Naming America’s Wars Is A Scary Enterprise

FDR’s Four Freedoms brought meaning to World War II

W.J. Astore

At, Andrew Bacevich asks a pregnant question: What should we call America’s no-name wars?  (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and so on.)  It used to be the GWOT (global war on terror), sometimes shortened to War on Terror and favored by the Bush/Cheney administration.  The Obama administration punted, preferring the anodyne label of “overseas contingency operations.”  Other names and concepts have been floated, such as “generational war” and “long war,” and the U.S. military itself, which is quite expert at creating acronyms, has used terms like MOOTW (military operations other than war).  Indeed, the fact that America’s wars lack a commonly accepted name points to the lack of a common theme or strategy.  Put differently, when you can’t name something accurately, how can you understand it, let alone fight it smartly and win it?

Forgive me for being flippant, but I can think of a few less than reverent names that serve to highlight the folly of America’s nameless wars.  How about these?

  1. “Perpetual Preemptive War”: Preemptive war was the great idea of the Bush/Cheney administration. Remember how we couldn’t allow the smoking gun of Iraqi WMD to become a mushroom cloud? We had to preempt the non-existent WMD, hence the disastrous Iraq war(s).
  2. “Generational War for Generals”: General David Petraeus has spoken of a generational war against terror in countries like Afghanistan, comparing it to America’s 60+ year commitment to South Korea. Waging that war should keep a lot of U.S. generals busy over the next few decades.
  3. “Bankrupt Strategy to Bankrupt America”: America’s total national debt just reached $21 trillion (you read that right), with perhaps $6 trillion of that due to America’s wars since 9/11. If we keep up this pace of spending, we will soon conquer ourselves to bankruptcy. Mission accomplished!
  4. “The Wars to End All Peace”: Woodrow Wilson had “the war to end all wars” with World War I. Bush/Obama/Trump can say that they have the wars to end all peace, since there simply is no prospect of these wars ever ending in the foreseeable future.
  5. “Endless War to End Democracy”: FDR had the Four Freedoms and a real war to end Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as threats to world peace. We now have endless war to end democracy in America.  As James Madison wrote,

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.  War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.  In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.  The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.  No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …

In short, instead of fighting for Four Freedoms, we’re now waging a permanent war that will end freedom.

Small wonder we avoid naming our wars – their theme and meaning are too frightening to nail down with precision.

13 thoughts on “Naming America’s Wars Is A Scary Enterprise

  1. Just as the Vietnamese still refer to our war on them as The American War, the appropriate term for this is also simply The American War. That is surely the way the rest of the world will remember it, and we will no longer be in any position to dictate how they remember it.

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. I was going to suggest “the Forever War,” as a reference to a certain book, or “America’s War Against the World,” but I like yours better.


  2. Warfare Welfare and Make-work Militarism; Ordnance Expenditure Expeditions fueled by Commendation Accumulation Syndrome; Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification promising that in just one more Friedman Unit (after thirty-two of them) the Tipping Point will Turn the Corner and Connect the Dots on the Ink-stained, flypaper Dominoes in the Tunnel at the End of the Light. Something like that …


    1. So the Military Industrial Congressional Complex is, in reality, the American Association of Acronymn Abuse?! I couldn’t resist, I’m laughing out loud at this whole farce. It’s almost as funny as the entire U.S. military using the desgination “M-1” for absolutely everything!


      1. Yes. I just love those asinine acronyms and solipsistic, schizoprenic slogans to which U.S. government officials seem terminally addicted .

        C.I.A. stands for “Cocaine Importation Agency,” and “Can’t Identify Anything.”
        F.B.I. stands for “Furtive Bungling Idiots.”
        J.C.O.S. stands for “Joined Chefs of Stuff.”
        … etc.

        And my favorite example of U.S. government “logic” concerning the “credibility” of our nation abroad:

        Our friends won’t respect us and our enemies won’t fear us if we end these wars and stop acting so stupidly.” This assumes that our friends respect our stupidity and our enemies fear it, precisely the opposite of how friends and enemies actually think.

