According to The Washington Post, the Obama administration decided last spring to stop using the phrase “global war on terror.” The preferred locution these days is “overseas contingency operations”, a phrase that stirs the blood and warms the heart.
What soldier would not be proud to die in such a cause? What child would not immediately understand why mommy or daddy had to go away “for a global contingency operation” — and what surviving spouse or parent could not find consolation amid the grief in reflecting on this honorable conflict in which a loved one served?
Unaccountably, this magnificent and stirring phrase has not caught on; even the administration seems faintly embarrassed by the question of what to call this whatever-it-is we are fighting.
But maybe we just need more practice. The old National Lampoon magazine once advertised a School of Euphemism, promising that its graduates would be able to say “Frankly, Marcel Proust, you are a rich, dead, homosexual Jew” without using a single uncomfortable word.
In this spirit we could rename some other problems as well. The national debt could be the “long range funding program”. And the word “death” is so depressing: “fulfillment” has a much nicer ring.
A global contingency operation that is bringing fulfillment to so many American military personnel and strengthening our long-range funding program: doesn’t that feel better than a nasty old global war on terror that is killing American troops and blowing the national debt through the roof?
There are only two problems with this otherwise brilliant strategy for making our problems easier to live with day by day even if we can’t solve them.
First, there is what Abraham Lincoln would call the ‘sheep’ issue. “How many legs does a sheep have if you count a tail as a leg?” Lincoln used to ask.
Most people would guess: Five?
No, Lincoln, would say. Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.
Unfortunately, calling the war on terror a global contingency operation, or even a collection of global contingency operations, doesn’t make it go away. And even if President Obama doesn’t like the name, he still has to inspire people to fight in it.
And there’s another problem. This war, or this contingency operation, has a lot of people confused. In Peshawar, there are lots of people who are convinced that the car bombs rocking that city recently have not been set by Muslims, but by Americans, Jews and their supporters.
In Iraq, the population turned against Al-Qaeda and the thuggish wanna-bes caught up in its wake once people realized who was causing the murder and mayhem. In Peshawar, it will be the same. Our side can only prevail when folks understand who the other side is and what it really wants. And if we can’t agree on what we are doing, we will never be able to make the case to the rest of the world about why it needs to be done.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree that President Obama needs to define and conduct our foreign policy in ways that distinguish it wherever possible from the policy of the previous administration. I’m happy to let the ‘war on terror’ go as a label. Also, I don’t like the the other suggestion people have made for it: “The Long War.” This might well turn out to be a long war, but we don’t really know that yet.
I’m not going to be the person to rename the war on terror. I can’t even come up with a name for my blog. But I think it’s a problem that our society can’t name a contest that has claimed almost 10,000 American lives since 2001. If we don’t know what it is, it isn’t going to be easy to have a strategy for winning it — for even for knowing what victory will look like when and if it comes.
President Obama doesn’t want to be a war leader, and I don’t blame him. But he is, and for a man who studies and emulates Abraham Lincoln he’s so far not doing very much to emulate Lincoln’s greatest achievement: inspiring the nation to understand and win a heart breaking but inevitable war.