Socialist Worker

When is a war not a war at all?

by Mike Rosen
Issue No. 1895

OF ALL the great phrases that our leaders have come up with over the years, surely the 'war on terror' has to be their finest. How to name wars is something that gives important work to politicians, historians and journalists.

Take the 'Wars of the Roses'. For most of my life I had assumed that some old feudal butchers who we lovingly refer to as earls and dukes had sanctified their bloodlust with the smell of flowers in the hope of perfuming out the stench of corpses. Not so. It turns out that the novelist Walter Scott called it that some 300 years after the event.

Then there's the mysterious case of the 'Great War', the carnage we now call the 'First World War'. In fact, there had been a Great War before, the one we tend to call the Napoleonic Wars. But even 'First' and 'Second' World Wars is odd, as there had been world wars before.

One look at the map of the 18th century sees Britain and France sending men off to kill each other all over the world as part of the noble effort of seizing bits of Canada, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Pacific off each other. That glorious effort is usually called something pleasantly neutral like the 'Seven Years War'. Since the 'Second World War', naming has become even murkier.

As Britain did the bloody backward shuffle out of the Empire, they produced some nice mealy-mouthed terminology. Preventing the Malayans from having an election and going to war on the guerrillas was called the 'Malayan emergency'. In Kenya, putting the Kikuyu into prison camps was us dealing with the 'Mau Mau insurrection'.

Much more recently, you'll remember that sending troops to the Malvinas was called the 'Falklands conflict'. Ireland gave them problems too. Mysteriously, when it comes to British troops being at war with British citizens in Northern Ireland, this has never been known as a 'civil war'. And perhaps the blood and corruption of that war gave birth to the present idiocies going on with the 'war on terror'.

There, we didn't have imprisonment. We had 'internment'. The Irish Republican Army (in its various shapes) was never, ever referred to as an army. Either it was the initials, IRA, or they were simply 'terrorists'. The British Army wasn't at war-it was, in the memorable words of General Ford following Bloody Sunday, just 'restoring order'.

Presumably he never fully comprehended the full irony of that phrase in the sense that he was doing precisely that-restoring the political order of British rule in Ireland. It's just that it was taking a war (unmentionable word) to do it. Bush and Blair's 'war on terror' is more of the same. In reality they're engaged in a very old war.

As Socialist Worker has shown, it goes back at least as far as Napoleon. Perhaps the latest phase of the West's attempt to dominate the Arab world should be dated from 1956.

As a consequence of a war that is mostly not called a war but simply dubbed 'Suez', or the 'Suez Crisis', the present balance of forces was set up. In short, the Middle East became a US fiefdom. The furious and deadly wars that have been waged throughout the Middle East since then have had the fingerprints of US bankers, diplomats, presidents and arms manufacturers all over them.

In which case, the 'war on terror' is nothing more nor less, surely, than part of the 'Fifty Years War'. Now why won't Bush and Blair call it that, I wonder?

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 3 Apr 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1895
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.