All three major cable networks are spending a lot of time analyzing the Obama administration’s failure to use the word “war” when describing future airstrikes and other military action in Iraq and Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry spent two days backtracking from his earlier comment that the United States is not at war but rather is engaging in a “very significant counterterrorism” effort.
Let’s face it. No one likes war and most people would prefer not to be at war. So if it makes whatever military action is necessary more palatable to the public by calling it something other than war, then that’s somewhat understandable.
In fact, it’s consistent with much of our history. Generally, Americans have not been eager to involve themselves in war unless absolutely provoked. For instance, after the horrors of World War I, Americans studiously avoided entry into World War II even as the country watched Hitler and the Nazis march through Europe. When events became particularly dire and our last best ally, Great Britain, was imperiled we finally provided that nation with arms for its protection. In the end, the United States didn’t become involved in the “war” until attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.
A few years later, President Harry S Truman struggled with a politically acceptable way to describe military action in Korea. Initially, he called it a “police action.” In history books, it’s often referred to as the Korean Conflict rather than the Korean War.
Whatever it’s called, the results were staggering. Five million people were killed. Among those were 40,000 Americans with an additional 100,000 U.S. military personnel injured. Worse yet, the “conflict” never officially ended. Today, both sides stand along the 38th parallel where a demilitarized zone is maintained to prevent further direct conflict.
No matter what anyone calls it, clearly that was a war.
Earlier generations likewise were not immune to avoiding the word “war.”
Following the Civil War, many Southerners couldn’t bring themselves to call the conflict they had experienced a Civil War or even the War Between the States. Instead, they referred to those bloody four years as “The Late Unpleasantness” or “Recent Unpleasantness.” That is probably the most polite way war will ever be described.
Even John Kerry, who finds all kinds of creative ways to avoid the word “war,” would be hard pressed to announce that we will soon experience “Future Unpleasantness.”
Whatever we ultimately choose to call it, the continued challenges we face in ultimately protecting our national security will be neither short in time nor pleasant.
So let’s no longer concern ourselves on what to call future military action in Iraq and Syria. Instead, let’s stay focused on what we need to do to win whatever this is.