Tug-of-war, Cold War, war on terror, World War II, “Make love, not war,” WarGames, War on Poverty, prisoner of war, War of the Worlds, Iraq War, war on drugs, antiwar, “All’s fair in love and war”—these are just a few of the myriad ways that the word “war” is used every day in the English language. It is difficult today to turn on a television, check a news feed, or go to a movie theater anywhere in the United States without encountering a verbal or a visual reference to war. Whether through reports of wars around the globe; declarations of “war on” a variety of social issues, from AIDS to poverty to drugs to crime; or descriptions of sporting events (“throwing a bomb,” “blitzing,” “sudden death”)—references to war permeate US culture. Even when the term “war” itself is not used, its resonant vocabularies are ubiquitous, often creating oppositional structures that disable nuanced and critical thinking about complex issues. Whether in sports, politics, corporate takeovers, relationships, or television ratings, the language of war permeates US culture: battle, conflict, combat, hostility, collateral damage, attack, surgical strike, victory, soldier, enemy, and so on. One of the clearest indications of the pervasiveness of this vocabulary is its commonplace acceptance in everyday usage, with few people even recognizing their references to war in using such terms. The semantic origins of the word—the Indo-European root wers, meaning “to confuse or mix up”—may say more about contemporary usages than anything else.
Dictionary definitions of “war” highlight two primary meanings: a state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict among nations, states, or parties, and a condition of active antagonism or contention. Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, scholarship on war in US culture focused primarily on the first of these meanings and was largely located in the fields of history and political science. Such analyses were varied, ranging from examinations of military operations to debates about geopolitics to biographies of key figures to readings of the poetry, art, and rhetoric that depicted warfare (Lakoff 1991). Because of the central role war played in the founding and early history of the United States, it was difficult to discuss what it meant to be “American” without in some way referencing the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or the wars of US expansion into the West. Other wars were casually forgotten: the US-Mexico War and the lengthy guerrilla war in the Philippines. World War II established the United States as a dominant military and economic force while also serving as an iconographic image of a “good war,” one that affirmed the moral foundations of US warfare (Slotkin 1992). With the advent of the Vietnam War and the accompanying antiwar activism on college campuses, analyses of warfare became more widely infused with the social dimensions that characterized the antiwar movement and were brought to the foreground by feminist and civil rights critiques. Scholars began to look more carefully at issues facing women and men of color in war and military service (Enloe 1989; Westheider 1997)
The second half of the twentieth century also saw the increasing use of “war” to refer to more than just direct military encounters, thus shifting the emphasis from the first definition of “war” (conflicts among nations) to the second (conditions of antagonism). Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served in World War II as general of the US Army, in his last speech to the nation before stepping down as president, acknowledged that the post–World War II military environment would be different from any in the past because of the emergence of a permanent, economically profitable armaments industry, or “military-industrial complex,” capable of exerting undue influence over government policy: “Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society” (1961). This shift to a permanently militarized economic infrastructure coincided with the coining of another new usage, the “Cold War,” to refer to the ongoing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that justified a state of generalized warfare (the term was first used by George Orwell in his 1945 essay “You and the Atom Bomb”). While the “Cold War” referred largely to nonmilitary encounters between these two “superpower” nations, it was also characterized by proxy wars around what came to be called the “third world,” in which often devastating battles were fought. From the official US point of view, the Korean and Vietnam Wars were among the most significant of these proxy wars, but citizens of Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Afghanistan, among many others, would surely have different perspectives.
