Andrew Bacevich: America's Eternal War!

For well over a decade now, the United States has been a nation at war. Does that war have a name? It did at the outset. After 9/11, George W. Bush's administration wasted no time in announcing that the Us was engaged in a Global War on Terrorism, or GWOT. With few dissenters, the media quickly embraced the term. The GWOT promised to be a gargantuan, transformative enterprise. The conflict begun on 9/11would define the age. In neoconservative circles, it was known as World War IV. Upon succeeding to the presidency in 2009, however, Barack Obama without fanfare junked Bush's formulation as he did again in a speech at the National Defense University last week. Yet if the appellation went away, the conflict itself, shorn of identifying marks, continued. Does it matter that ours has become and remains a nameless war? Very much so. 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 war reflecting that belief. Schoolbooks tell us that the Spanish American War began in April 1898 and ended in August of that same year. The name and dates fit nicely with a widespread inclination from President William McKinley's day to our own to frame US intervention in Cuba as an altruistic effort to liberate that island from Spanish oppression. Yet the Cubans were not exactly bystanders in that drama. By 1898, they had been fighting for years to oust their colonial overlords, and although hostilities in Cuba itself ended on August 12th, they dragged on in the Philippines, another Spanish colony that the United States had seized for reasons only remotely related to liberating Cubans.

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