Name That War

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

August 19, 2006

Originally published with the title: Them’s Fighting Names

History can be quite capricious when it comes to naming wars. A war can be named after the place it was fought, like Crimea (1853-1856) or Korea (1950-53). It can be named after the sides fighting, such as Americans and Spanish (1898) or Russians and Japanese (1904-1905). Or, to shake things up, the war can be named after just one side, but only if their name is cool, like the Mau Mau (1952-1956) or rhymes, like the Boer (1899-1902). Wars can be named for when they started, like a particular year (1812) or holiday, such as Yom Kippur (1973). Other times, wars are named by how long they lasted, from just Six Days (1967) to as much as Thirty (1618-1648) or even One Hundred Years (1337-1453). Indeed, wars are even named to show that they were not really wars, because they were Cold (1945-1989) or Quasi (1798-1800). Sometimes, it can get downright silly. Oranges (1801), Bananas (1898-1934) and even the Ear of a fellow named Jenkins (1739-1743) got their own wars.

The names of wars can certainly change. One war started off Great, but ended up just the First in a series (1914-1918). War naming can also be a source of great dispute. There still parts of the South that see nothing Civil about a war of Northern Aggression (1861-1865). But, the one rule seems to be that the winners get to pick the name that sticks.

Since the U.S. hasn’t officially declared a war in over 60 years, we are a bit out of practice in naming them. Perhaps that explains the recent argument over what exactly to call the conflict we are involved in now. After 9-11, President Bush called a Global War on Terrorism, which the Pentagon turned into the not-so-catchy acronym GWOT. But something was lacking. Perhaps it was that making war on a tactic rather than a specific enemy sounded as effectual as making war on a condition or an addiction, like the wars on Poverty (1964- ) or Drugs (1971- ). Worse, the name began to be politicized. Whether you called the invasion of Iraq part of the GWOT or not revealed more about which party you voted for than the war itself.

In any case, a range of other names have been bandied about as replacements. As matters have dragged out in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has begun to replace GWOT with The Long War, replete with a 70 page Powerpoint presentation to explain why. Of course, only America would so reveal its impatience by declaring a war “Long” after less than five years (wars’ average duration is over 10 years). But why be satisfied with just one? Anthony Cordesmann, one of the deans of political analysis in Washington, has just declared that we are not fighting “The” Long War but rather “Six Long Wars and Counting.”

Thinkers on the political right want their own war-naming rights, which is also useful in keeping the word “civil” out of election talk on Iraq. Some, such as Newt Gingrich, link Lebanon to our terrorism battle, calling it the beginning of World War III and argue that the U.S. should widen the scope with our own strikes on Syria and Iran. The only problem is that their neoconservative wing already declared it World War IV, back when they were arguing for an Iraq invasion. (Most other people’s Cold War was their WWIII.) The libertarian/isolationist wing of the GOP doesn’t like such new math and is reasserting itself by calling it all the Un-War. As for the left, that it can’t even come up with its own snappy name for the war captures best its confusion on war in general.

My own take is that history will probably call the war by its spark. 9/11 is the touchstone for all the other names and justifications, and we are already talking about the “9/11 Generation,” which is fighting its battles and will ultimately write this war’s histories.

But maybe it’s more simple. By all available measures, the GWOT-Un-Long-III/IV-9/11 War is not going so well. Attacks by radical groups have doubled in the five years since 9/11, and their recruiting and popularity is through the roof. As for our side, the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq, fighting an insurgency no one planned for, our nation is at its historic low point in global respect, and now we’ve lost our God-given right to bring hair gel on planes.

Recalling that to the victor goes the war-naming spoils, if we don’t start turning things around, we may not have to worry about what to call it.