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We Are NOT at War

There is no name for the current situation we are in

Contrary to what you hear on the news, we are currently not at war. But then again, there is no other way to describe the current situation of conflict. There are no names that we can use for it, because the situation had never existed in the history of human civilization.

Since the dawn of civilization, which roughly coincides with the emergence of the first states (known as the pristine states) in Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, Egypt and China roughly 5,000 years ago, war has always meant interstate war – military conflict between geographically defined sovereign states with organized armies. The word war does not require a qualifying adjective (such as “interstate”) because there has always been only one kind of war, fought between nation states. When at least one of the parties to the war is not a sovereign state, we qualify it by calling it civil war. The American Civil War (1861-1865) was either an (interstate) war (if you recognize the sovereignty of the Confederacy) or a civil war (if you don’t). The unqualified word war has always meant interstate war in the history of human civilization.

But that is not the situation we are in right now. We are not fighting an organized army of soldiers under the command of the government of a sovereign nation. Instead, we are fighting what Thomas L. Friedman – the only person that I know of who actually predicted 9/11 two years before it happened, in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree – calls “super-empowered angry men.” We – the soldiers of the organized armies of the sovereign states of the Untied States and its allies – are fighting unorganized individuals who are not under the command of the government of any nation state. This situation – the very situation we are currently in – has never existed in human history.

The best way to describe it would be global civil war, because our enemies are not fighting the United States per se or the United Kingdom per se or any other single nation per se but instead the Western civilization en masse and everything it collectively stands for. But few would use such a clumsy phrase to describe our current situation.

When we call our current situation war, we confuse it with genuine interstate wars of the past, such as World War II and the Spanish-American War. Such confusion has unfortunate consequences.

For example, many in the past, especially during the Bush Administration, complained that we were violating the Geneva Convention in the current situation of armed conflict. The complaint is groundless, because the Geneva Convention or any other rule or law that was written before September 2001 is not applicable to our current situation. When the Geneva Convention stipulates war, it unambiguously means interstate war. The drafters of the Geneva Convention could not have meant it to apply to situations that had never existed in human history before and that no one (with the sole exception of Thomas L. Friedman) could have imagined before September 2001. If we were suddenly attacked by space aliens from Alpha Centauri and got involved in interstellar war, the Geneva Convention would not be applicable then either, because its drafters did not imagine situations of interstellar war. The Geneva Convention is no more applicable to our current situation of global civil war than to interstellar war against Alpha Centaurians.

Another confusion occurs when others complain about “civilian casualties” in Iraq or Afghanistan. Contrary to popular belief, there has not been a single civilian casualty in Iraq or Afghanistan. The word civilians means individuals who are not officially designated as combatants, members of an organized army under the direction of the leadership of sovereign states. There are no combatants on our enemy’s side in our current situation, and without combatants there are no civilians. No civilians, no civilian casualties. By the same token, no civilians were killed by the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We desperately need a new noun to describe the current situation of armed conflict, so that we may avoid these and other confusions.