Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What's So Civil About the Iraq War?

This week, NBC announced officially that from henceforward it was going to be referring to the Iraq War as a "civil war." Matt Lauer of the Today Show was chosen to make the announcement to show just how weighty and important this decision is. Clearly, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News just doesn't possess the necessary gravitas.

But I must say I don't think this war is very civil at all. How can you call a war civil when over 600,000 Iraqi civilians have died according to one estimate, more than 3,000 American troops, 65 just this month, have been killed, and which has devolved into a situation where it's practically brother against brother? It seems to me to be a very odd sort of terminology. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow prefers to regard what is going in Iraq as "sectarian violence operations," which makes a lot more sense, even if it doesn't flow quite as trippingly over the tongue, while Fox News refers to the situation as "snowballing sectarian violence," which fittingly reminds me of the very violent winters I suffered through as a child as the victim of many a bully's icy projectiles.

I never believed the American Civil War should be called a civil war either, although Ken Burns made it all seem so civil in his documentary, with the very literate letters read by movie stars with sonorous voices, the evocative music and the very slow pans over lovely black and white photographs. Watching that documentary you would never know that 620,000 soldiers died in the war, 51,000 at Gettysburg alone. I grew up in the South where we referred to the war, which I had always had the impression occurred in the 1960s rather than the 1860s, as the War of Northern Aggression (which, ironically, is how Mexicans refer to the Mexican-American War). I was very surprised to discover later in life that most people refer to it as the Civil War. I still cannot see how Sherman's March to Sea, in which General William T. Sherman and his troops raped, pillaged and burned their way through a large swath of the South, could even remotely be referred to as civil, so this terminology has always puzzled me. Perhaps, considering the kind of scorched earth total war Sherman waged, it would have been more fitting to refer to the Civil War as the Civilian War.

The Spanish Civil War doesn't seem very civil either. If you have ever seen Pablo Picasso's painting Guernica, which depicts the 1937 bombing of Gernika by the Nazis, which destroyed the town and left 1,600 people dead, it seems to me you would be very hard put thinking that was civil. The English Civil Wars (there were three of them) killed 10 percent of the population. The War of the Roses is sometimes called a civil war, but frankly I don't think naming a war after a flower is much of an improvement, although I suppose it's marginally better than calling it the War of the Daisies or the War of the Daffodils or the War of the Pansies.

I think calling the War in Iraq a civil war would make even more Americans turn against it. Many young people already don't seem to think about the war much, as New York Times writer Bob Herbert pointed out in a recent column. Evoking a very long and tedious PBS documentary when referring to the war is not likely to make them care more. Perhaps they would be more interested if it was called the Playstation 3 War, although that might easily be confused with the bloodshed caused in our own streets by the battles between shoppers trying to buy the gaming system, which must have made our soldiers in Iraq feel that they were not the only victims of sectarian violence.

Not everyone is jumping on the civil war bandwagon. The Washington Post, is waiting for a White House press release before they take the plunge and declare it a civil war as Dana Priest explains: "We try to avoid the labels, particularly when the elected government itself does not call its situation a civil war." As Michael Stipe once said, responding to rumors that he was gay, "I think labels are for canned food," no doubt referring to the famous canvases of tomato soup cans painted by gay artist Andy Warhol. I'm glad the liberals at The Washington Post don't like labels either.

The White House understandably has been very resistant to referring to the War in Iraq as a civil war. Although Webster's dictionary, which has a well-known liberal bias, defines "civil war" as "a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country," clearly this definition misses the nuances of what really constitutes a civil war. As Tony Snow pointed out, the situation in Iraq doesn't even come close to being a civil war according to those who really know about these sorts of things. "I think the general notion is a civil war is when you have people who, to use the American Civil War or other civil wars as an example, where people break up into clearly identifiable feuding sides clashing for supremacy within Iran [sic]," he explained patiently to the thick-headed members of the press during a recent news conference, apparently getting ahead of himself a little by referring to the upcoming war in Iran instead of Iraq. "At this point, you do have a lot of different forces that are trying to put pressure on the government and trying to undermine it. But it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force. You don't have a clearly identifiable leader. And so in this particular case, no. What you do have is a number of different groups -- you know, they've been described in some cases as rejectionists, in others as terrorists. In many cases, they are not groups that would naturally get along, either, but they severally and together pose a threat to the government." I don't think anyone can put it more clearly than that.

I would like to declare a moratorium on referring to any wars as civil wars. It is an oxymoron that should be banished from our language. And as far as the War in Iraq goes, I think we should resist trying to simplify a complicated situation with a glib phrase. Perhaps we need a terminology that reflects just how confusing and difficult the conflict has become. So taking a page from Tony Snow's book I propose calling it the Iraq War of Terrorists and Rejectionists Not Operating as a Unified Force and Without a Clearly Identifiable Leader Who Severally and Together Pose a Threat to the Government Through Sectarian Violence Operations. Or maybe we could just call it the Iraq War for short. Or better yet, perhaps we should pay less attention to the War of Words and more attention to the real war.

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Nich Starling said...

You let yourself down by makins silly comments about the "War of the Roses", which was named after the fact that the Royal House of York (whose symbol was the White Rose) and the Royal House of Lancaster (whose symbol was the Red Rose), fought over whose family would get the crown of England.

Also, "civil", in terms of a "civil war" has nothing to do with "being nice".

Silly, because otherwise you make some interesting comments.

