A recently released poll by Rasmussen Reports found that 42% of Americans believe the U.S. is winning the war on terrorism.

The findings showcase the highest level of confidence in the ongoing war since January of 2013. The highest level of the past few years was 45%, just before President Trump took office in January. Polls like this have shown an ebb and flow in opinion on the matter; peaking after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011, dropping significantly with the rise of ISIS in 2014-2015.

Many voices in the media and the veteran community have expressed dismay at the news of climbing levels of confidence. “How can that be?” they ask, “when the war is by definition without end, and without a clear idea of what victory would even look like?”

I would argue that what gets lost in the discussion over who is “winning” the War on Terror is that the semantics involved complicate even our basic understanding of what it is we are even fighting.

The “War on Terrorism” has had a rocky public relations campaign from the beginning. The Bush Administration, for better or worse, boldly struck out into new territory as they sought to respond to the 9/11 attacks by unveiling a color-coded terrorism threat chart and new government programs and bureaucracies designed explicitly to fight terrorism, while simultaneously attempting to grapple with even adequately explaining the threat.

Is it against religious extremists? Well not necessarily, there are hundreds of terror groups that associate with one religion, many religions, or no religion.

Is it against Islam as a religion? No, as President Bush went to great lengths to describe Islam as a religion of peace being corrupted by criminals and extremists.

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Is it against a nation or a state? No, also not necessarily. But maybe, in the future, if it comes to that.

I could go on enumerating the myriad ways that this “war” does not fit any historical norms of what even constitutes a “war” to begin with. When it becomes difficult to even define the enemy and their motivations, you will be unable to easily attach a label to it, let alone one that has numerous historical norms like “war.”

And yet, the “War on Terror” is probably the best label we can come up with. It is a conflict, there are combatants and non-combatants, and I would argue that there is a way to win and lose it. The problem is, winning and losing won’t look anything like what we are accustomed to. If the war is to be a series of loosely connected (or not connected at all) networks of violent extremists of some fashion pitted against the West at large, then I think victory may simply mean “not losing.” I would also argue that “not losing” in our case may simply mean, “fewer 9/11’s,” and not even “No more 9/11’s.” If that is the criteria, then the U.S. and the West have been doing well for the past 16 years.

The only problem with a strategy focused on “not losing,” is that you still will never “win,” important for both the new President and for the American psyche as well. If it helps, maybe the more appropriate title is “Mostly Winning, Not Losing.” Either way, that descriptor isn’t necessarily wrong.

But if we consider how difficult it is even describing our current war as an indicator, perhaps we should just be happy with any level of confidence we have as we move forward in keeping our country and people safe.

Image courtesy of Al-Jazeera