Who gets to name wars?

I had an interesting question from a student in my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course today. He said he’d heard that wars were named according to a formula of sorts: the second of the two countries mentioned was the victor. In other words, the Austro-Prussian war was won by the Prussians, the Franco-Prussian war by the Prussians, the Sino-Japanese war by Japan, the Russo-Japanese war by Japan, and so on.

I admit I was taken aback. I’ve never come across such an idea before, although I have pondered when various wars gain a formal name, shifting from “the present war” to the “Great War” to “World War I”.

We must win World War I!

We must win World War I!

Or the recent preference for naming (small) wars after the military operational nomenclature (e.g. Operation Iraqi Freedom…), or the historical amnesia that leads people today to refer to the second U.S. war against Saddam Hussein as simply the “Iraq War” (“Gulf War II”?).

So I replied to the student with some skepticism:

  • “What about all those wars that don’t explicitly mention the belligerents at all? If the rule does exist, does it only apply to wars between two, and only two, countries?”
  • “What about wars whose names change over time, e.g. the War of the League of Augsburg becoming the War of the Grand Alliance becoming the “Nine Years War?”
  • “What about the wars that are called different names, depending on the country?”
  • “Besides, who exactly would be in charge of ‘officially’ naming a war? Was there some naming committee that met and named the wars? Kinda like medieval heralds who met after a battle to agree on what to call it?”

Looking back, I think I usually thought about war names in terms of convenience rather than signaling real historical meaning: which country names had a good ‘combining form’? China (Sino-) or Japan (Japo-??). But that clearly is inadequate, since the Franco-Prussian war could just as easily be the Prusso-French war. So now I’m not so sure.

Needless to say, I am willing to chalk it up to somebody leading my student astray with a shaky generalization from a few cases, but perhaps someone here can enlighten me. Have you heard of this idea? Has anyone written a detailed study of the naming of wars? Is it possible this is, or was, a real convention? Is it possible that all these war names were chosen (in English obviously) at around the same time, and that there was a convention used, at least at that time? Or maybe the first war named with this formula was copied for later wars? I don’t know if this Google Ngram Viewer chart helps or not:

Ngram Viewer: compound war names

Any illumination would be appreciated.

20 thoughts on “Who gets to name wars?

  1. Erm…Nice theory but none of these mention countries: Hundred Years War, Seven Years War, War of Jenkins’ Ear, the Six Day War, First World War, Second World War, The Balkans War, The Gran Chaco War, the Pacific War (1860s).

  2. There are official names and popular names for conflicts. The name for the conflict that broke out around Manila in February 1899 quickly acquired the name “the Philippine Insurrection” in the United States. (It was also called the “Filipino Insurrection” there as well.) By adopting this nomenclature, the McKinley administration clearly implied that this violence was not legitimate—that it was an appeal to arms against duly constituted authority. McKinley and the Republican party bosses clearly did not want a name like “The War for Philippine Independence” to take hold because this would legitimate the anti-imperialist argument in the upcoming presidential election of 1900 that by becoming a colonial power the United States had turned its back on its own revolutionary heritage. The U.S. War Department officially designated the conflict “the Philippine Insurrection” by General Order and so it is inscribed on the campaign streamers of the U.S. Army units that participated in the conflict.

    In the early 1980s when I had recently joined the U.S. Army Center of Military History I prepared a formal paper recommending that the name of the conflict be changed from “the Philippine Insurrection” to “the Philippine-American War.” My arguments for doing so were two-fold. 1) “The Philippine Insurrection” was a throw-back to the age of imperialism and would probably grate against current Filipino sensibilities. The U.S. should change the name to further good relations in the future. 2) In 1899 the U.S. exercised de jure sovereignty over the entire archipelago, having been awarded the islands as part of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War. However, aside from the city of Manila and the town of Cavite, occupied by U.S. forces, the Islands were controlled by the Aguinaldo government. Thus the U.S. had de jure sovereignty but lacked de facto sovereignty, while the Filipinos lacked de jure sovereignty but exercised de facto sovereignty. The conflict was over which party would exercise both. As such, I believed that “the Philippine-American War” was a better descriptor of the issues at stake than “the Philippine Insurrection.” Unfortunately, the chief historian did not agree with my argument. He said that “the Philippine-American War” implies two equal entities in contention, whereas no country ever recognized the Aguinaldo government as the legitimate government of the Philippines. Consequently, “the Philippine Insurrection” was the better descriptor of what happened—a failed colonial rebellion against an imperial power. If the Filipinos had won the war, then there would be ample justification for calling the conflict “the Philippine-American War.” Because they lost, no such justification existed. Also weighing against the name change was the cost of changing the campaign streamers on the flags of the participating Army units. The cost was estimated to be over $1 million (in 1983 dollars), considerably more than the annual cost of the entire Army history program at that time. So my personal attempt to name a war went down to defeat.

