Leaving aside the pedantic strategy of consulting a dictionary for a definition, here’s the question: Does what’s happening in Iraq actually qualify as a war in itself? I wonder.
Primarily, it’s because the span of fighting has been awfully short. From first strike to occupation of Baghdad, it’s been three weeks. The “hard” part of the war, which is to say taking operational control of the enemy’s stronghold, is done. Three weeks is sufficient time to get a lot done in a war — Nazi Germany blitzkrieged its way through much of Western Europe in a similar span of time — but it’s not very frequently the entire war itself. Operationally speaking, this is one of the shortest wars on record, shorter (in the sense of from first shot to last) than even the first Gulf War, itself a model of brevity. In one sense, I guess you could say this is simply another example of the production and manufacturing superiority of the US: No one makes a war faster than the Red White and Blue. Our assembly line for these things is frighteningly efficient.
Of course, no one ever said wars had to be long. Indeed, during the Cold War, the going line was that the entire of World War III would last just as long as it takes for an ICBM to arc over the pole. Granted. Even so, in a real-world sense, “war” isn’t just a condition of military activity but also a matter of national psychological adjustment, and a three-week war isn’t going to do that — It’s a shot of adrenaline jammed into the cerebral cortex of the national psyche, but adrenaline wears off. As some have noted, this is a war where the national willingness for material sacrifice to support the war was not only not implied but discouraged — no one is rationing, no one is buying war bonds, no one is told that when they ride alone they are riding with Saddam. The only things Americans have been asked to sacrifice recently have been their personal liberties (which, ironically, are things that worldwide are on a continual scarcity basis). I’d rather ration sugar, personally.
The more logical response here is that obviously what’s going on in Iraq is not a war, but merely a campaign in a war that begun on 9/11 — the famed neocon transformational war of the Middle East. And this makes sense. Three weeks is enough not time for a psychological transformation, but 19 months sure is, and anyone who doubts that the US is psychologically a different place than it was on September 10, 2001 is ignorant to an embarrassing degree. Saddam found this out on the tip of a JDAM, while France is likely to get a few additional economic and political lessons on this one as well before everything is sussed out.
(I don’t say this last one as a newly-transformed frog-hater; I like France and the French as much as I ever have (which is to say, I’m categorically indifferent). The French did what the French do, which is to pursue their own self-interest; what they failed to appreciate was that the United States and its citizens are now less inclined to be forgiving of self-interest when it conflicts with our self-interest, because the motivating factors of our self-interest — revenge and national security — are adjudged to be rather more consequential than France’s reasons — mulish, reflexive opposition to the US and incomprehensible Euro-centered diplomatic rigmarole.)
My major problem with Iraq being the second campaign in a wider, undeclared Middle East war is simply that: It’s an undeclared war, the contours, goals and designs of which are secretive and hidden, not from our putative enemies — believe me, Syria and Iran know they’re next — but from the us, the American people (and in a larger and to my mind far less critical sense — sorry guys — the rest of the Western world).
If Iraq is indeed just part of a larger war, it’s a larger war that the American public is being told doesn’t exist (just ask Ari Fleischer), which means that once again the Dubya administration is telling us that we don’t need to know the details. And either we don’t need to know the details because the Administration is doing its patronizing, paternalistic “trust us, we know what we’re doing” thing, which is insulting and scary (and of course, so often wrong), or we don’t need to know because they don’t really know what they’re doing and there’s no point burdening us with their lack of insight. This is also insulting and scary, but in entirely different ways, and given the constantly surprised, backtracking, “I meant to do that” nature of this Administration, is the one I’d personally suspect is in effect. Either way you slice it, it’s troubling that our government’s war intentions are probably more transparent to our eventual enemies than to its citizens.
On the other hand, maybe the Iraq thing simply is its own thing. In which case, we’re back to the original question: What is it? It’s too small for a war, too big for a battle, and too singular for a campaign. Is there a word for something inbetween all these things? Maybe now is a good time to consult the dictionary.