War Games

September 7, 2008

The Rand Corporation is advocating that the U.S. government drop the phrase ‘war on terrorism’ from its lexicon (h/t Ackerman). This is all to the good. As the study notes, struggles against terrorist groups are generally very different beasts than actual wars, and they tend to demand very different tactics. Talk of the ‘war on terror’ – much like talk of the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘war on poverty’ – does more harm than good to the clarity of our thinking about these problems.

It seems to me, however, that the conceptual mistake of classifying too broad a class of struggle as wars is nowhere near as harmful as a related mistake in how we see the nature of wars themselves. One of the commonly raised objections to classifying, e.g. our efforts to curb drug use as a war is that it’s difficult to see how such a war might ever be won or lost. But this is just as true of conflicts which actually are wars. While the GOP had a lot of fun at the convention pointing out that the Democrats never talk about victory in Iraq any more, it seems pretty clear that almost everyone on both sides of the aisle agrees that wars are the sorts of thing that can be won and lost.

The folly of viewing wars in terms of winners and losers should be fairly obvious to anyone this side of 280 BC, when the battles that introduced the term ‘Pyrrhic victory’ took place. ‘Win’ is a very useful term when discussing baseball – it’s clearly defined by a set of universally agreed upon rules, and the question of who wins and who loses has by far more consequences within the context of the rules of the sport than any other individual outcome on the field. In wars, by contrast, groups of people fight for some period of time, then stop, gradually or all at once, but never according to clearly defined rules. How the fighting goes generally has various complicated consequences for the participants and spectators alike. Declaring a victory for some subset of the combatants is rarely a very useful description of those consequences.

Of course, there are exceptions. It’s pretty clear who won WWII, and it’s actually a somewhat useful, concise summary of the outcome, even if it’s lacking in nuance. But the reason for this is fairly obvious – that was a total war between organized governments that had no intention of stopping before the other side surrendered, nor any of continuing beyond that point. For all the idle comparisons between present day Iraq and the Germany or Japan of the late ’40s and early ’50s, our description of that war as a victory for the Allies has nothing to do with the reconstruction of the Axis states; had Germany degenerated into lawlessness and ethnic slaughter we wouldn’t have been thrilled, but we would still mark the date of our victory as we do now, and feel pretty pleased about it.

There was, of course, a government we went into Iraq to overthrow. We did just that within a few days. But none of the wars critics admitted they were wrong; nor did its advocates exchange high fives and bring the troops home. Years later, we’re still fighting the same war. A wide range of possible outcomes still exists.

Whenever we talk of ‘winning’ outside the context of an artificial contest in which that term is clearly defined, we are using a metaphor. In the case of most armed conflicts, and the Iraq War in particular, we are using a shitty metaphor.

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2 Responses to “War Games”


  1. […] do you win a debate? Recently, a friend of mine aptly noted that ‘wining’ and ‘losing’ seem inadequate terms to describe the actual […]


  2. […] a friend of mine aptly noted that ‘wining’ and ‘losing’ seem inadequate terms to describe the actual […]


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