You’d be forgiven for thinking that there’ve been many wars in recent years – and we’ve been engaged in at least a few of them. Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan… you name it. In the eyes (or more specifically the language) of the people running the nation, however, you might be surprised to discover, such a simple premise isn’t exactly well-accepted.
What we’ve seen in recent years is a war on words.
What would once have been classed “war” – that is to say – prolonged aerial bombing of an “enemy” with the intent to kill them, the destruction of “enemy” military installations, attempting to cripple other sovereign nation’s armed forces – is no longer war.
Welcome to the world of “kinetic military action” – the Obama administration’s preferred term for NATO’s state of involvement in Libya today. Whilst it’s easy to oppose “war”, it’s not so braindead-popular to oppose a “peacekeeping mission”. But is war really not war if we call it peacekeeping? Is torture truly not torture if we call it an “enhanced interrogation”? When is “extraordinary rendition” not simply state-sponsored abduction and kidnapping?
The actual (non-rhetorical) question:
Are our politicians’ euphemisms and continued coining of new phrases changing the way we perceive reality, numbing our perception? To use an alarmist term if ever there were one- are we in fact being “brainwashed” by politicians and the media – through reconstitution of the English language?
George Orwell said (of his time – though it applies equally well today), that political prose is crafted “to make lies sound truthful” and “murder respectable”, “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Indeed, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell argued that the very words commonly slipping into common vernacular were better suited obfuscating reality than expressing it truthfully, plainly and simply. In Orwell’s mind, repetition across the media of euphemism and metaphor caused original meaning to be distorted.
…and so to the central point of this piece: there will still be “fighting” and “conflict” – but this is the end of war. The era of “strategic intervention” and “liberation operations” begins.
In The United States, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 was designed to ensure the President of the United States cannot commit his country to war without the approval of Congress, an important mechanism in the Checks & Balances system of Presidential governance, one might think. The Act demands that within 60 or 90 days (depending on interpretation), the President seek Congress’ authorisation of military action.
As in ’99 when Clinton sent bombers to Kosovo, however, in response to the Libyan Civil War, the Obama administration has declared the Act irrelevant, reducing the issue to pure semantics. “After all”, they argue, “there ARE no troops on the ground”.
This isn’t strictly true, however. Whilst no boots paid for or soldiers funded by the Pentagon, strictly speaking, have set foot on land in Libya – armed CIA operatives are running a massive operation in tandem with 24/7 aerial assaults across the country and scores of vessels are involved in maintaining “maritime security” in the Gulf of Sidra. Hundreds of US airmen fly above Libya – and although not taking fire – certainly are engaging hostile opposition forces.
This may not be “war”, but it is one of the largest, misunderstood military operations of modern times.
Rather than pretend Britain and America are nations not at war, by using weasel words, euphemisms and newspeak – government would better serve the people by explaining why we are at war – why we are defending Libyans who are being oppressed. It is nothing to be ashamed of. We are not claiming Libya has weapons of mass destruction and using that as a pretence for invasion. We are defending a democratic movement against an aggressive, autocratic regime.
It is improbable to say the least, afterall, that other regional powers would defend democracy-seeking demonstrators across the border in Libya, if we did not, as most neighbouring regimes are pre-occupied “saving their own asses”, undergoing deep and often divisive sociopolitical revolutions themselves.
The War in Libya is not a hard-sell. With the right PR (sick as it sounds), Libya *should* be a “feel good conflict”. There is a genuine case that we are doing the right thing protecting those who are being oppressed, by intervening in Libya. With our newfound ethical high-ground, we must justify the case for war in abundantly clear terms – and stop pretending it is not war, but “limited military action” (as part of a strategy of “kinetic military strategy”; hardly sounding any less threatening).
Manipulation of language – the repeated use of Newspeak and euphemism – are not traditionally traits of free and fair, open, democratic governments, but rather those of despots, dictators and disregarding fascists. Take for example Hitler’s “Special Treatment” (sonderbehandelt) of Jews in “Bath Houses” (badeanstalten – aka. gas chambers). All in the name of a “Final Solution” (endlosung), justified by “executive measures” (exekutivemassnahme – the order of genocide). Or perhaps most famously the Nazi’s “mercy killing” (Gnadentod) of 200,000+ “incurably sick” people, as part of their “life unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben) eugenics program.
War is a loaded word – but when talking about killing hundreds if not thousands of people – when talking about using billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry – be they missiles, bombers, fighter planes or submarines – there can be no mistake that we are engaged in “war” – and that “intervention”, “peacekeeping” and “conflict” are war.
This discombobulation of the truth is an assault on our very right of free speech. It devalues the meaning of words, it provides cover for questionable actions and tarts-up reality as to make it more palatable. We cannot fight wars, let alone win them, if we deny that we are at war.
In 1949, aged 160, the United States DoW - Department of War was afforded a powerful rebranding. Today the world has knows the department as the DoD – the Department of Defence. However the namechange is specifically designed to invoke sympathy and respect. War is easy to take issue with, to object to… but who can opposed one’s own defence?
The namechange doesn’t make the institution any less actively involved in waging war than it was in 1789 when it was set up as the DoW. In fact the DoD’s size, scope and agenda far exceeds that of the DoW, making it much better suited to the moniker.
The rationale behind the change? Image.
When war isn’t war, it is an unrestricted, unimpeachable license to kill.
The right to “engage” abroad, without congressional approval, pretending war is not war, is a dangerous game to play – and one that will undoubtedly haunt us in generations to come.
Were it China claiming the right to militarily “intervene” (as they might well feel empowered to in the not-so-distant future), you can be sure our government and media would brand it an act of war.
The end of “war” signals not just a shift in our complicit willingness to be propagandised, but makes the likelyhood of real war all the more possible – reducing restrictions on military actions – allowing presidents to act without Congressional authorisation – allowing armed forces globally to mobilise with the backing of an executive alone (no legislature required) – unless constitutions and legislation are to be redefined to cover all military action – whether it’s called war, conflict or “just messing about”. This isn’t primary school. The weapons aren’t plastic trucks. The consequences aren’t detention and a letter home. Change is necessary.
“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.” ~George Orwell (in The Lion and the Unicorn)
optank note: This post marks a change in the optank publishing format – from more long-form articles to an easier-to-read “pieces” style, designed to be both more accessible and to provoke debate and conversation. Whilst articles thusfar have been more ranty than conversational, the shift in format is just one of several thing we’ll be experimenting with to change this. Keep reading!