        The utter decay of the English language as a result of systematic official abuse — i.e., “Corpgov,” in Newspeak — has possibly passed the point of no return, fellow Crimestoppers. As Winston Smith said of his day-job constantly readjusting the Ministry of Plenty’s statistical figures (like the Unemployment Rate in the U.S.): “It was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another.

        What a perfectly succinct summation of the American “information” diet.

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    2. Mike: I always liked your CAS: Commendation Accumulation Syndrome, partly because we had CAS at the US Air Force Academy (USAFA, of course). CAS at USAFA stood for “cadet accountability system,” otherwise known as taking attendance in all other schools.


      1. I followed a link from which led me to:

        Mobbed Up – How America boosts the Afghan opium trade, by Andrew Cockburn, Harpers (April Issue, 2018)

        Without getting into the awful details of the U.S. government’s monumental military malfeasance in Afghanistan, I came across mention early in the article of “Lance Bunch [who] has had an impressive year. In July 2017, he gained a coveted star, having been promoted to brigadier general while serving as the principal military assistant to James Mattis, the secretary of defense. His job put him at the epicenter of all US national security issues — and among the most pressing for Mattis at that moment was Afghanistan.”

        Apparently, new General Lance Bunch will enjoy “expanded authority” and even his own command: namely, “director of Future Operations at the American headquarters in Kabul … inevitably reduced to the acronym FUOPS.”

        FUOPS! Perfect. Only the U.S. military could make up this kind of mindless self-mockery. Fucked-Up Operations, indeed. I’ll have to add this one to my list of favorites, which include FUBAR, SNAFU, and the Special Oops! forces, renowned for bombing wedding parties and dropping into Afghan villages at night to disrupt baby-naming ceremonies.

        Anyway, the article merits reading and study, even if one only picks out the fact that the Taliban, when they ran things, had virtually wiped out opium production, but thanks to our Vaunted Visigoths and their maniacal, murderous meddling, Afghanistan now produces more opium and heroin than ever before. Now, perhaps, Americans might come to understand why the initials C.I.A. stand for “Cocaine Importation Agency” along with the time-honored “Can’t Identify Anything.” And to think that the U.S. military even has its own version of “Intelligence” gathering, which explains that old adage my WWII-generation mother taught me as a child: “Military Intelligence is to Intelligence as Military Music is to Music.” I once got banned from an ex-military-intelligence guy’s blog for saying that. The truth hurts.


    1. If the U.S. military plans on having Afghan operations in the future, then it goes without saying that their past and present operations in that country have failed and continue to fail, because had they succeeded, the future would have no need of them.

      In other words, as an illustration of history that rhymes while it endlessly repeats:

      From Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave

      Boobie Self-Constructed Conundrums

      The Boobies of the U.S.A.
      Enjoyed a crazy game
      Where those they placed in power could
      Ignite a global flame
      Yet never have to shoulder one
      Iota of the blame.

      The game had “rules” that often changed
      And “goals” that no one knew,
      Except that those who “won” would be
      Restricted to the few
      Who got to feather their own nests
      While others ate shit stew.

      The Boobies made up slogans that
      No mind could penetrate:
      Those silly syllogisms they
      Constructed to conflate
      Their fabricated fantasies
      Of fiction, fraud, and fate.

      Confusing their abstractions from
      The high down to the low
      And every level in between
      Gave thought no room to grow,
      So “trivial” means just the same
      As “vital,” don’t you know?

      The fallacy of “is” and “ought”
      Did yeoman work, as well,
      Convincing Boobies that the bad
      Would always work out swell;
      Because it should; because we say;
      Because … Oh, what the hell!

      We cannot leave because we can’t.
      We stay because we can.
      We’ve formed the perfect problem that
      Confounds the brain of Man:
      The very definition of
      A fool’s Afghanistan.

