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Defining the War on Terror

U.S. soldiers hunt for Taliban fighters in the mountainous border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unlike conventional wars, the "war on terror" lacks a specific battlefield, and it has led to U.S. military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Georgetown University historian Bruce Hoffman calls it "a war without boundaries."
/ Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
U.S. soldiers hunt for Taliban fighters in the mountainous border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unlike conventional wars, the "war on terror" lacks a specific battlefield, and it has led to U.S. military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Georgetown University historian Bruce Hoffman calls it "a war without boundaries."

The term "war on terror" is ubiquitous, but the meaning of the word "war" has evolved.

For most of the last 2,000 years, war has meant something very conventional and traditional. The current war on terror, however, is a completely unconventional, non-traditional type of conflict.

Georgetown University historian Bruce Hoffman says unlike traditional wars, the war on terror does not have a clear beginning and an end.

"[War] ends with the vanquishing of an opponent, with some form or armistice or truce -- some kind of surrender instrument or document," Hoffman says.

But in the war on terror, there's no specific battlefield and the enemy isn't an army.

"It's a war without boundaries," Hoffman says. "It's a war directed against multiple enemies, not just one adversary."

A Hard War to Define

The multiple adversaries make the war on terror hard to define, says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"[War can have] multiple meanings that are non-violent, because it becomes a political term meaning mass mobilization," he says.

In some respects, the war on terror is similar to Lyndon Johnson's unconditional war on poverty or Ronald Reagan's promise to win the war on drugs. All three wars are invisible and waged against the possibility of something happening. Unlike those wars, however, the war on terror isn't just a symbolic call to arms -- it has had real-world implications.

UCLA law professor professor Khaled Abu el-Fadl says the ambiguity can lead to misuse of presidential powers.

"The executive branch could consider itself in a state of war for decades and decades to come," he says. "[The language] hides many obscurities and ambiguities that lend themselves very easily to exploitation."

A Different Type of War

The war on terror has distinct messages. President Bush has instructed Americans to "go about their daily lives."

The message is different than the one from previous wars, when Americans were instructed to help with the war efforts. In World War II, 90 percent of the adult American population was either in the military or working in an industry on behalf of the war. During Vietnam, one in three males between the ages of 18 and 26 was drafted.

But in the war on terror, sacrifice is voluntary.

"We're not selling liberty bonds and growing victory gardens," says philosopher Father John Neuhaus. "But does this have a bearing on whether or not it's war? I'm not sure, [but] I don't think so. I think it says, 'it's a very strange kind of war.'"

With the exception of volunteer soldiers and their families, the war is very distant for most Americans –- and that's part of the message.

In a May 27, 2006 address at West Point Military Academy, President Bush reiterated a point he has made many times since Sept. 11, 2001: "We will stay on the offense against the terrorists, fighting them abroad so we do not have to face them here at home."

Former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle believes the message sends a mixed signal.

"It's certainly true the president has not succeeded in inspiring the belief that we face an existential threat," says Perle. "The problem with the term 'war on terrorism' is it leaves the enemy ill defined."

A few weeks ago, one of the president's advisors told NPR that Mr. Bush never wanted to burden the public with the war; that, in his mind, he was hired by the American people to do the job on their behalf.

Gingrich says the President is placed in an awkward position.

"I think the President is torn between reassuring us that he's managing the war and warning us that it's a real war," says Gingrich. "You have organized opponents who want to kill you -- they're gathering resources and coordinating to try to kill you -- and I think to try to describe it as anything but a war, is remarkably misleading."

The War with No End?

But there's another part of the war on terror that comes closer to the traditional meaning of war. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the war on terror closer to the traditional definitions of war.

"It does seem to me that we are certainly at war in Iraq and we have certainly stirred up a hornet's nest," says Fukuyama. "I think the problem is that it has largely been a self-fulfilling prophecy."

It's the possibility that terrorism cannot be conclusively defeated, says historian Michael Burleigh, that makes the phrase "war on terror" a problematic term.

"Terrorism is a tactic," he says, "so it's a bit like saying the Second World War was a war against Blitzkrieg."

The endless possibility means the war on terror is, in theory, an endless war –- a war that approaches something closer to a way of life.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Guy Raz
Guy Raz is the host, co-creator, and editorial director of three NPR programs, including two of its most popular ones: TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Both shows are heard by more than 14 million people each month around the world. He is also the creator and co-host of NPR's first-ever podcast for kids, Wow In The World.