Wars and word games

The Bush administration can shun the term 'civil war' all it wants, but in the end it's up to history.
By Geoffrey Nunberg
GEOFFREY NUNBERG, a linguist at UC Berkeley's School of Information, is the author of "Talking Right."

December 3, 2006

In 1781, the American patriot James Duane denounced the British government for describing the fighting in the American colonies as a rebellion rather than a civil war. "Rebellion," Duane said, "is only applied to such Insurrection as is void of all Appearance of Justice." But when the sovereign's opponents "have some Reason for Taking arms" and become so strong that he "finds himself Compelled to make war regularly on them, he must be contented with the Term of Civil War" — and hence, Duane added, must treat his adversaries as legitimate combatants.

Two centuries later, those are pretty much the same implications that the Bush administration has been resisting when it refuses to use "civil war" to describe the situation in Iraq. The term doesn't simply underscore the Iraqi government's inability to check the warring factions, leaving U.S. forces caught in the middle. It also implies the need for a shift in policy. People think of insurgencies and insurrections as things that can be suppressed or defeated, but when it comes to civil wars, prudence usually calls for stepping smartly out of the line of fire and seeking a political solution.

For many, to talk about a civil war in Iraq is simply to "face the reality," as Colin Powell said last week in explaining why he was using the term. The Los Angeles Times has been using the phrase since early October, and it has since been adopted by NBC News as the appropriate term for "armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas." That's similar to the working definition of a civil war that political scientists often use: an internal military conflict that results in more than 1,000 battle deaths a year — which would put Iraq well over the threshold.

But the administration and its supporters have been more exacting in their definitions. The Iraq situation is not a civil war, said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, but merely "sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences." And British military historian Sir John Keegan argues that a civil war requires not only that both sides have recognized leaders and clear political agendas but that uniformed armies meet on a field of battle — a definition that fits only five conflicts over the last 200 years and one that would ensure that, however out-of-hand things get, Iraq will almost certainly be spared a true civil war.

Narrow definitions of terms such as "civil war" can be convenient for scholars, but the English language doesn't owe them a living. Nothing magical happens when an insurrection exacts its 1,000th casualty or when the sides don uniforms. Nor has history reserved "civil war" for conflicts with two clearly defined sides. As Duane observed more than 200 years ago, that's simply the term we use when groups with political agendas can wage protracted campaigns against the government.

Politicians who want to avoid using terms with inopportune implications invariably maintain that their choice of words is guided by their concern for semantic exactitude rather than a desire to manage impressions. "Recession," "genocide" — the political lexicon is full of terms with reassuringly strict, official definitions, even if they're actually no more amenable to neat characterization than "bad hair day." Or think of all the efforts to define "torture" in a way that exempts "enhanced interrogation techniques," as the CIA calls them. "We do not torture," President Bush has said, and in the interest of preserving that principle, the administration has formulated elaborately precise criteria to distinguish the inhuman from the merely regrettable.

But in the end, what counts as what is up to history, not governments. And as it happens, history defines civil wars not just by who's fighting and why, but by how they come out. We usually don't remember conflicts as civil wars if the state isn't intact when the smoke has cleared.

A few months after Duane wrote his remarks, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette defeated Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, ensuring that history would record the conflict as neither rebellion nor civil war but as a war of independence. For that matter, it's unlikely we would still be speaking of the American Civil War if Pickett's Charge had succeeded in breaking the Union lines at Gettysburg.

More recently, people ceased talking about a civil war in Yugoslavia once it became clear that "Yugoslavia" itself had become a historical irrelevancy. No one can say whether Iraq will suffer the same fate. But acknowledging that what's going on is in fact a civil war — and dealing with it accordingly — would be one step toward making sure that history will remember it as one, rather than simply as the conflagration that ultimately broke the country apart.