some antics with semantics

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    Jack Kelly: War of words

    Military leaders and strategists would be wrong to dump 'War on Terror'

    Sunday, August 07, 2005

    The War on Terror is ending, at least in the rhetoric of senior Bush administration officials.

    In the last couple of weeks, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the national security adviser have eschewed that description of the conflict we are in for (what I imagine they think is) broader, more descriptive phraseology.

    In a speech at the Naval Academy, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised the retiring chief of naval operations as an officer who served with distinction as "our country wages the global struggle against the enemies of freedom, the enemies of civilization."

    In a speech at the National Press Club, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, said he objected to the term "war on terrorism" because "if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform as being the solution."

    "It's more than just a military war on terror," National Security Adviser Steven Hadley told The New York Times. "It's broader than that. It's a global struggle against extremism. We need to dispute both the gloomy vision and offer a positive alternative."

    The language shifts, the Times reporters noted, "come at a time when Mr. Bush, with a new appointment for one of his most trusted aides, Karen Hughes, is trying to bolster the State Department's efforts at public diplomacy."

    The language change will please many. When I visited the Army War College last year, several of the professors there were scornful of the expression "War on Terror."

    "It makes it sound as if we're fighting a technique, not an enemy," said one, to vigorous head-nodding from the others.

    The Canadian columnist David Warren is a staunch supporter of the war on terror, but he thinks it ought to be called by another name.

    " 'War on Terror' is an exceptionally lame expression," he said. "It raised the question 'Who is Terror?' without deigning to answer it. ... It is not even a strategy, but merely a tactic; nor an end, but a means."

    Reluctant as I am to disagree with such learned gentlemen, I think that "War on Terror" is a perfectly fine description of the conflict we are in, and that changing it would be a mistake.

    Myers and Hadley object to the term "War on Terror" because it implies a military struggle, while this conflict is also ideological and political. But so what? World War II was also ideological. The Cold War was mostly ideological and political, with a lot less real fighting than we've had so far in the War on Terror.

    We Americans frequently use "war" as a metaphor for total mobilization against a perceived scourge. If we can have a "War on Poverty" or a "War on Drugs," we ought also to be able to have a "War on Terror," especially since this last actually involves the use of real soldiers in real battles.

    And would we not benefit if the world would agree that no cause justifies the employment of terror? The Geneva Conventions did not attempt to ban war, but did, with some success, ban certain vile practices within war, such as the use of chemical weapons and the mistreatment of prisoners.

    The Army War College intellectuals disdain declaring war on a technique rather than an enemy. But al-Qaida's plummeting popularity in Iraq and in the broader Arab world is due more to the techniques that it is employing -- blowing up large numbers of Arab civilians -- than to its goals. We'd be mighty foolish to stop talking about what Muslims dislike most about our enemies.

    And there are problems with alternative formulations. The "struggle against violent extremism" is as imprecise with regard to the identity of with whom we are struggling as is the "war on terror," with the added imprecision of what it will take to beat them. A "struggle" just doesn't seem to be as big a deal as a "war."

    Lending precision -- say, the struggle against violent Islamic extremism -- may be helpful in the West, though most of us have already figured that out. But when we say "Islamist," those in the Middle East with whom we want to ally might hear "Islam," and that would not be helpful at all.

    Finally, the English word "struggle" translates into Arabic as "jihad." Is it a good idea for us to be endorsing jihad in any context?

    We are engaged in a "struggle" we cannot win unless we kill most of those who are trying to kill us. Calling this a war seems appropriate, even if that offends the sensibilities of the Politically Correct.
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