Defining militancy downward: GWOT's next?

Reports of the demise of the global war on terror (GWOT to those in the know, both hawks and doves) are greatly exaggerated.

So insists US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In an address in Texas last week, he denied that the Bush administration is backing away from GWOT in favor of "the global struggle against violent extremism" as the preferred term for well, you know, all this stuff that keeps happening.

The Dallas Morning News quoted him thus:

"Some ask, are we still engaged in a war on terror? Let there be no mistake about it. It's a war."

President Bush banged the same drum: "Make no mistake about it, we are at war."

Earlier, Rumsfeld had been a key figure in a New York Times story that asserted:

"The Bush administration is retooling its slogan for the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, pushing the idea that the long-term struggle is as much an ideological battle as a military mission, according to senior administration and military officials."

The Times reporters concluded that "global war on terror" was on its way out as the administration's "catchphrase of choice."

Is this a concession to defeat - or evidence of the administration tuning in to reality? Are they lowering the bar? Moving the goalposts? Are they - to play off Pat Moynihan's phrase about crime rates - defining militancy downward?

President Bush himself has wandered off-message on "terror" before. Almost a year ago, in an interview broadcast during the Republican National Convention, for heaven's sake, he called the GWOT "unwinnable."

The blogosphere wasted no time in asserting that this latest shift in terminology represented, at the very least, a quest for a more upbeat acronym. "GSAVE" surely looks better. "Gee, save us, too." On the other hand, "GWOT" all but invites the teasing query, "GWOT's next?" And the answer it seems to invite is, alas, "Jihad."

But as words rather than initials, "global war on terror," a steady drumbeat of three trochaic feet (DA-da, DA-da, DA-da) beats "global struggle against violent extremism" all get-out.

"Global struggle against violent extremism" does not fall trippingly off the tongue.

"Struggle," to be fair, does not deserve the charge of euphemism. If "struggle" were a garment, it would be made of sturdy stuff, with reinforced seams and leather patches and worn spots, and probably a tang of sweat.

Struggle shares with "strive" and "strenuous" and several other words an energetic burst of initial consonants. Struggle has the blunt short "u," a hard "g," and the "le" particle that often signifies repeated action over time. (Compare "crack" and "crackle.") Struggle is an honorable word that sounds like what it means.

Wars are often described one way as they occur and another way in the history books. World War I was originally known as the Great War, although, as Richard Armour quipped in "It All Started With Europa," if they had started numbering earlier, it might have been something like World War CCCLXXXVII.

It's tempting to play the Retreat From GWOT for laughs, but I can't help remembering an exchange between President Kennedy and Gen. Curtis LeMay during the Cuban missile crisis, as the United States and the Soviet Union came as close as they ever came to nuclear war. The general said, "You're in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President." The president shot back, "You're in there with me."

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