What Makes a War?
In his writing on the Civil War and American slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates frequently refers to a “war” on the slaves and/or America’s black populace. (The violence done to slaves — or at least the threat of it — did to some degree extend to free blacks.) This is a notion that I’ve been less than comfortable with, without ever quite understanding why. Recently, TNC paused to define and criticize his own terminology:
The use of the word “war” carries with it a notion of intention, consciousness, something which I think is present at some moments (in antebellum America) and absent, or diffuse, in others (colonial America.)
More tangibly, can you have a war when the people with guns do not acknowledge it as such?
To call something a war — particularly something that is not clearly a war — presents the question, “What is a war?” The term may summon columns of tanks and infantrymen, but, he points out, that’s not all that it’s reserved for in contemporary usage:
But one notion which I bear little respect for, is the idea that the term “war” should be reserved for countries that can field mass quantities of armed men. I am reminded of the old quote that the difference between a dialect and a language is that the latter enjoys an army.
Moreover, surely if we can take Al Qaeda’s actions as a declaration of war, if we can declare war on “terror” on “drugs on “illiteracy,” if Gaddafi can be said to have “made war upon his people,” then I find little wrong with the claim that a country can declare war upon its own.
What we mean by war isn’t a concept limited to the objections that trouble him about his own terminology. And he has a point — if there’s no problem with declaring “War on Drugs” — and by this we do mean something at least semi-militarized — then it seems inconsistent to object to calling American slavery a kind of “War on Slaves.”
Nonetheless, resolving the question by asking, “What do we mean by ‘war’?” is not the same as resolving the question by asking, “What is war?” The fighting and violence of the military Civil War had more in common with the Thirty Years’ War or the Second World War than with the violence of slavery. I dare say it even had more in common with the Peloponnesian War and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than with slavery. Referring to the Holocaust and its prelude as “Hitler’s War on the Jews” is not uncommon, and not really objectionable. But it also isn’t necessarily accurate — if what “war” means is something closest to the military concept.
My point is not to fight over which is the best definition of “war,” but to point out that we call fights against poverty and drugs, or slavery and the Holocaust, “wars” not because they fit the original definition of the term, or because they are significantly alike in kind with military war, but because it is the best available word to describe violent, semi-organized, somewhat end-oriented group actions. There is nothing wrong with using the best available word. But something even the best available requires a kind of caveat lest we lose the distinctions between what we mean and the concept the word itself signals.
The violence of slavery was perpetual and, at least at times, totalizing; the violence of the Holocaust strove with deliberate organization toward the total. These violences are different than that which military war entails, and which the word “war” still carries with it. While it may, in circumstances, be the best available word, it risks obscuring these differences, in effect reducing and normalizing the extremes. This is something to be wary of while speaking — because it is precisely this extremity which Coates seeks to highlight by calling slavery a war.