Long War

President Bush slipped a curious expression into the 2006 State of the Union address that received little public notice. "Our own generation is in a long war against a determined enemy," he told the nation.

The reference to a "long war" was a subtle way to introduce the public to the idea of an open-ended conflict against a vague but omnipresent threat to security. This is the American way of life from now on, folks. Get used to it.

The expression is also found in the recently released 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, which begins with a frank statement: "The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war."

Long war has particular historical significance. Originally the Long War referred to the conflict between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire between 1593 and 1606. In his well-regarded 2002 book, The Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbitt used the Long War to designate the series of conflicts between world superpowers stretching from 1914 to 1990, including both World Wars, the Bolshevik revolution, Spanish Civil War, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and the Cold War. Bobbitt's Long War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany.

This war, the global war on terror, is different. We're told this again and again. Previous wars were against nations and identifiable armies. This isn't a war against Islamic fundamentalism, it's a war against violent extremism. A war against a concept -- like the war on drugs, the war on cancer, and the war on poverty.

How do we know when it's over? When there is no more violence? When there is no extremism? There can never be an armistice, truce or peace pact. War without end. Long indeed.


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