    But this after all was the official name. This has not precluded scholars from calling the conflict “the Philippine-American War” or simply “the Philippine War,” the title of Brian Linn’s magisterial book on the subject.

  3. What I’d like to have illuminated is the source and interpretation of your two charts.

    • The source of the graphs is Google Ngram Viewer, which samples from the millions of published books Google has scanned. This is, barring a specialized text database, the best tool to measure widespread word usage over the past several centuries. Each line indicates the relative frequency of that search phrase over time, as a percentage of the total number of words in the sample. There are various ways in which you can transform the information as well. You can read more on the methodology at the Google Ngram Viewer website.

      As for the interpretation, Ngram viewer is more suggestive than definitive – like any graph. If you do the searches yourself you can click through to see the specific titles to look at the specific context for each hit.

      The first graph suggests that the use of the term “Great War” was most frequent (relative to the other terms at least) from 1910 and declined in the late 1930s – just as the term “World War I” seems to take its place. It also suggests that “World War I” first appeared in the 1930s (at least with any frequency).
      Note that on its own, this graph doesn’t necessarily indicate that the “Great War” phrase was uniquely referring to what we call World War I – I chose to use various capitalizations to see if that made a difference. Nor does the graph include many other possible synonyms for WW1 that might have been used at some point in time: the “first world war”…

      The second chart was simply my experiment to see if there was some obvious pattern to when ‘modern’ names for wars appeared. I was curious whether there was some point in time when all of a sudden various wars which were waged in different decades suddenly appeared in the published literature with the same nomenclature, e.g. some history textbook started labeling the wars consistently in 1920 or something. The chart suggests that this was not the case.

      But if you insist on interpretation, here we go. At its most basic, the relative frequency of the different wars shows how popular each of those wars were (or mentioned): the Franco-Prussian war and the Russo-Japanese wars were more frequently discussed than the other two. Then there are patterns that raise more questions than answers. I find the gradual growth of the terms (esp. Franco-Prussian and Russo-Japanese) curious – one might possibly expect a more dramatic spike soon after the conflict(s) – does this suggest something about the way military history was being written, or about what English-language books were (not) interested in? Does the drop in the Russo-Japanese war and Franco-Prussian war at about the same time suggest something about a lack of publication interest in these wars (or wars more generally) circa 1930? Does the second spike in these two wars right before 1940 suggest a return to interest in wars involving Japan and Germany by the English-reading public, possibly looking forward to impending conflict? All speculation of course, but useful for generating ideas.

      You could also look at each line individually, and try to associate the patterns to their chronological context.

  4. The American Civil War was a compromise term, a change from The War of the Rebellion as in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Later, the War Between the States was introduced as further ‘softening’ to the term Civil War, maybe even a surrender to Lost Cause Myth proponents. Certainly good arguments can be made as to the American Civil War and the American Revolution as being unique if not atypical examples of civil wars and revolutions when looked at in the larger context of those terms.

    Some of the work being done on historical memory, particularly in regard to changing historical memory of the Civil War, might shed some interesting light on naming conventions.

    Bill Hupp

  5. There some studies about the naming, in Spain, of the war formerly known as the Spanish Civil War. The name changed according to the side who named it, and to the meaning intended. Crusade, the War for Spain, the 1936 war, Fraticide war… (Sanchez Leon & Izquierdo, La guerra que nos han contado). Rafael Cruz calls it the Three Years War (making it undistinctive)but he also discusses the several namings:

  6. We might also add Mexican-American and (what was formerly known as) the Spanish-American Wars to the list of conflicts that follow your student’s principle.

