Thursday, November 01, 2007

When is a War Not a War?

I sometimes listen to talk radio when driving. Today I heard part of an interview with a military lawyer who had been involved in litigation over Guantanamo and was discussing what would happen when (and, presumably, if) it was shut down.

In his view, some of the prisoners would be charged with crimes and tried, some would be returned to the governments whose citizens they were.

And some would be held until the war was over.

Which raises an obvious question: What does it mean for the War on Terror to be over? There is no enemy government to surrender. There is not even an enemy organization to surrender. While Al Quaeda has played a central role, we would not consider the war to be over if it shut down and was replaced by other terrorist organizations.

The problem is that the "War on Terror" is at least in part a metaphor. It is in some ways more like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, a project given emotional force by analogizing it to a military conflict, than it is like WW II or the Korean War.

Suppose the President declared a War on Crime--as, for all I know, some President at some point has. Is he then entitled to arrest people he claims are criminals and hold them without trial for an indefinite period of time--as prisoners of war?

The analogy is not perfect. The attack on the World Trade Center was more like an act of war than it was like a bank robbery. But it was less like an act of war than the Pearl Harbor attack was, not only because the targets were not primarily military but because the attackers were not agents of a hostile state. The War on Terror is not as metaphorical as the War on Drugs. But it fits the pattern of war as usually and literally understood poorly enough to make a policy of taking people prisoners and holding them without trial until the war is over at best problematical.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about the assumption that only states can make wars.

Civil Wars technically have only one state participant (excluding foreign state interference).

Warlords are not always associated with states yet they often make war.

The underlying question is still interesting though. How do you defeat an enemy that has no leader to surrender?

The answer. With great difficulty.

- Sean

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I thought "detainees" was one of the more laughable euphemisms I've heard from government men in quite some time.

Anonymous said...

The Drug War is a nice parallel. You cannot treat it like the kind of war pictured by the constitutions framers, where there is a single enemy and an immediate emergency. A decades-long war, where life for most people is just like the not-war state, is different. It would not make sense to detain someone until the end of it.

These are difficult questions, and they remain once everyone finishes taking potshots at the president and at congress.


Anonymous said...

"War on Terror" may be a metaphor, but the wars fought under that heading are perfectly real. The lack of a clear end is a reflection of the lack of justification for the war. A proper rationale for when to end the war would tell you that you shouldn't have started it to begin with. What you call it is secondary.

Whether the 9/11 attacks were an act of war is beside the point, because even if they were, they don't justify our attacks on Afghanistan or Iraq. We made no serious attempt to demonstrate that Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11 before attacking Afghanistan - not even an indictment. And Iraq had nothing to do with it.

- Russ

jimbino said...

"...what would happen when (and, presumably, if) it was shut down"

is properly written

"...what would happen when (and, presumably, if) it were shut down."

Anonymous said...

jimbino: What's the point of using the subjunctive mood? Could we get along without it and use "was" instead of "were"?

jimbino said...


The point is that "people judge you by the words you use." As a fellow grad student of David in physics, I know he is no idiot.

But nobody who proposes to teach econ, law or physics, or to run a blog, or to foist books on the public, should get away with sounding like an English major!

Of course I understand (mostly) what he means to say, but for Darwin's sake, I wish he wouldn't come across like the idiot Bush.

Anonymous said...

I started commenting here about the no-man's-land between war and crime, but decided it was getting long and involved so I put it in my own blog instead.

Steve B.

Anonymous said...

Not only is the War on Terror not a war, it isn't even "on terror" (or "on terrorism"). Fighting Al-Qaida makes sense, and we're doing that. But it seems that George Bush believes that the WoT also includes Hezbollah, which confines its attacks to the Israeli army, and Iraq, which had only tangential connections to terrorism before we invaded.

As far as I know, the U.S. has never made any effort to attack the Tamil Tigers, the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda or Spain's ETA. It seems that the only common denominator distinguishing the terrorists we don't care about from the terrorists we are fighting is their religion.

David Friedman said...

Mark writes:

"It seems that the only common denominator distinguishing the terrorists we don't care about from the terrorists we are fighting is their religion."

I think it's rather that they are attacking us and/or our allies. Back when there was still a USSR, we had no objection to Muslim terrorists attacking it.

Denis Goddard said...

Of course there's the whole issue of whether an armed conflict without a formal declaration from Congress is properly called a "War".

Actually, I'm glad that nit wasn't picked here, because to frank I find that discussion rather boring.

At any rate, if you like listening to talk radio while driving, and you'd like something from the perspective of a free-market advocate, I would suggest Free Talk Live>, a show to which I am wonderfully, horribly addicted.

Mark said...

David writes:

"I think it's rather that they are attacking us and/or our allies."

We certainly don't like groups that attack us, but I've never seen ETA, the Real IRA or the PKK included in the WoT, even though they attack three of our NATO allies. The U.S. certainly condemns these groups, and might do things like freeze their bank accounts, but it would be a stretch to say that they're on the other side of the War on Terror.

The Sanity Inspector said...

If we have to have an analog, I'd suggest the Anarchists of the 1920s. Up until the Oklahoma City bombing, the bloodiest terrorist attack inside America since the Civil War was the Anarchist bombing of Wall Street. It's scarcely taught in schools, other than to hymn the Left's hero-martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti. So I don't know how we finally managed to overcome those terrorists. Maybe a lesson lie therein.