In reports on the conflict still going on in Afghanistan, I keep hearing that we have been at war for almost sixteen years. And often, the details include the observation that troops are being sent. As is so often the case with political language, there is a willful vacuousness going on here, a refusal to acknowledge what actually is going on.
Since words are the tools of my profession, I have to think about what we mean when we say that we are at war. In legal terms, the United States hasn’t been at war for a long time, though we have been involved in a lot of police actions and various authorized uses of force, though lately those authorizations have grown thin. But what is a war, beyond a piece of paper issued by Congress saying this is it?
Is it killing people by large numbers? If so, are tobacco companies at war with their customers? Well, no, that’s just commerce. And as unpleasant as their deaths are, we don’t typically call them a violent act. All right, so are people who die on highways in vehicle collisions the casualties of war? No, again, since those are most often accidents, and accidents only get counted as death in war when we call it collateral damage. How about the victims of homicide, some of whom are even killed by people in uniform, as the Philando Castile case reminds us? Once more, those deaths are the result of conflict between persons, occasionally approved of by state power, though the victims have the misfortune of not being personally numerous enough to count.
And then there are the many figurative wars that muddle the subject. We’ve been fighting a War on Drugs (the Second War on Enjoyable Substances), a War on Poverty, and a War on Cancer that all sound as patriotically thrilling as our War on Terror. Perhaps there is some metaphorical link, given that we are losing all of the above — and one of the reasons that we’re losing the first three is that we’ve been spending a largest portion of our discretionary budget on variations of the last in that list.
Very well, though, war is something that human beings do, and we should understand what we’re talking about. To define the word, a book might be required, but I’ll take a stab at a bit of clarification. A war, then, is a conflict between or among organized groups that identify themselves as the valid authority over the involved territories and is conducted through the use of literal weaponry.
However, there is more. And this is the “I know it when I see it” part of the definition. If the police go into a neighborhood controlled by a criminal gang to serve arrest warrants, that’s not a war in the strictest sense, though reporters and others might feel a motivation to use the word. When Britain administered large parts of Africa, the empire was not constantly at war with the colonies, though the legitimate rule of those territories were frequently in dispute.
My specific problem here is that what we’re doing in Afghanistan feels a lot more like an occupation than a war. Yes, we fight battles. Yes, we have those ubiquitous troops in danger. But what’s missing is a front line, a clearly defined field of conflict. World War I in the west was static for much of its duration, but people knew where they stood geographically in relation to the conflict. By contrast, in an occupation, a whole region is under the nominal control of one power, while people who object to that control will show up to fight here and there, and they’ll have to employ the tactics of asymmetrical warfare, which is dignified by the term, war, but in fact sounds a lot like a combination of riots and murders, and various mayhem.
The problem is that in the modern world, the First World doesn’t like admitting that we’re still engaged in colonial activity. We still want the natural resources of various countries without having to share the wealth with the people who live there, but being honest about that would force us to consider the morality of what we’re doing. And we Americans are particularly reluctant to say that we’re doing this, given our history of objecting to being a colony.
And so we continue to send our troops — and please, can we at least understand that this word is vague, but certainly means more than three individual human beings in uniform — to lands that many among us cannot find on a map, even endowed with labels. As George Orwell discussed in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” political speech is often sloppy, and it is that because we are loathe to let the full implications of our actions have any influence on what we do. If we admit to ourselves what we’re doing, we might have to do something else.
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