    I’m trying to think of contrary examples given the criteria (when two belligerent states are used to name the conflict) but it’s pretty difficult. The Anglo-Dutch Wars were ultimately a mixed bag, but not before some spectacular Dutch victories. The Sino-Indian War is another possibility.

    I suspect (without any foundation) that the formula has to do mostly with the suitability of the “combining form.” That said where there’s smoke there may well be fire.

  7. Apropos rebellion vs. revolt vs. war of independence, one could invoke the old saw about “your terrorist is my freedom fighter.”
    Another student earlier in the semester had asked why historians refer to the war between the Dutch and Spanish from the 1560s to 1648 as the “Dutch Revolt”, since revolts are usually failures, whereas the Dutch successfully gained their independence. Alternatives are the Dutch War of Independence (does anybody use this?), and the Eighty Years War (Tachtigjarige oorlog in Dutch). The Dutch “Revolt” also raises the question of whether the term really refers to only the first part of the conflict, up to the Twelve Years’ Truce in 1609.

    I also posted on my Skulking in Holes and Corners blog an extension of this topic (not wanting to hog the SMHBLOG), discussing the problems with a seemingly more ‘objective’ naming convention: simply calling the war by the number of years.

  8. The examples given of a war between two countries being named after the participants, such as the Austro-Prussian or Anglo-Dutch ones, mostly put the two countries in alphabetical order. The exceptions quoted are those where the country that comes first alphabetically is America or Japan: there are no doubt others.

    Japo-Russian does not sound right to me, although that might be because of modern objections to abbreviations of Japanese that would not have existed at the time the war was named.

    I would therefore suggest that the answer is that the ‘combining form’ that sounds best is usually used, with alphabetical order being used as a tie-break if the two sound equally good or bad.

    The Spanish-American War does not fit my theory, but perhaps there is a complication from America being both the name of the continent and an abbreviation of the United States of America?

    • The official designation of the Spanish-American War, at least insofar as the U.S. War Department was concerned and continued by the U.S. Department of the Army up to the present is the War with Spain in 1898. “The Spanish-American War” is the name that made it into popular discourse and into the text books. Given how inward looking and parochial most U.S. citizens of the period were, I doubt if there was any concern about confusing “North America” and the United States of America when the word order in the title was arrived at. Does anyone know what the Spanish call this conflict?

  9. Seems to me that for obvious reasons a survey of newspapers and related media for the relevant time periods would be the place to begin any effort to understand the process of how wars are named. Once gathered the data might well produce interesting results after being subjected to regression analysis. Informative patterns may well emerge, and at the very least one could quantify the results with some level of statistical confidence.

    • Yes, I agree completely. Unfortunately newspapers in the early modern period (my period) are rarely digitized so it would be a labor-intensive process. You’d probably also want to look at near-contemporary histories and memoirs too. It would be interesting to see if there are particular tendencies as to how and when and why particular names ‘stick’.

  10. The most common names are “la guerra de Cuba” and “el desastre del 98” (1898 distaster)

  11. Interesting thought and certainly a false generalisation. Questions like this however trivial can sometimes get us to rethink certain ideas and beliefs that are held.
    I find it engaging and gets me thinking of all the examples that do not fit. The comments have some interesting examples as well.

  12. I am fascinated by the fact that you – as historians are asking the questions that bothers me – as a psychologist – for a few weeks now, since I just couldn’t really find something in that regard either. I just thought it was due to my faulty search, which is always more difficult when coming from a different discipline…
    The reason for my search was that I did a field and a lab study on how conflicts are named and that I need to be sure that there is NOT some kind of convention that may explain my findings…:
    An incidental observation was that conflict-names, which contain two nations are in reversed orders when comparing the two languages of the nations involved (e.g.: Russian-Polish War in Russian and Polish-Russian War in Polish). This observation turned out to be NOT just a coincidence. Rather, it occurred significantly more often than would be expected by chance. By the way – this finding may therefore kind of falsify the hypothesis of your student (at least as a universally valid principle, i.e., holding in other languages as well, and unless distortions aren’t that bad that the two nations disagree upon the winner…).
    My hypothesis was a motivational one: ethnocentrism. Basically the same process we can find for world maps: What is seen in the middle of the map differs as a function of where this map is to be sold. A lab experiment supported my hypothesis. For an ambiguous conflict (avoiding any information with respect to the initiator as well as the winner of it) participants chose titles (“as for an encyclopedia”) that referred mostly first to their own nation-regardless of which nation was mentioned first in the fictitious conflict. When their own nation was not involved, however, participants usually mentioned the nation first that was mentioned first in the scenario.

