Retired U.S. Army colonel turned professor, Andrew Bacevich, says, when it comes to warfare, "a rose by any other name" just doesn't cut it. Bacevich tries on several names for the war of the past decade, looking for a proper fit. Here are his options - The Long War; The War Against Al-Qaeda; The War For/Against/About Israel; The War For the Greater Middle East; the War Against Islam; and, perhaps by default, The Eternal War.
Names bestow meaning. When it comes to war, a name attached to a
date can shape our understanding of what the conflict was all about. To
specify when a war began and when it ended is to privilege certain
explanations of its significance while discrediting others. Let me
provide a few illustrations.
With rare exceptions, Americans today characterize the horrendous fraternal bloodletting of 1861-1865 as the Civil War. Yet not many decades ago, diehard supporters of the Lost Cause insisted on referring to that conflict as the War Between the States or the War for Southern Independence (or even the War of Northern Aggression).
The South may have gone down in defeat, but the purposes for which
Southerners had fought -- preserving a distinctive way of life and the
principle of states’ rights -- had been worthy, even noble. So at least
they professed to believe, with their preferred names for the war
reflecting that belief.
So, yes, it matters what we choose to call the military enterprise
we’ve been waging not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in any
number of other countries scattered hither and yon across the Islamic
world. Although the Obama administration appears no more interested
than the Bush administration in saying when that enterprise will
actually end, the date we choose as its starting point also matters.
Although Washington seems in no hurry to name its nameless war -- and
will no doubt settle on something self-serving or anodyne if it ever
finally addresses the issue -- perhaps we should jump-start the
process. Let’s consider some possible options, names that might
actually explain what’s going on.
The Long War: Coined not long after 9/11 by senior
officers in the Pentagon, this formulation never gained traction with
either civilian officials or the general public. Yet the Long War deserves consideration, even though -- or perhaps because -- it has lost its luster with the passage of time.
For Long War combatants, the object of the exercise has become to persist. As for winning, it’s not in the cards. The Long War just
might conclude by the end of 2014 if President Obama keeps his pledge
to end the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan and if he avoids getting
sucked into Syria’s civil war. So the troops may hope.
The War Against Al-Qaeda: It began in August 1996
when Osama bin Laden issued a "Declaration of War against the Americans
Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” i.e., Saudi Arabia. In
February 1998, a second bin Laden manifesto announced that killing
Americans, military and civilian alike, had become “an individual duty
for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to
...By the end of President Obama’s first term, U.S. intelligence
agencies were reporting that a combined CIA/military campaign had
largely destroyed bin Laden’s organization. Bin Laden himself, of
course, was dead.
Could the United States have declared victory in its unnamed war at
this point? Perhaps, but it gave little thought to doing so. Instead,
the national security apparatus had already trained its sights on
various al-Qaeda “franchises” and wannabes, militant groups claiming the
bin Laden brand and waging their own version of jihad. These
offshoots emerged in the Maghreb, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and --
wouldn’t you know it -- post-Saddam Iraq, among other places. The
question as to whether they actually posed a danger to the United States
got, at best, passing attention -- the label “al-Qaeda” eliciting the
same sort of Pavlovian response that the word “communist” once did.
Americans should not expect this war to end anytime soon. Indeed,
the Pentagon’s impresario of special operations recently speculated --
by no means unhappily -- that it would continue globally for “at least
10 to 20 years.” Freely translated, his statement undoubtedly means:
“No one really knows, but we’re planning to keep at it for one helluva
The War For/Against/About Israel: It began in 1948.
For many Jews, the founding of the state of Israel signified an ancient
hope fulfilled. For many Christians, conscious of the sin of
anti-Semitism that had culminated in the Holocaust, it offered a way to
ease guilty consciences, albeit mostly at others’ expense. For many
Muslims, especially Arabs, and most acutely Arabs who had been living in
Palestine, the founding of the Jewish state represented a grave
injustice. It was yet another unwelcome intrusion engineered by the
West -- colonialism by another name.
The War for the Greater Middle East: I confess that
this is the name I would choose for Washington’s unnamed war and is, in
fact, the title of a course I teach. (A tempting alternative is the
Second Hundred Years War, the "first" having begun in 1337 and ended in
This war is about to hit the century mark, its opening chapter coinciding with the onset of World War I. Not
long after the fighting on the Western Front in Europe had settled into
a stalemate, the British government, looking for ways to gain the upper
hand, set out to dismantle the Ottoman Empire whose rulers had
foolishly thrown in their lot with the German Reich against the Allies.
By the time the war ended with Germany and the Turks on the losing
side, Great Britain had already begun to draw up new boundaries, invent
states, and install rulers to suit its predilections, while also issuing
mutually contradictory promises to groups inhabiting these new
precincts of its empire. Toward what end? Simply put, the British were
intent on calling the shots from Egypt to India, whether by governing
through intermediaries or ruling directly. The result was a new Middle
East and a total mess.
What does the United States hope to achieve in its inherited and unending War for the Greater Middle East?
To pacify the region? To remake it in our image? To drain its stocks
of petroleum? Or just keeping the lid on? However you define the war’s
aims, things have not gone well, which once again suggests that, in
some form, it will continue for some time to come. If there’s any good
news here, it’s the prospect of having ever more material for my
seminar, which may soon expand into a two-semester course.
The War Against Islam: This war began nearly 1,000 years ago and continued for centuries, a storied collision between Christendom and the Muslim ummah.
For a couple of hundred years, periodic eruptions of large-scale
violence occurred until the conflict finally petered out with the last
crusade sometime in the fourteenth century.
In those days, many people had deemed religion something worth
fighting for, a proposition to which the more sophisticated present-day
inhabitants of Christendom no longer subscribe. Yet could that
religious war have resumed in our own day? Professor Samuel Huntington
thought so, although he styled the conflict a “clash of civilizations.”
Some militant radical Islamists agree with Professor Huntington, citing
as evidence the unwelcome meddling of “infidels,” mostly wearing
American uniforms, in various parts of the Muslim world. Some militant
evangelical Christians endorse this proposition, even if they take a
more favorable view of U.S. troops occupying and drones targeting Muslim
Still, remember back in 2001 when, in an unscripted moment, President
Bush described the war barely begun as a “crusade”? That was just a
slip of the tongue, right? If not, we just might end up calling this
one the Eternal War.