Defining the War on Terror There is considerable disagreement over whether the United States is currently engaged in a war. The phrase 'war on terror' is used almost daily, but the definition of what a war is has changed from previous conflicts.

Defining the War on Terror

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Unidentified Man #1: That we uphold imperialism.

Unidentified Man #2: Let's not call it democracy.

Unidentified Man #3: Let's say we fight jihadists.

Unidentified Man #4: Islamic fascism.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're caught in a war on terror.

SIEGEL: This week, we're looking at some of the language that has become commonplace in our vocabulary after September 11, terms like jihadists and Islamic fascism, and even more familiar terms like the word democracy.

Today, NPR's Guy Raz continues our series with a look on war on terror, both how the term is used and how it's understood.

GUY RAZ: Go to the Web site, find the search box and type in war on terror. You get 22,000 hits.

President BUSH: This victory in the war on terror -

In the war on terror -

Winning the war on terror -

Success in the war on terror -

The war on terror -

It's not the global war on terror, it's a theater in the global war on terror.

RAZ: So you've heard the term, but what do you think of when you hear it?

Mr. WADE BENTLEY: Disorganized.

Mr. KENNETH LINKA(ph): Worldwide, scattered confrontation.

Mr. RICHARD GABLE: Oh, destruction and bad people on 9/11

RAZ: That was Wade Bentley, Kenneth Linka and Richard Gable, all recent visitors to Washington. Now for most of the last 2,000 years, war has basically meant -

Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): - something very conventional and very traditional. And this is a completely unconventional, non-traditional type of conflict.

RAZ: It's a conflict, says Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman, that turned the idea of war upside down because war is supposed to have a beginning, it has a middle, and -

Professor HOFFMAN: It ends with the vanquishing of an opponent, with some form or armistice or truce, with some kind of surrender instrument or document.

RAZ: And then it's over. But in the war on terror, there's no specific battlefield and the enemy, terror, isn't an army. Here's Bruce Hoffman again.

Professor HOFFMAN: It's a war really without boundaries. It's a war that's directed against multiple enemies, not just one adversary.

RAZ: Which actually makes it hard to define. But then, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says, war can have -

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Congressman): - multiple meanings that are non-violent, because they become a political term meaning mass mobilization.

RAZ: Sort of like Lyndon Johnson's unconditional -

President LYNDON JOHNSON: - war on poverty in America -

RAZ: - or Ronald Reagan's promise to -

President RONALD REAGAN: - win the war on drugs.

RAZ: Except that unlike those wars, the war on terror isn't just a symbolic call to arms. It's had real world implications, and from the president's perspective -

President BUSH: - the war's not over, and it will not be over until either we or the extremists emerge victorious.

RAZ: - which means that -

Professor KHALED ABU EL-FADL (UCLA): The executive branch could consider itself in a state of war for decades and decades to come.

RAZ: That's UCLA law professor Khaled Abu el-Fadl. He says the language of war -

Professor ABU EL-FADL: - hides many obscurities and ambiguities that lend themselves very easily to exploitation.

RAZ: Abu el-Fadl is talking about the expansion of presidential powers, things like detention without charges and coercive interrogations, all things that happen during wartime. But as we've heard, even from the president, the war on terror is a new kind of war with very distinct messages.

Unidentified Woman: We ask you to report suspicious behavior or unattended items -

RAZ: Like this one, which basically means be vigilant, or this one.

Unidentified Man #5: Terrorists want to kill us. They've attacked over and over again.

RAZ: Which means watch out. But then this one, as well.

President BUSH: People are going about their daily lives - working and shopping and playing.

RAZ: Which means don't really worry about it, and that's a very different message from President Roosevelt's in 1943.

President FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: Are you growing all the food you can? Are you buying your limit of war bonds? Are you loyally and cheerfully cooperating with your government?

RAZ: 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 the Vietnam War, if you were a male between 18 and 26, your chances of being drafted were one in three males. But in the war on terror, sacrifice is voluntary.

Father RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS: We're not selling liberty bonds and growing victory gardens.

RAZ: This is philosopher Father Richard John Neuhaus.

Father NEUHAUS: But does this have a bearing on whether or not it's war? I'm not sure; I don't think so. I think it says it's a very strange kind of war.

RAZ: Strange because with the exception of volunteer soldiers and their families, the war is very distant for most Americans, and that's part of the message.

President BUSH: We will stay on the offense against the terrorists, fighting them abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RICHARD PERLE (Former Pentagon Advisor): It's certainly true the president has not succeeded in inspiring the belief that we face an existential threat.

RAZ: This is former Pentagon advisor Richard Perle.

Mr. PERLE: The problem with the term war on terrorism is it leaves the enemy ill defined.

RAZ: A few weeks ago, an advisor to President Bush told me that the president 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. I asked Newt Gingrich about this.

Mr. GINGRICH: I think the president is torn between reassuring us that he's managing the war and warning us that it's a real war.

RAZ: How do we really know we're at war?

Mr. GINGRICH: I think by any meaning I'm aware of, this is certainly a war. 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.

RAZ: But what started as a war without an address has become something that more closely resembles traditional war. Here's Johns Hopkins Professor Francis Fukuyama.

Professor FRANCIS FUKUYAMA (Johns Hopkins University): I feel a great sense of irony because it does seem to me that we are certainly at war in Iraq, and we have certainly stirred up a hornet's nest. I think the problem is that it has largely been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

RAZ: Part of what is described as the war on terror now has a location, with soldiers and semi-permanent bases in Afghanistan and Iraq and with stated objectives like creating stability. But the other part of the war on terror remains invisible, a war on the possibility of something happening. And it's that possibility, says historian Michael Burleigh, that makes war on terror a problematic term.

Mr. MICHAEL BURLEIGH (Historian): Terrorism is a tactic, so it's a bit like saying the Second World War was a war against Blitzkrieg, if you see what I mean.

RAZ: And terrorism, he says, like murder or robbery or suicide, can't be conclusively defeated. It can only be managed, which means the war on terror is in theory an endless war, a war that approaches something closer to a way of life.

Guy Raz, NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.