The Fog of War Talk

Editor's Note: This is an edited excerpt from the newly released book "Weapons of Mass Deception: the Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq", by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber.

wmd"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible," George Orwell wrote in 1946. "Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."

Orwell was a shrewd observer of the relationship between politics and language. He did not actually invent the term "doublespeak," but he popularized the concept, which is an amalgam of two terms that he coined in "1984," his greatest novel. Orwell used the term "doublethink" to describe a contradictory way of thinking that lets people say things that mean the opposite of what they actually think. He used the term "newspeak" to describe words "deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them."

Hail the Noble Warriors

Doublespeak has accompanied war for thousands of years. English professor William Lutz has found examples as early as Julius Caesar, who described his brutal and bloody conquest of Gaul as "pacification." "The military is acutely aware that the reason for its existence is to wage war, and war means killing people and the deaths of American soldiers as well," he states. "Because the reality of war and its consequences are so harsh, the military almost instinctively turns to doublespeak when discussing war."

Doublespeak often suggests a noble cause to justify the death and destruction. Practically speaking, a democratic country cannot wage war without the popular support of its citizens. A well-constructed myth, broadcast through mass media, can deliver that support even when the noble cause itself seems dubious to the rest of the world.

Consider the now-famous phrase, "axis of evil," which was first used by President Bush in his Jan. 29, 2002 State of the Union address. The concept of an "axis," of course, evokes memories of the "Axis powers" of World War II and suggests an alliance or confederation of states that pose a significant danger precisely because of their common alignment – a menace greater than the sum of the parts. But, in fact, Iran and Iraq have been bitter adversaries for decades, and there is no pattern of collaboration between North Korea and the other two states. As for being "evil," while all three nations have been involved in horrible violations of human rights, so have many U.S.-supported nations, such as Colombia or Saudi Arabia. In reality, "axis of evil" is a term chosen to selectively stigmatize countries for the purpose of justifying military actions against them.

If the bad guys have an "axis," the good guys have a "coalition of the willing," to use the term preferred by Colin Powell and other U.S. officials and often repeated uncritically by major television news outlets. The word "coalition" attempted to evoke the feeling of international unity that existed in during the first Gulf War, when the first Bush administration persuaded the United Nations to endorse a broad international coalition of nations who came together to drive Iraq from Kuwait. At a press briefing on Mar. 20, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "This is not a unilateral action, as is being characterized in the media. Indeed, the coalition in this activity is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991."

In truth, the so-called "coalition of the willing" was almost entirely a U.S.-British campaign, with virtually no military contribution from other countries except Australia.

The code names used to designate wars have also become part of the branding process through which war is made to seem noble. Rather than referring to the invasion of Panama as simply a war or invasion, it became Operation Just Cause. (Note also the way that the innocuous word "operation" becomes part of the substitute terminology for war.) The war in Afghanistan was originally named Operation Infinite Justice, a phrase that offended Muslims, who pointed out that only God can dispense infinite justice, so the military planners backed down a bit and called it Operation Enduring Freedom instead. For the invasion of Iraq, they chose Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In PR Week, columnist Paul Holmes examined the significance of the term. "It's possible, I suppose, that Iraqi freedom might be a by-product of this campaign," he wrote, "but to pretend that it's what the exercise is all about is intellectual dishonesty at its most perverse."

However, the phrase served as a powerful framing device. Television networks including Fox and MSNBC used Operation Iraqi Freedom as their tagline for the war, with the phrase appearing in swooshing, 3-D logos accompanied by imagery of flags and other symbols of patriotism. Other phrases favored by the Bush administration – "the disarmament of Iraq," "coalition forces," the "war on terror," "America strikes back" – appeared frequently in visual banners, graphics, and bottom-of-the-screen crawls, repeating and reinforcing the government's key talking points in support of war.

Neocon Doublespeak

Sometimes language is chosen for its ability to avoid the plain meaning of what its writers are talking about. Numerous examples of this can be found in "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategies, Forces and Resources for a New Century," a report published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose members constitute much of the brain trust for the Bush administration's foreign policy. Criticized overseas as a blueprint for U.S. global domination, the report began by stating that the United States at present is a lone superpower that "faces no global rival. America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible." To achieve this goal, it recommended establishing permanent U.S. military bases in the Middle East and in regions of the world where they do not currently exist, including Southeast Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Of course, these ideas sound a bit radical if stated too clearly, so PNAC needed to find language that would soften their meaning. The PNAC report, hence, states that the United States needs to "perform the 'constabulary' duties associated with shaping the security environment in critical regions." The phrase "constabulary duties" is a vague way of transforming U.S. soldiers occupying foreign countries into friendly neighborhood cops. "Shaping the security environment" is polite language for controlling other people at gunpoint, and "critical regions" is a nice way of saying, "countries we want to control."

Similarly, U.S. nuclear weapons – which would be called "weapons of mass destruction" if someone else owned them – are described as "the U.S. nuclear deterrent," while missiles with global reach are "defenses to defend the American homeland." How do they "defend" us? They "provide a secure basis for U.S. power projection around the world."

Doublespeak enables PNAC to be simultaneously candid and ambiguous as it speaks of establishing "an American peace" that "must have a secure foundation on unquestioned U.S. military preeminence," in which U.S. troops are stationed throughout the world as the "first line of defense" of an "American security perimeter."

