Engaged in a Great Verbal War

The PBS NewsHour this evening featured another round of “Iraq: Is It a Civil War or Not? And If It Is, What Difference Does It Make?” (The game will never take off with a title like that.)

On hand was Donald Kagan, a history professor from Yale. He started out by saying that he felt the discussion–is it or isn’t it?–is “frivolous.” Check.

Then he went on to say he feels the debate over what to call the conflict is “a calculated effort on the part of those people who would like to see the United States flee from its responsibilities in Iraq to use a term that is more frightening, more dangerous-sounding than simply the kind of uprising that they’ve been dealing with and decide that it’s a civil war in order to make it a more frightening prospect to try to win this thing and persuade Americans that it’s hopeless and they should go away.”

A “civil war” is more frightening than what we’ve been dealing with? The discussion has been ginned up by people who want the United States to flee its responsibilities? Here’s an alternative theory, respectfully submitted to Dr. Kagan: Maybe people are just trying to understand what the heck it is we are involved in. The people who were putatively responsible for knowing what they were getting us all into have demonstrated they had less than no idea what to expect in Iraq and have been incapable of telling the truth about it for going on four years now. Maybe once we have some understanding of the situation–if it’s not too late for that–maybe we can decide whether the instinct to pack up and leave is sound or not.

Eventually, the “NewsHour” interviewer got around to lobbing Kagan a real softball. Something along the lines of, “Professor, does this kind of semantic argument happen in every war?” Kagan’s answer:

“The best historical example that jumps into my mind is the American Civil War, which I don’t remember anyone calling it that during the time. The South referred to it as the War Between the States to suggest they were within their rights in breaking away from the other states, and up here in Connecticut we referred to it as the rebellion of 1861. And it’s that sort of thing that’s characterized this kind of issue throughout history.”

What jumped into my mind when I heard Kagan say that was the phrase, “We are now engaged in a great civil war.” He’s right that “anyone” did not say that. Lincoln did, in the Gettysburg Address, which he sure enough made “during the time.” Somewhere or other, someone can tell us the very first time the term civil war was used to describe that conflict; it’s doubtful Lincoln was the first.

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2 Replies to “Engaged in a Great Verbal War”

  1. Hey Dan…interesting post, especially the part about Lincoln. I am sure that Professor Kagan is a brillaint guy but, for brevity, he has nothing on Donald Rumsfeld who might have made the same point as Kagan by saying something along the lines of “stuff happens.”
    The problem remains the same. The American people are bored with the whole Iraq thing and wish it would just go away.
    The government isn’t going to draft anyone. The President is not going to go on TV to appeal to us to sign up in large numbers to close the Iraqi breach. Certainly a good barometer of this is the President’s own (draft age) children–who are currently taking in the sights of Patagonia–can’t be bothered to do so much as volunteer to roll bandages at a VA hospital. In the meantime, I just read an article about the 3rd Infantry Division being deployed for the third time since the “war” began. So to go back to the beginning of the post, who’s job is it to fulfill the national responsibilities the professor is talking about? Certainly somebody is taking up the task, but at what point do people say…enough already.
    As for the “civil war” label, there is a lot of sectarian head drilling and chopping going on over there. And plenty of ethnic cleasning too. Call it what you will, it is a mess and a lot of our citizens are stuck in the middle.

  2. I agree with you on the war stuff, which, as Rumsfeld said, happens. I love the fact al-Maliki stood Bush up Wednesday. Democracy and nation-building in action.
    About Kagan: It was a little disingenous for PBS to put him on “The NewsHour” as a Yale history and classics scholar without giving a hint of his political background. I just saw a reference to someone named Frederick Kagan, who is a hawk on the war. Donald Kagan is Frederick’s dad, and he and his boys (Frederick and Robert) are neck deep in the “New American Century Project” which provided some of the intellectual brilliance that put the war on the Bush administration agenda. So Donald Kagan’s interest in the debate over the use of civil war is much more than scholarly; it also makes me wonder whether his misstatement of fact regarding the U.S. Civil War was really a slip or just debater’s tactics, assuming the audience was too stupid to know the difference.

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