Anonymous said...

The Duke of Norfolk is on to something. Things are not so rosey here, though by any other name they might still smell so sweet.

Swift, you have let the whole world down, at least the part that wasn't down before, but maybe not the part that was down with the war before other people got down on this.
I order you to stop this silliness right now. If you can't do that, we may have to fight it out in civil fashion, under Queen de Marquesberry rules.

Maybe not.

Jaesoreal said...

Let's just call it the Uncivil war then! I'm down with that!

Jon Swift said...

Norfolk Blogger, I feel I must apologize. Due to an editing error some "interesting comments" inadvertently slipped by. I plan to have a very stern talk with my editors to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again. Please accept my sincere regrets for this terrible lapse.

Anonymous said...

The simplest, and most precise name would be to call it the American War.
At least, that's what all the other countries have called them.

Anonymous said...

or perhaps The Bush Follies.

Anonymous said...

A lot of the difficulty seeing the relevance of the Iraq war - or that which it has evolved into - as a civil war, lies in the inability of the American mind to grasp nuance. A very famous American president once suggested his administration didn't "do nuance". I personally think he believed "nuance" was a drug like cocaine, and that he was automatically denying illegal use on the part of his administration, but his defenders have sworn he is much smarter than he appears so perhaps he understood perfectly. Anyway, everybody knows Americans and Arabs don't think the same way at all. I mean, your Turkish Delight is their gooey purple stuff. It is just possible that, by Arab definition, the war in Iraq is as civil as can be. Besides, I think the western media has every right to call it whatever they like. Iraq protested that it had no WMD's, but the New York Times proved they were lying, with pictures and everything. Well, Judy Miller had some pictures of an Arab-looking guy pointing to some sand, underneath which was a chemical lab. They couldn't find the actual lab later, but one sand dune looks pretty much like another even with the special sand-dune film Judy Miller used and it's probably easy to get confused.

Anyway, my point was that Iraqis might perceive this to be a very civil war. But they are just a bunch of liars, so the western press should not feel bad about using a term they find catchy, even if the President doesn't much like it.

Anonymous said...

For Mr. Snow, people can put it more clearly... Civil War.

Liz Blondsense said...

Indeed, it's a very uncivil war. I prefer to call it Bush's Clusterfuck from Hell. You can use that if you want.

DJ said...

Personally, I'm all for calling the war "Percy Clusterfuck".

OutOfContext said...

Good news, Maliki's forces are taking over in a Friedman . Though liberal defeatists may Iraq a "geographical oddity where every corner is six months from being turned", but it seems to me the course has been stayed just fine. They stand up, we stand down. That was the plan all along, wasn't it?
I disagree with Norfolk blogger. I saw the film version of The War of the Roses and it had nothing to do with England. It did give the wife the notion to sock me in the nose, which was not civil at all.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the War of the Roses was more a war of succession than a civil war. Again, it's hard to see how much of a success the whole enterprize could have been, given all the deaths and tedious blank verse involved, but perhaps the term would be fitting for this latter-day conflict.

Jessica Harwood said...

Well whatever adjectives we use, at least we agree it's a war, whereas Vietnam wasn't a war, just a "conflict", and so certainly it must have been a very mild situation

James Higham said...

The point Jon was making still stands. Those particular conflicts are the bloodiest of all. Witness the Sunni-Shi'ite stuff now.

The Minstrel Boy said...

i agree with you mr. swift. not civil at all. i hesitate to even call it "war." war usually has things like wardwobe coordination and things to make it more visually appealling. and sides, and flags, all nice things to have in a war. this business of drilling holes into people, where did that come from? not sporting or fair if you ask me. now, the dousing with kerosene and lighting afire, that has a long tradition. the catholics in spain and portugal made it an art form. except being wogs, the iraqis forgot all about the stake. what's a good burning with no stake? we have tried, jesus knows well how hard we have tried to teach the iraqis proper ways to be civil. they will simply have to brush up on the judith martin manners books. then they can really have a "civil" war.

i'm not really all that up on the wars of the roses. just the parts shakespeare wrote about is all. i'm more of a rhododendron type of guy myself.

Jonathan said...

Mr. Swift, I fear that I have become addicted to your blog. Perhaps I need help. Is there... a treatment program of some kind? I have mountains of homework to be done, but instead I find myself avidly reading through your past posts, gleaning the many nuggets of conservative wisdom to be found in these digital pages.

I suppose it's not so bad that I procrastinate by reading your blog, because it teaches me things -- valuable things.

So maybe I'm not addicted after all. If your blog teaches me things, then it's a form of school. And it's impossible to be addicted to school. Therefore, I don't have a problem after all!

See, I learn things (logic!) just by writing a comment in your blog. That's the amazing thing about your blog.

Fitz said...

Iraq fits the all the criteria that makes a civil war a civil war.

The common scholarly definition has two main criteria. The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed, with at least 100 from each side.

One of the combatants is almost always the sovereign state, which in this case happenned when America transferred power to the new Iraqi government in 2004. The other side is predominately represented by dienfranchised Sunnis.

Sectarian wars can also be civil wars, just as ethnic conflicts can also be civil wars.

Finally, "civil" of civil war does not mean civility. Civil in this case means civil society, the constitution of citizens. Thus a war between citizens within civil society.

Technically, both are right, you can call it a sectarian conflict or a civil war. But like, you said, the administration wants to shy away from that definition because it seems to have a negative connotation.

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