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Opinion It doesn’t matter whether we call the mission against ISIS a “war”

The last time the United States actually declared war on anyone was in World War II. We’ve had plenty of wars since then, not to mention more limited military adventures, like bombing campaigns (Bosnia, Libya) and quick invasions of countries too small to put up a fight (Grenada, Panama).

Yet today, many in the media are intensely interested in whether we should call the effort we’re embarking on against ISIS a “war.” Does it make a difference? And why do they care so much?

Last week, journalists began to notice that some people from the administration were using the term “at war” and others weren’t. In particular, some at the Pentagon were saying we’re at war, while the White House seemed reluctant to say the same thing. As a group, reporters are especially attuned to any contradiction in messaging. So on Fox News Sunday yesterday, guest host John Roberts was focused intently on the question, asking White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, “The White House has, for the last few days, been playing the semantic game over whether we are at war or not after the release of this latest video of David Haines being decapitated. Is there any doubt as to whether we’re at war?” He continued: “Why the change in messaging?”

The real “semantic game” being played was by the press, which, like Roberts, was pushing the administration at every opportunity to get its messaging straight. Look at some recent stories about this:

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* Time Magazine: Top Obama Officials Disagree Over Whether U.S. At War With ISIS

* ABC News: Are We ‘At War’ With ISIS? White House Insists We’re Not

* MSNBC: Obama officials now say US ‘at war’ with ISIS

* CNN: The fight against ISIS: That which we call ‘a war’…

* New York Daily News: IT’S WAR: White House doubles down on anti-ISIS campaign, calling it a war

* Yesterday on Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer pressed Secretary of State John Kerry, who previously had been reluctant to use the “war” word, on the issue. Kerry plainly found the question exasperating, calling it “a tortured debate going on about terminology.”

There are really two things going on here. The first is the way reporters police the political and communication strategies of political actors, punishing those who don’t measure up. As communications scholar Daniel Hallin wrote in 1992, “Just as TV decries photo-opportunity and sound-bite campaigning yet builds the news around them, so it decries the culture of the campaign consultant, with its emphasis on technique over substance, yet adopts that culture as its own.” It was an important insight, and it applies here. When an administration is consistently “on message,” reporters grow frustrated, in no small part because the numbing repetition of relentlessly delivered sound bites makes it hard for the reporters to do their jobs and write interesting stories. But the only thing that generates more of their contempt is an administration (or a candidate) that isn’t on message.

The second reason for all this attention to the war/not war question is that the kind of action the administration is undertaking against ISIS is unsatisfying to many in the press, and maybe to many in the public too. War is easy to understand. You put a camera on the aircraft carrier, watch the planes take off, and say, “There they go! War!” Then you chart the progress of the battles, you get the briefings from generals, you talk to the troops about the details on the ground, and there are more stories than you could possibly tell. But this effort — which, by the way, we don’t even have a name for — is harder to grapple with. There isn’t much to film, most of it will be happening in places that are too dangerous to go, and it winds up being both complex and opaque, hard to understand and hard to describe.

Faced with all those questions from the press, the White House seems to have finally thrown up its hands and said, Fine, call it a war if you want. But that’s not going to change the reality of it in any way.

Pilot programs aim to unite community leaders, law-enforcement and others to stop radicalized youth from joining the Islamic State, Attorney General Eric Holder says in a video announcing the programs. (Video: Reuters)