Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Mars & Merriam(-Webster)

Michael Keane, the author of the forthcoming Dictionary of Modern Strategy and Tactics and a lecturer at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, had an interesting piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. The piece discusses the importance of language and word choice in war time.

This got me thinking about Anthony’s post “On Defining War.” Merriam-Webster’s defines “war” as:
Pronunciation: 'wor
Function: noun
Usage: often attributive
Etymology: Middle English werre, from Old North French, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German werra strife; akin to Old High German werran to confuse
1 a (1) : a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations (2) : a period of such armed conflict (3) : STATE OF WAR b : the art or science of warfare c (1) obsolete : weapons and equipment for war (2) archaic : soldiers armed and equipped for war
2 a : a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism b : a struggle or competition between opposing forces or for a particular end c : VARIANCE, ODDS 3

Going a step further, “warfare” is defined as:

Pronunciation: 'wor-"far, -"fer
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from werre, warre war + fare journey, passage -- more at FARE
1 : military operations between enemies : HOSTILITIES, WAR; also : an activity undertaken by a political unit (as a nation) to weaken or destroy another
2 : struggle between competing entities : CONFLICT
Now one may quibble with the American “bastardization of the Queen’s English,” but it seems to me that warfare is a more suitable term for most of the struggle’s occurring today. Even if one accepts Van Crevald’s interpretation of Von Clausewitz’s primary trinity (and I happen to think that Anthony’s analysis of Van Crevald is spot on), I think that there are two factors that undercut the “non-state actors trump Westphalia” argument. First, non-state actors or “super-empowered individuals,” or whatever you want to call them, are tied to time and physical space that makes them very similar in most regards to previous state-based actors. Second, and most important, “super-empowered individuals” have a desired political end-state based in terms of a quest for power, cultural factors, or economic desires -- and generally a blend of all three -- that make them similar to states.

War as a term of art and as a phrase with very specific meaning in international law, however, is best left as a descriptive for inter-state conflicts. Warfare is better used for wider applicability in intra-state, inter-state, and even non-purely military conflicts.


Blogger J. said...

That LA Times article was good. So what are you saying? That the use of the term "War on Terrorism" is inaccurate and just a misused political term? That we fought a war against Iraq but that terrorists are waging a warfare campaign against the United States?

Don't get me wrong, I believe the correct use of words is important. I just expected some real world examples other than banging my man van Creveld (not that I have finished his book yet).

9:13 PM  
Blogger Michael said...


Well, I was really using the jump-off point to address Anthony's past posts. I think that the GWOT label is a bit of a stretch in terms of declaring war on tactics, techniques, and procedures, but it is a more parsimonious term than say "The Global War on Radical Salafist and Wahhabist Islamists." That being said, I think the present Administration is probably working behind the scenes against other terrorist groups as information presents itself.

As for Iraq, I for one think that it ties in for myriad reasons. Chief among them: our presence in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War to patrol the no-fly zones in Iraq was one of OBL's stated reasons for attacking us on 9/11. Also, whether one agrees with it, or not, one can see a geostrategic logic in Bush 43s desire to plant a democratic nation in the heart of Middle East. How this plays out is another matter. My own personal view of the GWOT is to conceive of it as an island hopping campaign.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Interesting stuff. I personally hate the phrase "War on Terror" but it has utility by virtue of its simplicity, as Michael points out. Some of the criticism of it is legit, some of it on this side of the Atlantic is more a matter or toffee-nosed, self-satisfied left wing pedantry.

For the record, my favoured template for the conflict is that of a global insurgency. Global Islamic Insurgency is horribly provocative - certainly I wouldn't actually advocate bringing it into use - but it is perhaps apt. And of course the debate over whether it should be a military affair or a policing action is vacuous - it must be both, according to the various situations and contexts with which we are presented.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Michael said...


Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that we face a global insurgency. However, as all operations must be conceived of in multi-dimensional terms (military, economic, diplomatic, cultural, intelligence, and law enforcement, etc.) the "island hopping" analogy could work for assigning limited means to ends; and for exploiting success in certain areas and hence limiting options for the insurgents in other areas. For example, closing down key training areas in country X might limit insurgent capabilities in countries A, B, and C, etc.


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