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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2002 / 24 Shevat, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

What if they fought a
war with no name? -- PRESIDENT BUSH wants $50 billion more for the war on terror, but regardless of whether he gets it, a question worth asking may be:

What is the war on terror going to be called? Not now, but in the future -- in history books. The war (if it is one -- Congress has not declared it as such) has already had four or five different names since its beginning, and it's still only February.

Early on, President Bush referred to it as a "crusade" -- but this was deemed offensive to some followers of Islam. The description then became "Operation Infinite Justice," but that, too, was judged to be potentially religiously insensitive. It then was changed to "Operation Enduring Freedom," but "war against terror" is used more commonly, along with "9/11 war."

This got me to thinking: Are wars, while they are going on, always referred to by the names that end up sticking? World War I, for example -- obviously it wasn't called that at the time. No one knew there was going to be a second one.

Seeking guidance, I talked with some of the United States' most distinguished military historians and authors. It turns out they've been thinking about the same thing.

"World War I, while it was being fought, was called `the Great War,'" said Alan Wilt, professor of history at Iowa State University. "It was a bad term -- `great' referred to the magnitude and scope of the war, but it sounded as if it meant a really good war.

"As for this one that's being fought now -- I think the only person still calling it `Operation Enduring Freedom' is Colin Powell. You don't hear it much from anyone else. I think `Afghan War' may be what it ends up being called -- but of course, we don't know if it will stop in Afghanistan."

Timothy Naftali, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, said that World War I was known as "the Great War" more on the British side -- many Americans at the time liked to call it "the War to End All Wars." This was because "by nature, Americans are more optimistic than the British."

In any event, the optimistic Americans turned out to be wrong -- warfare did not end -- and the one thing of which professor Naftali is certain is that "the 9/11 War" is not going to last. "With that kind of title, how does it end?" he said. "There are limitations to our use of language."

Paul Hutton, professor of military history at the University of New Mexico, said that our current conflict "reminds me of the War with the Barbary Pirates" in 1802: "It was the United States against the states in the Mediterranean that were seizing everyone's shipping." It was hardly the most famous American war, and not the catchiest title, professor Hutton said:

"But then, the War of 1812, at the time, was called `the Second War for Independence,' and you know that wasn't going to stick. In addition to the other names World War I was called at the time -- `the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy' was one -- many people just called it `the war.' I don't think we'll ever use `the Great War' kind of rhetoric again."

Charles Moskos, professor of sociology at Northwestern University and perhaps the country's leading military sociologist, said that, in pursuit of accuracy, our current war should be called "the 30 Years War II -- because it will probably last that long." He said he has heard some people call this "America's new war" but that doesn't work because "it will be old soon." "Afghan War" won't be it, he said: "We're supposed to be saving Afghanistan, not hurting it."

Walter LaFeber, professor of history at Cornell University, said that while "War on Terror" may prevail, "There's not going to be any signing of a treaty with terror, so there's not likely to be any formal end to the war. I'm not sure whether future generations will even talk about it ending. It will just go on for years and years and then probably peter out. We hope. We hope."

Of course, previous wars were fought in eras before cable television -- before war-label logos were posted behind the heads of news anchors. This may be the first war to march into history under many different names -- one for each channel.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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