      We’ve set up the “conditions” such
      That all we’ll ever see
      Are “questions” undetermined by
      Our terminology.
      We’ve “no good choices,” so we say,
      Which means we’ve no Plan-B.

      We stay to make up stories that
      The voters will consume
      Each time the last fake story dies,
      Which leads us to assume
      That next we’ll hear a “brand new” lie
      Which signals only doom.

      We stay because of profits that
      Some stockholders require
      Who claim they need more tax-cuts or
      They won’t “work” and retire.
      We stay because of nothing more
      Than that we so desire.

      We stay for wounded egos that
      Cannot admit mistake:
      Not while there still remains one chance
      To offer “reasons” fake
      For what the frauds will sell to us
      Or else just simply take.

      We will not leave because the ones
      Who launched this dreadful fling
      Demand more time to demonstrate
      Their next great stupid thing:
      One more excuse to start again
      Instead of finishing.

      Since time and blood and money comes
      From those who can’t refuse,
      This dead-beat free-lunch “warfare” stuff
      Has proven great to use
      As cover for the long-sought goal
      Of “winning” while we lose.

      Each year we have a “final” plan,
      Unlike the plans before,
      Which only – looking back – now seem
      Like such a crushing bore:
      Stupidity predicting some
      Stupidity in store.

      We stay because we stay because
      We stay because we stay.
      We stay because we won’t confront
      What made us act this way;
      So we can’t leave because we won’t,
      And that’s our “final” say.

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2009

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  3. Let’s cut the to the core: America isn’t fighting one war, it is fighting a set of wars. The unifying factor between all of them is the pursuit of empire. Control over privileged access to strategic resources, plain and simple. We intervene where we see chance of gain. Just continuing a long European tradition, really.

    We Americans (well, I’m calling myself Cascadian these days, but that’s another story) hate to admit that our federal government, controlled as it mostly is by coalitions of powerful elites, went down the path of Empire at the end of the 19th century, following along with our European cousins in their scramble for colonies/resources. And after the Second World War, our elites saw the opportunity to entrench the USA as the successor to the British Empire. Most Americans had little say in any of this, and still don’t, because we aren’t a true democracy, we’re a republic with all the principle-agent problems that entails. We’re trying to run a diverse 21st century society of 325 million people on political institutions that were designed to keep thirteen Atlantic colonies coordinated and to prevent the indentured and slave classes from demanding their basic human rights.

    Break free from the nationalist, America-as-blessed-by-god worldview we’ve all been sold by our captured media and crappy schools, accept that when America boosters say “superpower” they mean empire, and you can see the basic consistency that characterizes US foreign policy from 1945 to the present, regardless of who is president or which party is in power. This pursuit of empire, totally at odds with our national self-narrative, has led directly to our slide towards towards disintegration in the near future (when the 2020 election is “won” by the Trumpists via suppressing the black vote in key swing states, that may be the final straw/tipping point). The American Empire functioned by/was tolerated for being less bad than any immediately viable alternative, and securing the conditions for economic growth in the developed world. It was tolerated, despite its obvious excesses and contradictions (how many millions of civilian deaths stain our collective conscience?), because it fostered a degree of stability that global elites could work with to pursue their own goals.

    Now, as the US is seceding from the world order it largely created, it is flailing about, trying to remain relevant despite being unable to actually achieve its stated foreign policy goals. And the rest of the world has been watching and learning as we’ve proven ourselves to be no more effective or less vicious than any other empire that has stalked around the world state since Alexander of Macedon inherited daddy’s army and then decided it’d be fun to play global conquest, setting the stage for the cycle to play out over and over again: Caesar, Charlemagne, Barbarossa, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin.

    2001 didn’t change anything about America, it just gave our imperial elite an excuse to shift pursuit of empire to a more virulent phase. This won’t end until the American people get sick of the nonsense, stop listening to the media and politicians, and start organizing around some kind of new solution. Probably Constitutional level reform driven by state legislatures under Article 5.


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