At the same time, the War on Poverty solidified the use of the popular terminology of war to refer to an entirely nonmilitary government action. President Lyndon Johnson surprised the nation in his 1964 State of the Union address by declaring, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America” (1965, 114). While historians still debate the effectiveness and the legacy of Johnson’s commitment to eradicate poverty, there is little question about the impact of his use of the terminology of warfare to refer to a domestic, nonmilitary problem. The metaphor had nineteenth-century precedents, such as the “railroad wars” between corporations run by Daniel Drew and Cornelius Vanderbilt in the 1860s and the “war on tuberculosis” beginning in the same period (Nunberg 2004). But Johnson’s deployment of the term solidified the use of an explicit vocabulary of war to refer to a broad social issue. Since that time, we have had wars on “drugs” and “cancer” announced by President Nixon in 1971, the “war against crime” declared by Bill Clinton in June 1994, and, more recently, George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” An important shift in scope can be seen here, as the “wars” announced by Nixon and Johnson were focused on domestic US matters (poverty and drugs), while the “war” announced by Bush was explicitly “global” in scope, indicating the changing perceptions and newfound flexibility in how nonmilitary wars are waged and where threats arise. Since Donald Trump’s election, the use of a war vocabulary has expanded to include issues ranging from migration from Mexico and Central America and trade with China to solar power, tariffs, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Outside of the arena of national policy, perhaps the most influential nonmilitary use of “war” in recent decades has been in what came to be called the culture wars. Most prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, the phrase “culture wars” referred to a broad debate between conservative and liberal voices in US culture. Cutting across political, religious, and social issues ranging from abortion to gay parenting, the culture wars often focused on education as the key vehicle for the transmission of these values. When a 1989 task force appointed by the New York commissioner on education proposed revisions to the state curriculum to include multicultural components, a controversy ensued over what counted as legitimate history. This debate reached national prominence following the 1994 publication by the History Standards Project of guidelines for K–12 history instruction, which stressed an awareness of the multicultural aspects of US history, among many other things. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) came under particular scrutiny as a result of contributing funding to several controversial art exhibits, most prominent among them Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 1990 and the work of artist Andres Serrano, whose Piss Christ was condemned on the floor of the Senate in 1989. The tensions that underlay the culture wars continue today in the polarized debates over “political correctness.” Such vocabularies have more than idle consequences. Funding for the NEA, which stood at $160–$180 million in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was cut in 1996 to $99.5 million in response to NEA support for artists such as Mapplethorpe and Serrano. Both federal agencies remain under threat in the administration of President Trump, who made battling “political correctness” a mobilizing trope in both of his presidential campaigns.
One effect of this generalization of the vocabulary of war to refer to nearly any antagonism or conflict has been an analytic turn in American studies and cultural studies to a focus on “militarism” rather than “war.” This turn enables a more complex and accurate analysis of the social, political, economic, and cultural activities and institutions that support a society that engages in perpetual warfare; it is an analytical tool necessitated by the shift from “war” to “militarism” that Eisenhower so prophetically identified. The ongoing state of war that characterizes a militaristic culture is the subject of numerous critiques, ranging from militarism’s relationship to economies (Chomsky and McChesney 2011) to the very question of a culture’s continued willingness to engage in war (Bacevich 2006; Hedges 2002). Analyses of militarism allow for discussions of race, gender, and sexuality that go beyond the question of the demographics of military service, focusing instead on topics such as the racialized images of US enemies (Dower 1986), the influence of US military bases on structures of gender in other countries (Enloe 1989; Sjoberg and Via 2010), the constructions of masculinity that underlay the Cold War (R. Dean 2001) and the Vietnam War (Jeffords 1989), and the politics surrounding revisions to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” US military policy regarding gay and lesbian soldiers (Puar 2007).
Since September 11, 2001, and the onset of ongoing militarized engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, conceptions of what counts as war have shifted further in US culture. Though the Ronald Reagan administration used the concept of a war against terrorism after the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, George W. Bush gave it new meaning in his address to Congress following the attacks of September 11, 2001: “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” (2001a). The wars that characterized the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were conflicts. Even proxy wars were sites for nationally based governments to battle outside of their own borders in lower-level conflicts. The “global war on terror” is different. It enables the United States to engage in an antagonism with an enemy that does not have a national base. “Terrorism… does not come as an invading army marching across a border wielding modern weapons and conquering territory” (W. Mitchell 2011, 45). Though associated variously with Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Pakistan, the ostensible target of the “war on terror,” al-Qaeda, is intentionally not a nationally based organization, thus allowing US militarism to rove the globe freely. As US military engagements around the world stray further from the traditional definitions of war as conflicts among nations (even as they recycle the rhetoric of war), and as the US war in Afghanistan has become the longest foreign war in US history, analyses of war and militarism should continue to critique the complex ways in which war extends beyond the battlefield and into the day-to-day operations of US culture.