inherently have much of a problem with “wars” of this kind, as contrary to Barnett's assertion, history actually shows such wars occurring many times, over and over again.  Britain and the U.S., as an example, waged long and ultimately successful wars during the 18th and 19th centuries against the “phenomenon” or tactic of piracy; even ancient Rome did so in a remarkable episode which Impearls reported on here.  The U.S. and Britain also waged bitter and successful war against the “phenomenon” of slavery during the 19th century.  War itself may be regarded as a phenomenon that war can be waged against, odd though that may sound.  As Frederic Manning put it in his 1930 novel Her Privates We, by Private 19022:

War is waged my men; not by beasts, or by gods.  It is a peculiarly human activity.  To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half of its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.  That raises a moral question, the kind of problem with which this age is disinclined to deal.  Perhaps some future attempt to provide a solution for it may prove to be even more astonishing than the last.

Nonetheless, calling the present conflict a “war on terror” does have its difficulties.  One issue of course is the opening mentioned above which leftists love to exploit with ignorant ridicule about “phenomena” and “metaphors” that requires time and energy to repeatedly refute.  Then, too, as Totten points out in his piece, we're obviously not at war against all terrorists:  we're not warring with the IRA, for instance, or the Basque ETA, or (I'll add) the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

The U.S. Defense Department seems to have arrived at something of these conclusions, when Donald Rumsfeld last month began talking about a “global struggle against violent extremism” instead of the “war on terror.”  As Canadian essayist David Warren recently put it while criticizing the change (as well as the original term):  “Three words with five, and four syllables with at least twelve.”  Beyond the linguistic complexity of the substitute phrase, it's clearly not going to assist in explaining the war to the American people to all of a sudden refer to it as a “struggle” rather than war, at a time when tens of thousands of American soldiers and Marines are fighting and thousands more dying.

President Bush obviously wanted to quickly scotch the new term while removing any ambiguity in a speech presented last week.  As Bill Kristol put it on last weekend's Fox News Sunday, when asked about reports of declining poll numbers with regard to the President's handling of Iraq:

I think the President can stabilize the situation and restore public support.  It would help if his own Administration didn't contribute to the decline.  I think this is the big story of the last month.  First of all, half of his advisors led by Secretary Rumsfeld want to move away from the term “war on terror.”  We're not really in a “war,” we're in a “global struggle.”  Well, that's a heck of a thing to say when Marines are getting killed — that's not a real war?  […]  The President put an end to that very strongly.  Excellent speech last week:  Fifteen uses of the word “war,” five uses of the word “war on terror”….

But now, of course, the Defense Department is talking about getting troops out of there, when the message has to be that we're going to stay, we're going to do what it takes to win, we're going to train up Iraqis and add them to our forces, and defeat the terrorists.  So I think the only way you'll maintain public support here is if we have a strategy for success, a strategy for victory; and the worst possible reaction to this decline in support and to the difficulties on the ground in Iraq, which are real: the worst possible reaction, the worst signal to send — to the Iraqis; to the terrorists, which emboldens them; to Iraqis who might be working with us — is “Oh, we're looking to get out.”

Kristol makes an excellent point with regard to the necessities for maintaining public support.  I agree that emphasis on war is vital for the American people to continue supporting the undertaking when American soldiers and Marines and fighting and dying in the endeavor — intelligent analysis such as Lee Harris' interesting article last month (arguing that traditional Middle Eastern concepts like “blood feud” may fit what's actually happening there from their point of view better than the Western idea of “war”) notwithstanding.  To Westerners it is and has to be — to be understood and attract public support — a war.

The question remains, however:  war against what?  The difficulties with the term “war on terror” noted above remain, and the Pentagon's attempted substitution with its lengthy “global struggle” phraseology is certainly no improvement, as well as departing from the vital and clean concept of war.  Getting back to David Warren's aforementioned essay (that I recommend reading in its entirety), his conclusion, which I think is a good one, is to call it the “War on Islamism” — that is, radical, jihadist Islam, not against all of Islam as such.  As Warren says, “any Muslims who hate the Islamists — welcome aboard.”

2 comments:  (End
(Perma)  On Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 6:26:00 AM GMT, Blogger Wakefield Tolbert wrote:   
I agree. Or I THINK I do.

Steyn and Kristol can nail it down solid.

In any case your site is interesting in its own right, agreement with one article read part the way through or not.

I'll have to check sometime later on the Centauri system.


(Perma)  On Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 6:27:00 AM GMT, Blogger Wakefield Tolbert wrote:   
Thanks again.

Also, drop me a line if the blog comment notification things does not work (often the case) and let me know how to follow your blog.

An easy task in Blogger formats like you and I have, but I don't see the right widget.


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