They say that generals are always preparing to fight the last war. It's probably also true that every time a people get involved in a war, they talk about it with words left over from the last war - and the war before that, and the war before that.
One leftover from a previous conflict that Donald Rumsfeld made pretty clear early on that he did not want to hear in connection with the war in Iraq was "guerrilla." On June 30, 2003, after the word "quagmire" (see: Vietnam) was spoken aloud by a reporter at a Pentagon press conference, the Defense secretary denied that whatever was developing on the ground in Iraq was "a guerrilla war." Said he, "I guess the reason I don't use the phrase 'guerrilla war' is because there isn't one, and it would be a misunderstanding and a miscommunication to you and to the people of the country and the world."
Not everyone was convinced, however. And nearly a year and a half and more than a thousand American military fatalities later, there's still something out there. The military and the media have settled on "insurgency" as the term to describe it.
A quick Google News search of the keywords "Iraq insurgents" brought up 27,900 hits. But the word "guerrillas" is proving as persistent in the language as actual guerrillas tend to be in real life. A Google News search for "Iraq guerrillas" brought up 5,590 hits.
"Guerrilla" is a relatively neutral term, despite all those posters of a soulful-looking Che Guevara adorning dorm rooms everywhere. "Guerrilla" means "little war" in Spanish, and seems to have first slipped into English to describe the resistance of the Spanish (how apt) against the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Guerrilla tactics, of course, go back to ancient Rome and Alexander the Great. More recently, "guerrilla" has come to refer to the warrior and not the war.
"Rebels" is another relatively neutral term that's been getting a workout lately. My Google News search on "Iraq rebels" yielded 9,760 hits. But it's worth noting that "rebel" has a peculiar usage history in the United States. The men we now call our "Founding Fathers" were, when they were doing much of the "founding," known as "rebels." Later on the "rebels" were those who sided with the seceding Southern states during the Civil War. The Confederacy lost, but there remains in the American political character an antigovernment, antistate streak of rugged individualism for which the term "rebel" is very apt.
Some terms seem to gain or lose in emotional punch over time. "Militant," for instance, is a multipurpose term being called on to do more heavy lifting nowadays. It used to describe young black men with Afro haircuts and feminists who wanted to be called "chairperson" when they were put in charge of a committee. Nowadays the US military often describes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted man in Iraq, simply as a "Jordanian militant."
"Resistance" is a term that popped up briefly in our newsroom a few months ago for consideration as a possible designation for the insurgents in Iraq. "Resistance," as the dictionary puts it, is "the organized underground movement in a country fighting against a foreign occupying power, a dictatorship, etc."
We decided it wasn't the right word - associations with the French Resistance during World War II make it too positive a term, we concluded. After all, the Resistance isn't just military history; it's also Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid in "Casablanca."