A war is a war is a war

February 14, 1991

I think people are jumping the gun when referring to our current little scuffle out east as the Persian Gulf War. It's not that I'm against calling it a war -- I think it's perfectly acceptable for CNN to declare a war when Congress is slow in its duties -- I just think the name's a little uninspiring, that's all.

I think it's unfair to limit the scope of a war too early by giving it too narrow a geographic region. World War II might've never gotten off the ground if the papers kept calling it the Polish Corridor War. People would've thought it was a free-for-all in the Danzig Hilton and stayed home. If this war is ever to expand into a worldwide conflagration requiring the attention of our allies and the American TV audience, we're going to need a sexier name, like the War of the Rich and Famous, or, better yet, World War III. No one can resist the draw of a sequel.

A bad name can ruin a perfectly good war. No one remembers the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). It's boring, it's awkward, and no one cares anymore whether Spain succeeded. These days, people barely consider it a part of Europe. The Punic Wars (264-241 B.C., 218-201 B.C. and 149-146 B.C.) and the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) have a classical appeal, but no one remembers the Spanish Succession.

Sometimes it's a mistake to name a war too early. Imagine the Pentagon's embarrassment if it had gone ahead and called this clash of arms the Two Weeks' War. Israel fought the Six-Day War (1967); Prussia fought the Seven Weeks' War (1866); but this mess will not go down in history as the Couple of Months Maybe More War. It may be remembered -- perhaps forgotten -- as the Well Beyond the American Attention Span War. Or the I'll Wait for the Movie to Come Out War.

Not all wars finish on schedule. The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) lasted 116 years, but after being at war for a century, both sides tended to lose track. At the onset, no one expected the war to last a century, of course. That would've been a hard one to sell to the lords and vassals. The noblemen and their spokesnoblemen probably told the peasants the war would last a few weeks at most, and the war wasn't really about English possessions in France or the claims of Edward III of England to the French throne -- it was about making the world safe for monarchy.

The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) finished right on the mark, proving that Catholics and Protestants could conduct a bloodbath with civility and promptitude. They didn't agree on much, but they both knew that a Nineteen Years' War or a Twenty-Two Years' War just didn't have the same ring.

The Seven Years' War (1756-63), known locally as the French and Indian War (1754-63), is a subject of confusion for American schoolchildren, since the French and many of the Indians were on the same side. For the sake of American historical literacy, we could call it the French and Many of the Indians Against the British, the Colonists and Some of the Indians War. Or, since the French lost, we could call it the British, the Colonists and Some of the Indians Against the French and Many of the Indians War. Or, simply, the Nine Years' War.

You'd think that the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) was a victory for Russia, but it wasn't. Russia lost. The winner doesn't always get top billing. I think some neutral country just picks whichever name sounds better. The name was no doubt inspired by the intermittent Russo-Turkish Wars of 1696, 1768-74, 1787-91, 1806-12, 1828-29, 1853-56 (which had the snappier title of the Crimean War) and 1877-78.

It set a bad precedent. Russia also lost the Russo-Polish War (1919-1920). Actually, the Polo-Russian War wouldn't have been too bad a name, though schoolchildren might grow up thinking the war was fought with ponies and mallets. It wasn't. It was fought with horses and sabers. Not as sporting, but more effective.

A lot of wars got mixed billings. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), which France lost, gets confused with the Franco-American War (1891-92), fought over the Spaghetti-O trade. France lost that one, too. France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to the Paris Commune, which was an insurrection against the pro-royalist National Assembly but sounds more like a bohemian hangout. In a way, perhaps, it was.

Austria lost the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and so prefers to think of it as the Seven Weeks' War. At least it got over fast.

The War of 1812 (1812-1815) has a simple, straightforward name that doesn't mess with details like how long did it last and who was at war with whom, which would otherwise be a source of embarrassment since the best-known battle of the war was the Battle of New Orleans (1814), fought after peace had been declared.

The Civil War (1861-1865), easily confused with the English Civil War (1642-51) and the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), was originally called the War of Rebellion in the North and the War between the States in the South. Since peace could never be declared as long as both sides were bickering over what name to put on the treaty, they agreed to call it the Civil War. The name had the added bonus of cheesing off England and later frustrating Spain.

Spain got to have top billing in the Spanish-American War (1898) but that was little consolation, since the United States won the war and preferred second billing because the American-Spanish War sounded rather clunky and the name Spanish-American War sort of made it sound like the U.S. hadn't started the whole thing, an idea Americans are more comfortable with. The War to Set Cuba Free had a nice ring to it, but since we didn't set Cuba free, the name could've proved embarrassing.

In more cautious times, the U.S. was sometimes reluctant to enter poorly named wars. The U.S. waited and waited before jumping into World War I (1914-1918) originally known by the bland title of the Great War, then the extremely optimistic War to End All Wars. Americans might've been more eager to fight the Great Granddaddy of All Wars, but definitely not the War to Make the World Safe for Britain and France.

When World War II (1939-1941) broke out, there was no messing around with names. Nations knew the power of a sequel.

The U.S. government failed to learn that lesson. It insisted on calling its wars conflicts. A conflict is when you're scheduled for brunch at the same time your supposed to be at the dentist's. A war is when you end up shooting your brunch partner and getting your teeth cleaned with a bayonet.

We had the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), which sounds like a dinner toss-up between kimchee and rice. Then we had the Vietnam Conflict (1941-1975), later renamed the Vietnam Experience (1967-1969). Had George Bush been more prudent, he would have called the current war the Persian Gulf Sensation. A kinder, gentler war.

© 1991 Randel Shard. First published in The Minnesota Daily on February 14, 1991