Opinion

Obama, Rumsfeld, and the language of war

Words matter. A lot.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a recent appearance on Greta, became the latest conservative to bash President Obama's claim that the attack on a kosher grocery store in Paris earlier this year was "random." Rumsfeld averred: "When you systematically kill Jews and kill Christians — and say that's what you're doing — it's not random, it's purposeful."

"The only way you can deal with something like that is call it what it is, deal with it," Rumsfeld said. "If you deny what the problem is, you can't even get started."

Rumsfeld is right. Words matter. But it's also ironic coming from him, because sometime around Thanksgiving in 2005, Rumsfeld had his own "epiphany" about words we shouldn't be using. He believed we shouldn't use the term "insurgents" to describe the Sunni, Shia, and al Qaeda in Iraqi insurgencies that were wreaking havoc in Iraq. So he stopped using the word.

This was awkward. During a press conference, some reporters asked about it. "Over the weekend, I thought to myself, 'You know, that gives them a greater legitimacy than they seem to merit,'" Rumsfeld declared. "These people aren't trying to promote something other than disorder, and to take over that country and turn it into a caliphate and then spread it around the world. This is a group of people who don't merit the word 'insurgency,' I think."

Rummy proposed an alternate, almost Orwellian term: "Enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government," which proved a hard euphemism for General Peter Pace to summon that same day."I have to use the word 'insurgent,' because I can't think of a better word right now," the general lamented during the presser with Rumsfeld.

Whichever side you're on — whether you're inclined to explain away Obama's comment as him misspeaking or being misinterpreted, or whether you back Rumsfeld's desire to avoid linguistically inflating the enemy — it's important to realize that this is not merely a debate over semantics. Words matter. A lot.

We think in words. Imprecise thinking leads to imprecise language. Imprecise language leads to faulty decisions and sloppy execution.

In the case of the Iraqi insurgency, the problem, in hindsight, is obvious: It's hard to implement an effective counterinsurgency campaign when you won't even use the word "insurgency."

Consider this from The New Yorker's George Packer:

The refusal of Washington's leaders to acknowledge the true character of the war in Iraq had serious consequences on the battlefield: In the first eighteen months, the United States government failed to organize a strategic response to the insurgency. Captain Jesse Sellars, a troop commander in the 3rd A.C.R., who fought in some of the most violent parts of western Iraq in 2003 and 2004, told me about a general who visited his unit and announced, "This is not an insurgency." Sellars recalled thinking, "Well, if you could tell us what it is, that'd be awesome." In the absence of guidance, the 3rd A.C.R. adopted a heavy-handed approach, conducting frequent raids that were often based on bad information. The regiment was constantly moved around, so that officers were never able to form relationships with local people or learn from mistakes. Eventually, the regiment became responsible for vast tracts of Anbar province, with hundreds of miles bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria; it had far too few men to secure any area. [The New Yorker']

We're seeing a repeat of Rummy's insurgency problem now — in President Obama's rather stubborn refusal to not call Islamic State extremists "Islamist." In a rather unnecessary bit of linguistic gymnastics, he prefers "violent extremism," instead.

President Obama is right in not wanting to over-generalize to the point that he casts the fight against ISIS as a battle against all Muslims. And, of course, it's not. That's why you call it "Islamist," not "Islamic." That's why you add the qualifier "extremism" or "terrorism." But to refuse to use words like "Islamism" is to deny a key part of what drives ISIS. It willfully misunderstands the enemy.

No reasonable person thinks we should conflate the war with Islamic terrorism with a war against Islam. But it's impossible to win a war that you haven't properly defined. And if we can't agree on what to even call the enemy, it's hard to imagine we can do the much more difficult work of defeating it.

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