Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What is a War Time?

The discussion in the New York Times yesterday about whether or not the conflict in Iraq should be called a "civil war" has parallels in the United States. Getting a handle on armed conflict is one thing. Coming to terms with the politics and consequences of what it shall be named is another.

The awkwardness of what we call the time we're in emerged for a moment when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced in the summer of 2005 that the war on terror would now be called the "global struggle against violent extremism," and the White House, while shooting that down, also contemplated a name change. See report.

Scholarship on law and war tends to work with an assumption that the relationship between individual and government depends on what time it is (wartime or peacetime). It is often said that a pendulum swings between rights and security, depending on whether it is wartime or peacetime. So whether there is a war or not would seem to be of great importance. But at least since World War II, it's hard to see where the lines are between the beginnings and endings of "wars," and instead there is a consistently engaged national security state. For more on this, go here. Once we've moved into a conflict that we call a "war" but that is not contained in time and space by war's traditional boundaries, the difficulties are clear.

I would love to see scholarship on naming wars in U.S. history, and the politics and consequences of calling a conflict a "war." There is of course, Jill Lepore's masterful The Name of War, and in the 20th century there are cases challenging the war in Vietnam. If you have an article/book/paper to share, please post a comment.

1 comment:

JR said...

I commented on the nuances (enhanced today by the Memo) in my blog (

"I would never accuse President Bush of being nuanced, but there is an interesting nuance in [his] statement. Essentially he is saying sectarian violence is a local problem, terrorism is an international problem. A statement that allows wiggle room if you want to claim [down the road] that the threat from terrorism is solved and all that remains is "sectarian violence" (ie. civil war)."

What you call the violence in Iraq seems to have not only political but diplomatic and military consequences as well. If "Civil War" is what is happening in Iraq, then presumably we have no business (without being invited) being involved and we can extricate ourselves by claiming "its their problem." On the other hand if it is a terrorist insurgency 1. That's purportedly why we are there (this week), 2. we are at "war" with terrorism, so what excuse do we have to dump it on the Iraqis and 3. since we have pledged to fight terrorism wherever it rears its ugly head, as a US political matter we have a difficult time "cutting and running." Thus, you could say, everything hinges on whether you call it a civil war (or sectarian violence) or a terrorist insurgency.