At CentCom, 'long war' no longer in the lexicon

Published May 21, 2007

TAMPA - When Gen. John Abizaid stepped down as chief of U.S. Central Command, he was praised for promoting words that captured the challenge of fighting terrorism.

"John realized early on ... it would be a long and difficult endeavor, " Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a March ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base. "In fact, he popularized the phrase 'long war' commonly used today."

In remarks that day, Abizaid's successor, Adm. William Fallon, didn't touch the phrase.

In fact, Fallon soon canned it altogether.

Fallon's decision last month to stop using a phrase that had been etched into the public lexicon underscored the critical but often forgotten role of language in defining and framing debate about war. Like advertising slogans, wars are often distilled to words or catch phrases that, fairly or not, color public perception of history.

Vietnam became a "quagmire, " World War II "the good war, " and World War I "the Great War."

But in an age of instantaneous global communications, a word uttered at CentCom headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base can influence an entire population half a world away.

As Michael Keane, author of the Dictionary of Modern Strategy and Tactics, wrote in 2005, "Words go to war as surely as soldiers do."

"In the Arab world, they analyze every syllable we speak for our hidden meaning, " said Chet Richards, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. "It's a very oral culture. They listen carefully to words."

At a time when many Muslims see the United States as an imperial, occupying power, "the long war" did little to counter the notion, Richards and other critics of the phrase argue.

"And calling it a war led people to think of the military as the only solution, " said Richards, who is delighted with Fallon's decision. "The military is really a small part of the solution."

CentCom said it was seeking to describe operations for a Western audience "while understanding the cultural implications of how that language is construed in the Middle East."

"In this case, the idea that we are going to be involved in a 'long war' at the current level of operations is not likely and unhelpful, " the command said in a statement.

While committed to allies in the region and countering al-Qaida-inspired extremism, the phrase didn't capture the "nuance" sought by CentCom, the command said.

Fallon made the decision after input from linguistic and cultural experts. The command declined to allow interviews with those experts.

Eric Larson, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Rand Corp., said names are important because they provide a verbal shorthand in discussing complex policy.

But he warned, "You want to be judged on the things you're doing, not on the basis of some bumper sticker."

With its echoes of the Cold War, "the long war" had seeped into the political and military vocabulary in a way few phrases had managed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. President Bush used "the long war" in the 2006 State of the Union address and military leaders quoted it in congressional testimony.

Abizaid used it publicly as much as any military commander but probably didn't coin the phrase.

James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, may have been one of the first to use "the long war" in the months after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Carafano said he thinks Fallon, the new CentCom chief, has committed a "nutty" blunder.

"Are we going to stop saying 'World War II' because not every nation was at war and the Swiss might be offended?" Carafano said. "Fallon's taken political correctness to the point of idiocy."

In the Arab world, the United States will lose face by discarding the phrase, Carafano said.

"When you're saying you're not at war, that you're not a warrior, that you're not defending anything, you're really dishonoring yourself, " Carafano said. "You're telling your enemy, 'You're more honorable than I am.' "

Americans have moved from debate to debate on the appropriate words to describe current military operations and U.S. opponents.

Is Iraq engaged in civil war? Are U.S. forces facing a guerrilla campaign? Military leaders have been avoiding once-common terms such as "jihadist" and "Islamo-fascist" so they don't anger Muslims. Many people oppose "global war on terror" because it's either too vague or seen as political propaganda.

The Pentagon even suggested the "global struggle against violent extremism." So far, that phrase hasn't gotten much traction.

It's all a reminder that wars, like babies, are seldom born with names ready to be pasted into history texts.

Even President Woodrow Wilson struggled with the best way to describe "the Great War, " which, depending on your perspective, may not have been all that great.

"It is hard to find a satisfactory 'official' name for the war but the best, I think, that has been suggested is 'The World War, ' and I hope that your judgment will concur, " Wilson wrote to his war secretary in 1919.

To Francis Beer, a retired professor at the University of Colorado who studied the language of war, it's all about marketing, certainly far more serious than Detroit promoting a new car, but marketing still.

With time, he said, Americans and not their leaders will decide what to call military operations.

"You can market all day long, " Beer said. "Ultimately, a product is what it is."

As to "the long war's" replacement: CentCom says it's still looking.