Them’s fighting names

P.W. SINGER is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the recent report "The 9-11 War Plus 5."

HISTORY CAN BE quite capricious when it comes to naming wars. A war can be named after the place where it was fought, like Crimea (1853-56) or Korea (1950-53). It can be named after the sides fighting, such as Americans and Spanish (1898) or Russians and Japanese (1904-05). Or, to shake things up, the war can be named after just one side, but only if its name is cool, like the Mau Mau (1952-56), or rhymes, like the Boer (1899-1902).

Other times, wars are named by how long they lasted, from just Six Days (1967) to as much as Thirty Years (1618-48) or even One Hundred Years (1337-1453). Indeed, wars can even be named to show that they were not really wars, because they were Cold (1945-89) or Quasi (1798-1800). Sometimes it gets downright silly. Oranges (1801), Bananas (1898-1934) and even the Ear of a fellow named Jenkins (1739-43) got their own wars.

War-naming also can be a source of dispute. There are still parts of the South that see nothing Civil about a war of Northern Aggression (1861-65). But the one rule seems to be that the winners get to pick the name that sticks.

The United States hasn’t officially declared one in more than 60 years, so we are a bit out of practice in war-naming. Perhaps that explains the argument over what to call our current conflict.


After 9/11, President Bush termed it a Global War on Terrorism; the Pentagon turned into the not-so-catchy acronym GWOT. But something was lacking. Making war on a tactic rather than an enemy sounded about as effective as making war on a condition or an addiction, like our wars on Poverty (1964- ) or Drugs (1971- ). Worse, the name began to be politicized. Whether or not you called the invasion of Iraq part of the GWOT revealed more about which party you voted for than the war itself.

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 explanation. Of course, only the United States would reveal its impatience by declaring a war “long” after less than five years. But why be satisfied with just one Long War? Anthony Cordesman, 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 the 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 the neoconservative wing already declared it World War IV when they were arguing for an Iraq invasion. (Most other people’s Cold War was its 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 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; indeed, we are already talking about the “9/11 Generation,” who will write the future history books of the conflict.

But maybe it’s more simple. By all available measures, the GWOT-Un-Long-III/IV-9/11 War is not going well. Attacks by radical groups have doubled since 9/11; their recruiting and popularity are through the roof. As for our side, the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq, 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 go the war-naming spoils, if we don’t start turning things around, we may not have to worry about what to call it.