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Why “War is War” Is Bad Rhetoric

(To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

Last post, I described the “war is war” crowd--a sub-set of the national security community
that wishes we could return to the days when wars were more about fighting, violence and death than about political realities.

Among the host of issues with that phrase, one sticks out more than the rest: the phrase “war is war” is just bad rhetoric.

War is war is really saying all war is similar. Except all wars aren’t the same the same way politics the same. Kim Jung Il’s succession plan has nothing to do with America’s midterm elections. Both are examples of politics. Both require maintaining or changing power. But they’re more different than they are the same; you definitely wouldn’t use the same playbook or tactics to win at either.

And World War II is like the war in Afghanistan, but is also different in just as many ways if not more. Both are wars, neither closely relates to one another. Some lessons can be drawn, but if you’re foolish enough to use the same play book, you’ve gone off track.

This is the biggest issue with the "war-is-war"-iors. More than anything else, the “war is war” statement doesn’t say anything; it doesn’t actually define war in any way. It recalls when the Supreme Court tried to decide what is pornography.  As Justice Potter Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.” The “war is war” crowd, it seems, would like to apply the same rigorously vague standards--which have since been replaced by the Supreme Court--to wars. And as the Supreme Court learned, relying on undefined terms as a long term strategy very rarely works out.

This problem seems to be unique to the study of war. I just don’t see a political theorists bogging down with the definition of politics when they are in the middle of an election campaign. Imagine a busy campaign staff conducting detailed electoral polling, developing campaign ads and arguing for the merits of a political position. Then imagine in back there was was an intellectual theorist who constantly complained about the current election strategy, because “politics is politics” and if they only read more Machiavelli we wouldn’t be in this position.

No other subject on the planet uses a self-referring definition to prove a point. Would a coach say “sports is sports” when preparing for a football (American) game? Would a CEO say “business is business” when rolling out a new product launch? Would a director say “entertainment is entertainment” when making a movie? Would a doctor say “medicine is medicine” even though he is a family care physician and the patient requires open heart surgery? Would a scientist say “science is science” then opine on evolutionary biology when they study astronomy?

Of course this would get us no where, fast. I’m not an expert in logical fallacies, but it seems like the “war is war” crowd is using a “begging the question” fallacy. They assume “war is war”--hence violent, destructive and conducted by massive armies--then proceed with their proof that was in the preface. I don’t like the phrase “war is war” for plenty of reasons, but this one gets me the most. It is sloppy thinking.

five comments

I actually think political strategists would argue over tactics, but the only philosophy they would argue over would be Machiavelli.

That said, campaigners would do whatever it takes to win, including changing their mindset. Soldiers aren’t as adaptable.

I agree, it’s an oversimplification. But words are words.

We discussed the phrase this week as par of the memoir course because, after Paul kills Gerald Duval, he has trouble reconciling his sense of human connection to the Frenchman and his military duty to stop the enemy. In a conversation afterward, his buddies try to help Paul see that his experience is part of the larger activity of war, that they’ve experienced it as well, and they advise him to not “lose any sleep” over it. And Paul, of course, responds that “war is war.”
This brings the phrase to the local, individual, level, a single soldier trying to understand his role in a larger violent conflict. At that level, is it is still has rhetorical velocity, since the individual in this case is trying to persuade himself of something he doesn’t yet fully understand.
I agree that, for governments and theorists, this is a lazy use of language. In a way, it’s like Paul’s use of the phrase to cover over something he doesn’t understand.
Obviously my unfinished thoughts, but here’s today’s take.

I’m wondering if the analogy to “science is science” might be useful.

Biology and astronomy both use the scientific method and require public, reproducible results toward understanding physical phenomena (as opposed to meta-physical or mystical phenomena). The tools (tactics) are different – pipettes, western blots, PCR, etc for modern biology and optical, X-ray, and other telescopes in the latter. A pipette would not be useful for doing astronomical research. The strategies are different as well. An astronomer might look at small perturbations in a star’s orbit to discover presence of planets (due to gravity), whereas a biologist might look at the change in phenotype (physical appearance) due to a specific genotypic change (gene change).

At the Clausewitz level, one might say ‘war is war,’ i.e., politics by other means, as analogy to the scientific method. To stop there is, as you suggest, to force biologists and astronomers (nevermind geologists, chemists, physicists, neuroscientist, etc to all use the same tools and strategic approaches). Like science, the tactics and strategies vary whether one is fighting a conventional war, insurgency, or Cold War.

Or perhaps it is not as useful as I hoped, if it takes this much space to describe. What the “war is war” contingent ultimately possesses is concision, and that is useful for early 21st politics and sound-bite driven media.

Marg, I actually think on some level you are right. Science is science, if science means discovering the truth, via the scientific method and testable hypotheses. But like you said, the experiments, method and tools are completely different.

On that level, war is war if war is about winning. The “war is war” crowd have defined war too narrowly, as about violence and killing. There is no room for politics or convincing, I think.