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Them’s Fighting Words

Douglas McQueen-Thomson: Language of War and War Through Language.

For the first conceivable time, a country declared war without knowing its enemy and without firing a shot. In the four weeks after 11 September before the first missle strikes, in lieu of military action the United States initiated a war composed of preliminary troop manoeuvres and a volley of words. Instead of carpet bombing, the as yet unconfirmed enemy was subjected to a blitz of verbiage. This linguistic onslaught has not only expressed sorrow and anger, but has literally constituted the enemy in the absence of more tangible targets. As metaphors proliferate, the very language of description becomes the primary site of battle.

Words failed onlookers in the moments immediately following the attacks. Footage showed hundreds of stunned, mute and dust-covered New Yorkers. The scenes were disturbingly familiar — many eyewitnesses were reminded of a movie set, yet another Towering Inferno. While these disaster-film images were too easily absorbed, their implications defied immediate description.

This was remedied in typically blunderbuss style by President George W. Bush, who broke off a primary school lesson to announce that his government would investigate ‘to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.’ This statement suggested that the culprits were not merely a few disparate individuals, but ‘folks’, or even its homophonous ‘Volk’, implying a unified, coherent grouping of people. Significant elements of the American public took this as a cue for directing anger towards specific nationalities, ethnicities and religious affiliations. The days following 11 September saw an upsurge in attacks on Muslims and even Sikhs, compelling Bush to speak from a mosque calling for restraint.

Without being able to pinpoint a culprit or motive, Bush identified these events as attacks on freedom by advocates of evil and terror. The massively ambitious aim of this new war was to ‘rid the world of evil’. Bush quoted apocalyptically from Psalm 23, while former president Bill Clinton also identified ‘evil forces’ as the perpetrators. This Old Testament rhetoric was rapidly adopted by the international media. Immediately under its masthead, the Age dramatically proclaimed a scenario of ‘Good versus evil’. The military buildup around Afghanistan has been given the remarkably biblical name ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ (formerly the even less tolerable ‘Operation Infinite Justice’), both names betraying anxiety over the status of future retaliation. No location or method is suggested in these labels (as in ‘Desert Storm’). Instead, they gesture towards a precariousness of objective and uncertainty of duration.

In this rhetoric, evil is embodied by rogue individuals. Remove the villains and evil ceases to be. Osama bin Laden was quickly singled out, though persuasive evidence of this connection is yet to be made public, despite claims by Tony Blair and Alexander Downer of its existence. Bush seems to imagine himself as leading an oversized moral rabbiting expedition. ‘We will smoke Osama out’, he declared, ‘and get him running’. Another twist upon the same theme was Bush’s sheriff-like declaration that bin Laden was ‘wanted, dead or alive’. Bush is clearly more comfortable inhabiting the moral universe of the Wild West than the complex, demanding sphere of international diplomacy.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has contributed a vivid array of organic metaphors to this new verbal war. In the days following the attack we heard that terrorist networks needed to be uprooted and destroyed. The villains became unwanted weeds who should be removed forever from the garden of goodness. The terrorists operated in ‘cells’ that should be excised, like cancerous growths. Powell and his colleagues believe the coming conflict will be a dirty, muddy business. Soldiers will be struggling against other soldiers and inhospitable terrain. Despite repeated assertions of the novelty of the present situation, such possibilities sound disturbingly familiar.

Gone is the euphemistic high-tech military language of the last dozen years — of surgical strikes, smart bombs, pin-point accuracy and minimal collateral damage. Military campaigns in the Persian Gulf and Balkans saw the rise of a disembodied rhetoric of engagement, where precision technology took the place of messy hand-to-hand fighting. Talk of star wars missile defence shields has been replaced by Star Wars rhetoric of virtuous Jedi knight-figures taking on the dark side. Acknowledgements are being made that the billions spent on whizz-bang surveillance gadgets has been misdirected. Calls are being made for increased ‘human intelligence’ in the place of such solecisms as ‘digital intelligence’ and ‘military intelligence’.

In a stunning rhetorical move, Bush extended the threat to Muslims in general by announcing that the new war was a ‘crusade’, echoing the call of some Taliban extremists for a Jihad. To call this comment inflammatory is an understatement. A crusade, in this context, cannot be separated from the historical attempt by Christians to expel Muslims from the Holy Land. Not only has the language of Bush and his sidekicks often seemed ill-considered, but it has also been thoroughly unmemorable. We are yet to hear a ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech, or a phrase as pithy as Churchill’s claim that never ‘was so much owed by so many to so few’. Bush’s rhetoric has operated at the least demanding, most elementary possible level, entirely lacking substantial political ideas, such as anti-totalitarianism or a defence of egalitarian principles. It aims not to cohere a population around meaningful political goals, but instead functions as a child-like fantasy of eliminating baddies and banishing monsters. Tony Blair has contributed a mood of moral seriousness, repeatedly intoning upon the ‘utmost gravity’ of the situation, though his discourse too falls into reductive invocations of evil.

Formal political dissent in the United States has been almost entirely absent, with the single senator who called for restraint subsequently receiving death threats. Democratic processes fail when public exchange is discouraged and political leaders display unanimity. Informed, critical perspectives become invisible and discouraged when the United States asserts that the only options are being with us or against us. It is no coincidence that this contraction of public debate is being accompanied by previously unthinkable constraints on civil liberties. Independent thinking and genuine dialogue have been the first casualties in the new shadow fighting.

While Bush continues to conjure a sufficiently nefarious villain, missiles begin flying towards Afghan civilians. I suspect a chasm will gradually emerge between Bush’s condescending, simplistic political language, and the enormous suffering that such a frenzied demonisation will produce in Afghanistan. The hollowness of this political rhetoric is likely to fail over time, as the burden grows of drawn-out military action. I doubt that such B-movie language of good against evil can sustain the necessary force of persuasion as soldiers arrive back home in body bags.

At no other time has a war existed at such a crucially linguistic level. The precise shape of this rhetoric matters enormously, as it literally defines the otherwise unknown enemy. Unfortunately, the simplified and moralistic language of response has so far only stirred up anti-Muslim feeling and calls for immediate bombing. As the United States confronts the difficulties of military retaliation, the rhetoric of description needs to gesture towards deeper understanding. If a reasoned and appropriate response is to emerge to these horrific attacks, the first critical conflict is the war of words.

Douglas McQueen-Thomson is Assistant Editor of Arena Magazine.