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War not war

War: invariably metaphorical

Here is a modern-history lesson from Dr. Paula J. Dobriansky, the US Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, who gave a speech to graduates of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on May 7:

We champion democracy because it reflects our American values, and is the desire of people everywhere, but also because it serves our national security interest. Democracies are inherently more peaceful than other forms of government. If you look at major, modern conflicts, you will find that none took place between democracies with universal suffrage. In wars between democracies and non-democracies, it is invariably the latter that is the aggressor.

Hold that thought: invariably, it is non-democracies who attack democracies. However, it also seems to be the widely accepted view that in 2003, the US and Britain, who call themselves democracies, wandered into Iraq with a lot of tanks, helicopters and so on, having not actually been attacked by that dictatorship. How to reconcile these two things?

At first one might think that Dr Dobriansky is in the vanguard of an interesting sociolinguistic change. Perhaps the word “invariably” was always a hostage to fortune: the all-too-potent idea of “variable” is in the process of drowning out that pernickety little negative prefix “in-“. Thus, “invariably” comes to mean “quite often”, or “some of the time”, or “whenever I say so”.

Another interpretation is that the war in Iraq was not actually a war. It was a conflict or a liberation, but not a war. According to Dobriansky elsewhere in her speech, what happened was two things: “the coalition forces destroyed Saddam Hussein’s regime and liberated Iraq”. No mention of a war there. Who said “war”? Nothing to see here; move along. Helpfully, if what happened in Iraq was not a war, it doesn’t count as disproof of her historical theory.

In fact democracies these days call their own proactive military action by any name other than war. That simply follows the process established when the US Department of War was rolled into the Department of Defense in 1949, and the British War Office swallowed up by the Ministry of Defence in 1964. After all, how could you ever start a war if you’re called “Defence”? Indeed, the US Congress has not officially declared war since 1941, though the American military has not quite been idle since.

But of course we still do hear the word “war” a lot these days. It’s simply that war is declared exclusively on abstract nouns or inanimate objects. Terror, drugs, fat, global warming, the forces of conservatism, war… well, maybe not the last one. (Must we blame War on Want, the charity whose name was invented by Harold Wilson in 1952, for all this?) It’s good to see Dr Dobriansky continuing this fine tradition with a cute new name for Bush-Cheney foreign policy: the “war on tyranny”.

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