The Pentagon has officially retired the phrase “The Long War” as the designated moniker for the Bush Administration’s global wars. Apparently the head of Central Command, Admiral William J. Fallon, phased out the phrase because of the message it sends to countries around the globe that U.S. forces are intent on occupying foreign nations for extended periods of time (It is startling to consider what isn’t obvious to the Pentagon). Now Bush’s reckless wars are nameless.
For the past year, General John Abizaid had pushed the term “the Long War” as the preferred phrase for Bush’s terror wars, but outside the select group of military and intelligence insiders this name never really caught on. When I first heard a Pentagon spokesperson say, “the Long War” I was startled to hear someone so openly admit that this really was supposed to be the war without end that we all assumed it would become. We all know that Pentagon spokespersons aren’t supposed to be this honest.
The New York Times story on the shift traced the Pentagon’s failures to find the right name, outlining President Bush’s past descriptions of the war as the “War on Terror,” and “a test of wills against ‘Islamofascism,'” as well as Secretary of Gates’ preference of calling it, “the Generational War.” But none of these marketing efforts has really taken hold with the public. Imagine that. It turns out that Americans are somehow uncomfortable embracing names acknowledging that Bush’s military campaigns have created quagmires and ill-will that may last for generations.
Lt. Col. Matthew McLaughlin is quoted in the Times article as saying that, “we continue to look for other options to characterize the scope of current operations,” which is Pentagon newspeak for: “we’re scrambling like mad to come up with a shinny new name for our broken war.”
Since a descriptively accurate title like, “the Long War” didn’t work out very well, the Pentagon will now retreat to familiar territory where it can use deceptive titles to create more marketable war images. We can expect them to sell us images of a war marketed with the opposite attributes from “the Long War,” as they try on titles like “The Short War”. In fact, the phrase “small wars” has been a key insider term for war logicians and even militarized anthropologists plotting strategies for multi-battlefront wars.
Such christening decisions should not be left to the Pentagon. After all, Ford Motors consulted poets like Marianne Moore when naming the cars they hawked. If they are stuck for a name they should consult Stephen Colbert, I’m sure he could come up with something appropriate that would, ironically, simultaneously please war critics and supporters. But the Pentagon’s obsession with naming their failed war indicates they may be more likely to outsource such a task to Madison Avenue or even seek corporate sponsorship. Whether adapting marketing slogans from existing products (perhaps adapting names from existing products, like, “I Can’t Believe its not the Long War on Terror” and “Gee, Your Terror War Smells Terrific”) or following the lead of professional sports stadiums and naming the wars after corporations reaping war profits (Halliburton, Blackwater, etc.), the Pentagon can use some outside help.
That the Pentagon has anyone fussing about what it calls these disastrous short-sighted military campaigns is alarming. Americans and scores of Iraqi civilians are being slaughtered in Iraq on a daily basis, and all the Pentagon seems able to do is to try and come up with new ways to market a hopeless war by renaming it in a newly deceptive way. Our postmodern Pentagon’s top semioticians are acting like they believe that their failures in Iraq and elsewhere are the result of bad slogans, and if only these signifiers could re-brand the war then the signified war will be redeemed.
If the Pentagon is searching for a new name for the war, I suggest we just call it “the Lost War” to honor Bush’s failed presidency and push a surge to bring the troops home.
DAVID PRICE is author of Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Duke, 2004). His next book, Anthropological Intelligence: The Use and Abuse of American Anthropology in the Second World War, He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org