Best Defense

Lepore’s assertion on war

The names of war

A depiction of the Battle of Bloody Brook in King Philip's War. (Wikimedia Commons)
A depiction of the Battle of Bloody Brook in King Philip's War. (Wikimedia Commons)

I picked up Jill Lepore’s history of King Philip’s War because I’m fascinated by that conflict, partly because it took place in the towns of my early youth, but also because it wiped out about half the colonist towns existing in New England in 1675.

But to my surprise, she begins the book, titled The Name of War, with a meditation on war and language. “War is perhaps best understood as a violent contest for territory, resources, and political allegiances, and, no less fiercely, a contest for meaning.” That’s an interesting update on the old line about wars being provoked by “fear, honor and interest.” I am not sure it is right.

Less controversially, and probably quite accurate, is Lepore’s subsequent assertion that, “All wars have at least two names.” For example, she notes that the conflict that Americans call “the Vietnam War” is in that country called “the American war.” And there are of course different names for our Civil War. (How about “the War of White Supremacy”?)

Thinking it over, I couldn’t come up with an exception. For example, a quick search showed me that in South Africa, the first Boer War is called “the First Freedom War.” The second, better-known one, is called, among other things, “the South African war.”

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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