Vice President Dick Cheney spoke on NPR last Wednesday regarding the increasing violence in Iraq. When asked if he would call it a “civil war,” Cheney replied: “No, I don’t think it’s a civil war. You’ve got a united government, a unity government in place. You’ve got united military forces, in terms of the army, and to some extent the security force.” Then he added, “When I think civil war, I think Antietam, Gettysburg.”

Cheney’s reference to the American Civil War in the 1860s struck me as odd. Hasn’t the Bush administration drilled into us for five years that the war against international terrorism is a new kind of war, where the only constant is change?

February’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report even gave the U.S. military initiative a new title by referring to it only 15 times as the “War on Terror” or “War on Terrorism,” and 29 times as the “Long War.” Is this a Long War, as I originally interpreted the phrase, because it has been uniquely designed so that it will never be finished? Or is it a Long War because war hasn’t changed at all and invites comparisons to the past, and will continue to be played out for as long as it takes until it can be forced into pre-determined categories that make it understandable?

The middle answer is probably correct. Violence is the same in all places and times, with the same results. On the other hand, rogue suicide bombers pitting themselves against the civilians of a world superpower is, at the very least, a new plot twist.

I suppose I could see the matter from the Bush administration’s perspective: the “War on Terror” is, in some ways, a new kind of war. But why, then, did Cheney, when questioned Wednesday about Iraq’s internal struggle for a new balance of power, effectively say that the only kind of civil war is the kind the United States endured 145 years ago? Why did one coordinated bombing in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 amount to an “act of war,” while several bombs exploding each day in Iraq, as well as other widespread tactics of violence and intimidation that generally play out along ethnic lines, do not amount to “civil war”? Why is the definition of “war” malleable in the hands of career politicians, while the ultimate, transcendent standard of “civil war” is constituted by Gettysburg 1863?

When SuperJew thinks civil war, she thinks of the warrior Jonathan inspiring such panic in the Philistines–“a panic sent by God”–that the Philistines began to slay each other (1 Samuel 14:13-20). So how about that mass confusion and self-destruction as a historical comparison for Iraq, if indeed we need a precedent to tell us whether we’re looking at a civil war? The Philistines’ mistaken in-fighting happened long before Gettysburg.