What’s in a Name?

29 May

Historian and retired military officer Andrew J. Bacevich is unafraid of controversy. He has been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy, especially as it has involved the military.

He does get one thinking, though … In this op-ed piece on the History News Network (HNN)–


–he raises a neglected point in how we deal with our past as well as our present, viz., how we name our wars.

To quote Bacevich a bit,

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 U.S. 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 9/11 would 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.

He then considers the varied names of some of America’s wars to illustrate his point:

  • The Civil War or the War between the States?
  • The Spanish-American War or the War for the American Empire (less clunky, he notes, than the Spanish-American-Cuban-Philippines War of 1895-1902)?
  • World War II or the Pacific War AND the Second Thirty Years’ War followed by the Cold War?

One war Bacevich doesn’t mention, but which is implied by my photograph of the monument to Crazy Horse near to Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills, is the prolonged conflict between American Indians and Euro-American settlers. I wonder what Bacevich would say as to when that war began and when it ended? What should that war be called?

Take a look at Bacevich’s piece to see what he would call the war the U.S. is currently engaged in.


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