Shocking and Awful War

Sometimes doublespeak can seem very vivid and candid while nevertheless obscuring the real meaning of what is being discussed. For example, "shock and awe" was the term the Bush administration used to announce its strategy of massive, high-tech air strikes on Baghdad. As doctrine of warfare, this term was introduced in a 1996 book by military strategists Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade and published by the Command and Control Research Program (CCRP) within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense of the United States. Titled "Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance," the book describes shock and awe as a strategy "aimed at influencing the will, perception, and understanding of an adversary rather than simply destroying military capability." It points to several examples in which this strategy has been successful in the past, including the dropping of atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Nazi blitzkrieg strategy of World War II.

In January 2003, as the Bush administration moved toward war with Iraq, "Shock and Awe" author Harlan K. Ullman again invoked the example of Hiroshima as he explained the concept to CBS News. "You have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes," he said. "You're sitting in Baghdad and all of a sudden you're the general and 30 of your division headquarters have been wiped out. You also take the city down. By that I mean you get rid of their power, water. In two, three, four, five days they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted."

Upon the onset of actual war, however, military and media pundits depicted "shock and awe" in sanitary terms, claiming that the high accuracy of laser-guided "smart bombs" would make it possible to decapitate the Iraqi military while leaving the country's infrastructure intact and limiting civilian casualties. Similar claims were made during the first war in the Persian Gulf and were later found to be exaggerated. Like other examples of doublespeak, the concept of "shock and awe" enables its users to symbolically reconcile two contradictory ideas. On the one hand, its theorists use the term to plan massive uses of deadly force. On the other hand, its focus on the psychological effect of that force makes it possible to use the term while distancing audiences from direct contemplation of the human suffering that force creates.

The Language of Imperialism

Sometimes doublespeak completely reverses the meaning of words. Paul Holmes observed that "the most Orwellian usage of all has been the recent application of the word 'relevance,' as in 'the United Nations faced a test of its relevance, and failed.' Relevance, in this context, means willingness to rubberstamp whatever demands the U.S. makes. If that sounds very much like irrelevance to you, perhaps you don't understand the might-makes-right world in which we are living."

In normal times, "diplomacy" refers to the process by which nations seek to resolve their differences peacefully, through negotiations and compromise. During the buildup to war, however, "diplomacy" became the process through which the United States attempted to pressure other nations into supporting the war. When they refused, this became the "failure of diplomacy."

Similarly, the Bush administration used the phrase "pre-emptive defense" to describe its decision to attack first, without an overt act of Iraqi provocation – a phrase that could be used to justify attacking anyone we want on the grounds that they might attack us one day. Note also the substitution of the word "defense" for "war" – a perennial use of doublespeak that dates back in the United States to 1947, when the Department of War was renamed the "Department of Defense."

Sometimes language merely fogs up the meaning of things. "Regime change," another phrase credited to the Project for the New American Century, sanitizes the imperial project of overthrowing a foreign government through a military invasion. It makes the process seem tidy, efficient, and rational. The phrase makes it possible to talk about invading Iraq without even thinking about the human consequences: assassination, occupation, or the deaths of thousands of innocents.

And indeed there was no debate in the United States about these realities prior to the war. No questions were raised in the administration or Congress about whether the social cost actually justified the military action. Of course, raising such questions does not necessarily mean you must oppose military action. It is possible to raise these issues and to still argue that the benefits of invading Iraq and overthrowing its government outweigh the costs. In the United States, however, the Bush administration never attempted to make such an argument. Instead, it used language to sidestep addressing the harms caused by war.

The Chicago Tribune's Bob Kemper reported that federal civilian employees and military personnel were told by the White House to refer to the invasion of Iraq as a "war of liberation." Iraqi paramilitary forces were to be called "death squads."

The War to Never End Wars

The idea of a "war on terrorism" is itself a form of doublespeak. It reflects a now-pervasive habit of using war as a metaphor for all sorts of things that are not really wars at all. "Do you ever notice in this country that when we have a problem with something, we always have to declare war on it?," the comedian George Carlin once quipped. "The War on Illiteracy, the War on AIDS, the War on Homelessness, the War on Drugs... We don't actually do anything about it, but we've declared war on it."

At the very beginning of the "war on terrorism," a reporter asked Donald Rumsfeld, "Sir, what constitutes a victory in this new environment? I mean, Cap Weinberger in 1987 laid down some pretty clear rules for engaging U.S. forces. One was, clear goals that are militarily achievable, that you can explain that there's an endgame. What's some of your early thinking here in terms of what constitutes victory?"

"That's a good question, as to what constitutes victory," Rumsfeld replied. "Now, what is victory? I say that victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that's going to be over in a month or a year or even five years. It is something that we need to do so that we can continue to live in a world with powerful weapons and with people who are willing to use those powerful weapons. And we can do that as a country. And that would be a victory, in my view."

Rumsfeld is a clever man, and figuring out the meaning behind his words requires careful reading. At first glance, you might be tempted to think that he was saying the United States would win a victory by maintaining its own possession of "powerful weapons." Actually, though, he was admitting that even as a superpower, the United States will not be able to stop the rest of the world from obtaining powerful weapons with which to "impose damage on us."

If terrorism itself cannot be ended, Rumsfeld was saying, we therefore need to change the way we think about the problem, so that we know better than to expect an "endgame" to the war on terror. His definition of victory, in short, becomes "persuading the American people" that real victory will never happen, and that the war itself may continue indefinitely.

President Bush explained the concept more succinctly in April 2003, after visiting wounded soldiers from the war in Iraq. "I reminded them and their families," he said, "that the war in Iraq is really about peace."

Now that's doublespeak.

John Stauber, executive editor of PR Watch, and Sheldon Rampton editor of PR Watch, have co-authored three previous books: "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry," "Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?" and "Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future."

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