    So the question is, if any alternative accounts can explain the same results – I do not believe that conventions can, but it would be good to know, whether they existed.. (but, sure, I am quite aware of totally different names and for some “nation1-nation2-war” name in one language a totally different name (e.g., “3-weeks-war”) sometimes existed.
    So the question as to who gets to names war, remains – even if ONE of the underlying motivations may be motivational (but essentially an article by the historian A. Bacevich suggests that other names were chosen for motivational reasons as well: http://hnn.us/article/152045

    • Thanks for the interesting comment. A few random thoughts:
      -Did you look at how wars were named when the study participants didn’t have any personal stake, e.g. the English labeling a war between two foreigners the Franco-Prussian War, or the Sino-Japanese War? What criteria would be used in those cases? I could see how the lack of specific names for “other’s” wars could reinforce the ethnocentric hypothesis. Or that in many wars Americans tend not to include “American” at all.
      [Edit: I missed the fictional ‘first country = first name’ part of the experiment on my first read, but I was thinking more along the lines of historians, who don’t really have a ‘first country to come across’ variable. It’d be interesting to see how historians would respond to the experiment, whether they’d ask for more information before naming a fictional war…]
      -Presumably you’re focusing on statistics and experiments, but there seem to be exceptions regarding one’s own country coming first, at least with the US: the Spanish-American War, Mexican-American War, Franco-American War, Filipine-American War (especially if these country1-country2 names are intentionally created after the fact to try to be more ‘objective’). Other American names for American wars tend to focus on the enemy or area of fighting, Korean War, Vietnam War… Is it possible that whether the home country is placed first or last varies by language or by country, i.e. the home country has pride of place, but whether that preferred location comes first or last depends on culture/language? Does it matter that in the US we always seem to have “American” as the base in other usage, e.g. Asian-American, African-American…?
      -I’m pretty sure historians don’t have any rules. We’re far too un-systematic for that.

  13. Yes, you have some very good points…
    A few random answers to your thoughts:
    – yes, I had a control condition in which participants did not have any personal stake, i.e., the otherwise identical conflict (recall, it was an experiment and the event was introduced as a fictitious one (which was true)) involved two nations participants did not belong to. Here, the general pattern was (if they chose a nation1-nation2-kind-of-title) that they named that country first, which hade been mentioned in the fictitious conflict first.
    – and yes, it would be indeed interesting to see how historians would respond to this task (any chance to do this with your students? 🙂 it’s easily done online! :-))

    – and yes, event more importantly, I think you have a very good point with the language “conventions”. I have the Mexican- and Spanish-American War in my sample of actual war names (field study prior to the lab study) and I had made the very same observation. Looking at about 100 names of wars, however, there were 67 in a nation-nation-title-type and 84% (i.e. n = 56) did conform to the own-nation-first-then-other pattern. but these were wars involving all kinds of different countries and thus different languages…
    hence, a lab study with English natives would be interesting for yet another reason 🙂

    And although I am into statistics and experiments, I aim at not getting lost in them (and in the artificial materials usually coming along with them). I do want to know the underlying process. The experiment was done in order to ensure that the pattern obtained in the field would replicate under controlled conditions, allowing for causal conclusions (since all other information was identical).
    But apart from the notion that things may be different in different languages, I think it needs another study (or two) to get to an answer to the question of WHY some name-orders are preferred. and I am currently planning some.
    I mean, after all, having “American” second could mean to an English-speaking person the same thing as having “German” first for Germans – and WHAT that is, ist what I want to know. After all, I suspect motivational reasons to drive this, but until now I simply don’t know. But I am pretty sure that one can illuminate this with a study on associations with regard to varying names- such as impressions of which nation is more important, who initiated the conflict, who won it… or simply ask participants what they think why certain names are just how they are…

    Either way, this has become a fascinating question…

  14. p.s.
    I just looked into my data again.
    interestingly, there are reverse incidences in the English language when it comes to Britain:
    Anglo-Spanish War
    Anglo-Swedish War
    Anglo-Dutch War

Comments are closed.