George Bernard Shaw famously observed that "America and England are two countries divided by a common language," but he didn't know the half of it.
Our politicians could have told him a thing or two.
Hilary Benn, Tony Blair's secretary for international development, announced yesterday in New York that Britain or the British government, which is not necessarily the same thing won't any longer call the War on Terror the "War on Terror."
"In the United Kingdom, we do not use the phrase 'war on terror' because we can't win by military means alone, and because this isn't us against one organized enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives."
Mr. Benn, who appears to have been asleep on the edge of a cloud above the left-most rampart of the Labor Party, did not say, exactly, what the rest of us should call the War on Terror, but since he regards the "struggle," if we may still call it that, as one of "the vast majority of the people in the world of all nationalities and faiths against a small number of loose, shifting and disparate groups who have relatively little in common apart from their identification with others who share their distorted view of the world and their idea of being part of something bigger." Maybe we could call it that, but it won't be easy to get it all in a headline. Nor is it very Churchillian. As a war cry, such a mouthful doesn't quite have the ring of "Remember Pearl Harbor," nor will it be remembered with "we few, we happy few."
But it does capture the geeky gloom of the ginky left, both in England and America. We can hear Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi applauding now, since some Democrats grumble that the name "War on Terror" is an attempt to render dissent unpatriotic, or at least dumb. Messrs. Benn and Reid and Miss Pelosi sound a lot alike, though Mr. Benn, as an educated Englishman, speaks with more precision than an American politician. He's running hard to be the deputy leader of his party, and if he succeeds, that could make him the deputy prime minister.
Mr. Benn is a particularly sensitive nomenclator. His father, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, who was a Labor Cabinet minister himself in an earlier time, was widely regarded as being so open-minded about Britain's foes that his brains were always falling out. Recognizing that "Anthony Wedgwood Benn" made him sound like a dinner plate at Buckingham Palace, he insisted that the newspapers call him "Tony Benn," just a working-class bloke, and he became quite cross when someone didn't. Hilary Benn, missing an "l," shares the name "Wedgwood," and in the interests of helping him keep shameful family secrets, we'll never use it here.
Mr. Benn insists he doesn't want to call the War on Terror by its right name because "what these groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others, without dialogue, without debate, through violence. And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength."
Government ministers and diplomats in London were told last December to drop the phrase because it upsets Muslims. Not everybody gets such consideration. Guy Fawkes regarded himself as a "kindling collector," even if nobody else did, and in our own country Bonnie and Clyde preferred to be called "bank examiners."
Naming wars is not always easy, and most wars have more than one name. The Russians insist on calling World War II the "Great Patriotic War," and certain peaceniks object to the Roman numerals because the numerals elevate and dignify what should merely be called the "Second World War." Woodrow Wilson said his war should be the War to End War, but spinning was not the science it is today, so World War I it became.
The late unpleasantness of 1861-65 is now the Civil War, but Southerners objected for decades, insisting that it was not a civil war at all because a civil war is an internal war and the War of Northern Aggression was a war between two sovereign nations, and besides, there's nothing civil about any war. The most neutral name is the War Between the States, since whatever it was it was surely a war between the states. But nobody likes neutral.
The dogface soldiers in Iraq don't care what anyone calls their war. They just want Washington and London to let them finish breaking the china the Wedgwood and come home.