There is an eerie Orwellian cost to the Obama administration’s refusal to use the term “War on Terror” to describe its … war on terror. In his briefing after the White House’s admission that two hostages — one American, one Italian — were killed in a U.S. “operation,” press secretary Josh Earnest struggled mightily to avoid the word “war” to describe exactly what the U.S.is up to. Finally he gave in and stated that under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, the nation is “at war” with al Qaeda.
Why do the words matter? Because the inevitability of civilian casualties, even in the most justified of wars, is accepted both in international law and in the ethics of war. Civilian casualties are never good. They are a tragedy, a terrible cost that must be avoided whenever possible. But in wars, they happen.
As the philosopher Michael Walzer has pointed out, in the fluidity of minute-to-minute wartime decisions, it’s not possible to act with the sort of precision that might be called for in the classroom. Targeting noncombatants is forbidden. Nevertheless, they always suffer horribly in war.
The problem the White House faces is its stubborn insistence that its non-war is being fought with precision. Earnest used that very word repeatedly. But it’s hard to take the claim seriously in light of calculations, like those published in the Guardian last November, that U.S. efforts to kill just 41 leaders of al-Qaeda and other groups caused some 1,147 civilian casualties. Even if we discount that number by half, the tradeoff involved is profoundly troubling.