How many wars is America currently fighting? Okay, maybe it’s a trick question. The term “war” is used loosely nowadays. You could well answer one – the war in Afghanistan, now the longest active combat operation in American history. But we are also conducting sporadic military operations against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and related fundamentalist Islamic groups throughout Asia and Africa. These are all part of the larger War on Terror, which was “declared” by President Bush and never officially undeclared, but certainly downshifted under President Obama. This is also where the word war begins to warp in our political parlance.
Because if we can say we’re fighting a War on Terror (a tactic, not an opponent), we also conduct other “wars.” So you could rationally list numerous other examples. The War on Poverty (a mindset) rages on since LBJ’s Great Society policies and programs of the 1960’s. The War on Drugs (plants and processed chemicals) was coined under President Reagan, with Nancy famously proclaiming “Just Say No.” I don’t remember a truce being declared, and I don’t believe either Poverty or Drugs have surrendered.
We seem to also wage wars even more ethereal. An article on Mother Jones listed 109 “wars” that President Obama has been accused of conducting by his ideological opponents, though not one of them did he officially declare. Maybe the charges are reactionary. In the election cycle of 2012, Republicans were accused by some Democrats of conducting a “War on Women.” It was never declared either. So these really aren’t wars so much as covert hostile actions. I suppose to consider the last example as such you would have to classify the opposition to late term abortion or the objection to federal funding of birth control as hostile actions.
The term war is obviously widely used as a metaphor. What does it imply? For one, it seems to indicate seriousness about defeating, removing, or resisting the named opponent. This usually means an increased expenditure of resources and energy in the effort. By declaring a “war,” the speaker tries to marshal support, to rally people to a cause, to kick open doors that may otherwise remain barricaded.
This is useful perhaps, but it has a cost. The constant use of the word war as a metaphor for any struggle dilutes concept of actual war. Real war, the kind where there’s actual fighting, is horrific. Those who have never lived through it, myself included, can scarcely imagine how so. Within the morality that led to America’s founding, it is wrong to expend human life unless it is absolutely necessary for the preservation of our society. Where this border lies has been a source of broiling historical debate.
War should be rare. Unfortunately, it’s constant, in part because this threshold is low. Those in power, the ones who do the declaring, recruiting, and sending, tend to have a lower threshold than those who do the soldiering. As horrific as war is to those caught in the hurricane of combat and the privations of prolonged campaigns, it pays tangible dividends – mainly the promise of increased power and wealth – for the powerful. How much such gain is an individual life worth? There are those who have a definite figure in response. I couldn’t give you one.
In the original American worldview, we were protected by big oceans and had little real reason for foreign military engagements. Our involvement in both World Wars were signs that this view no longer held true in the conditions brought about by technological advancement. Today, the world is effectively far smaller than it was a century ago. The safety afforded by the seas is practically meaningless today, even though Ron Paul might heartily disagree.
Senator Paul makes a good point regarding the threshold of war, though. He accuses us of being too quick to aggression. I have a different criticism. I say that we are not decisive enough. Since the WWII, we have fought wars of limited engagement, mainly for political purposes. This is immoral.
I’m reminded of the wisdom of Mr. Miyagi, from the film The Karate Kid:
Miyagi : “Daniel-san, ready?”
Daniel: “I guess so.”
Miyagi: (sighs) “Daniel-san, must talk. Walk on road. Walk left side – safe. Walk right side – safe. Walk in middle, sooner or later, squish – just like grape. Here, karate, same. You karate do yes, or karate do no. You karate do ‘guess so,’ sooner or later, squish – just like grape.”
In every “war” since WWII, America has walked the middle of the road. And we have been getting squished just like grape. With perhaps one exception, the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, that removed Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. America and her allies struck decisively with overwhelming force. In the days leading up to that war, pundits were predicting 3,000 to 10,000 American casualties and cautioned about the prowess of the Iraqi Republican Guard, war-hardened in long conflict with Iran. American battle casualties were less than 150, with another 150 non-combat losses. The Iraqis lost over 100,000 with another 300,000 wounded.
You could say that we were soon right back in the middle of the road, as we left Hussein in power. It arguably necessitated the second war in Iraq (many are critical of the decision to go, but at the time it was overwhelmingly supported by both parties and the American public.) You could also argue that the “shock and awe” operation that quickly sent Hussein into hiding was indeed overwhelming force, but it was not sustained. The war bogged down until the successful escalation under General Petraeus in 2007 called the “surge.”
But all others – Korea, Vietnam, Poverty, Drugs, etc. – have been fought with, to some degree, one hand tied behind our backs. Why? Politics. It takes strong leadership to both avoid and engage in real war. Strong leadership is a precious commodity because of its innate value and its rarity. To fully commit to either being in or out of a war, one must have moral clarity. In our modern world with so many interests and cross-purposes, these waters are sadly often murky.
Sometimes we’re in wars and we don’t even know it. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re a superpower. History may look back to our current days and say that certain Wars had already begun. It may be Cyberwar, as the Russians and Chinese aggressively attack our databases. It may be Islamofascism, as multiple attacks around the world continue and will likely become more deadly over time as chemical, biological, EMP and other radioactive weapons could possibly be deployed.
Perhaps it is the fuzziness of the concept of war that blinds us to ipso facto war. We say yes to some wars we shouldn’t and no to some wars we should. It is likely that it is also human nature. We tend to discount and disbelieve the unpleasant or inconvenient. It takes courage to see with clarity. It’s a quality we need to cultivate.
What concepts, in addition to war, have been watered down? Are there some terms that are over-used in your industry? How does this serve to desensitize or dull the sensibilities of people? Please let me know your thoughts.