War of the Words

Against terrorism, the U.S. begins to struggle


When the going gets tough, adjust the rhetoric. Thanks to the New York Times we now know that the Bush administration is changing the semantics of its "global war on terror", so that it will now be referred to as a "struggle." The new label implies that "the long-term struggle is as much an ideological battle as a military mission." Recently, for example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the top brass have been referring to a "global struggle against violent extremism" in their speeches.

But is it wise to describe a monumental campaign, particularly one relying heavily on the sturdy morale of America's citizenry, as "a struggle"? After all, if the term evokes persistent effort, it also suggests proceeding with difficulty. Moreover, it comes with a whiff of left-wing mildew: Karl Marx used the word in one of the most famous phrases in The Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle." Digging into the archives one might find other renditions, as in the name of a minor Palestinian group, the Popular Struggle Front; or Lebanon's long-forgotten National Struggle Front; or the publication Unity and Struggle of the Colombian Communist Party, and so on. Among the comrades, it seems, one incessantly struggles.

And now the Bush administration is doing so too—in trying to explain the reasons for the change. The fight against terrorism doubtless involves ideas, but we knew that right after 9/11, as did the administration itself, according to its National Security Strategy published in September 2002. That's why the lexical swerve in Washington seems to have more compelling motives: First of all, wars demand victory, and none is soon likely against an often intangible and elusive terrorism. But is that enough? The Cold War, which was stubbornly called a "war" until the Soviet Union gave up, was little easier to grasp as a conflict, being open-ended and involving virtually no direct combat between the chief protagonists. It, too, involved ideology—far more so than the war against terrorism—but thank heavens no one ever thought of labeling it the Cold Struggle.

Second, and perhaps more disturbingly, the Bush administration doesn't want to throw out Bin Laden with the bathwater: no one in Washington today will risk pegging the success, or even the continuation, of the war against terrorism to the uncertain outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the public continues to associate the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts with combating Al-Qaeda and others, as it has done in the past three years, then eventually giving up on the first two—or even just one of them—may signify a surrender to terrorism.

A third reason appears to be that the U.S. armed forces are increasingly fed up with being the only ones paying a heavy price in opposing terrorism. Though peddled as a nationwide endeavor, with Iraq at its core, the "war" looks very different to some officers. As one of them told Thom Shanker of the New York Times: "Nobody in America is asked to sacrifice, except us." Indeed, but David Hendricks on, a foreign policy scholar at Colorado College, carries this to an unpersuasive level when saying: "Bush understands that the support of the public for war—especially the war in Iraq—is conditioned on demanding little of the public."

In fact, the public gave Bush a virtual blank check after 9/11, and that included the ability to wage war and fundamentally overhaul America's security environment. Hardship was always part of the bargain, though the public also understood, as does Hendrickson, that a great part of the victory against terrorism involves continuing to lead a normal life. The real question is whether Americans are now willing to sacrifice for an Iraqi conflict toward which they have growing doubts, whatever the reality on the ground.

In that context, it makes sense for the administration to reframe the debate: If the public is becoming weak-kneed on Iraq and soldiers are more and more disgruntled with being turned into cannon fodder amid national coziness, then it's best to separate the issues. That means reminding the public that Iraq is part of a much larger struggle, so hang in there; and reminding soldiers that what soldiers do is fight wars, like the one in Iraq, so stop whining. The bottom line, however, is that this perpetuates a rift between citizens and soldiers no less potent than the one soldiers are complaining about today.

For David Kennedy, a history professor at Stanford University, this rift is dangerous. He acknowledges that the military burden on American society and the economy has sunk drastically when compared to the past, so that "[h]istory's most potent military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so." But he also insists that this has made waging war much easier, and represents a "standing invitation to the kind of military adventurism that America's founders correctly feared was the greatest danger of standing armies."

Echoing the complaints of the armed forces in Iraq, Kennedy writes, his hair shirt flapping: "The life of a robust democratic society should be strenuous; it should make demands on its citizens when they are asked to engage with issues of life and death." What does he propose? A "universal duty to service", maybe a lottery or compulsory national service with enrollment in the military as one option among others.

This seems extreme, as if the latent peril of unwise wars, which hopefully can be lessened through more pedestrian policy mechanisms, requires placing all of society on a footing of "universal duty," as during World War II. Americans have no desire to go back in time, and the Bush administration, in altering its keyword from "war" to "struggle," contradicts itself: It plays into Kennedy's logic that all of society should be involved in issues of life and death, particularly war; but it also tells the armed forces that, because war and struggle are seen as more semantically distinct than before when contending with terrorism, civilians are entitled to suffer less, or not at all, for what is going on in Iraq and elsewhere.

Unclear language reveals unclear thoughts, and the Bush administration's latest rigmarole does little to clarify what is at stake in the war, struggle, conflict, campaign, project, crusade—take your pick—against a terrorist enemy flourishing among the linguistic ambiguities of its foes. When fighting, one shouldn't need to clutch a dictionary.