The “War on Terror” and Language Politics

Part I: The War in Afghanistan and the Construction of a Narrative 

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Twelve years, four months, and one week. That’s how long the United States and the International Security Assistance Force have been in Afghanistan. The invasion started after 9/11. We all know that because that’s constantly used as the motivating factor for the War in Afghanistan.

The narrative is as follows: Afghanistan was the known haven of al-Qaeda: a terrorist organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks and harboured by the Taliban regime. The Taliban governed most of Afghanistan and was known for religious fundamentalism and its brutal treatment of Afghan citizens. Afghanistan was therefore considered an appropriate country for US invasion: terrorists were hiding there and civilians needed protection against Taliban brutality.

The beauty of this narrative is that it’s all true. It’s misleading, however, because it’s incomplete.

It doesn’t mention that, in 2001, Afghanistan was war-torn and lacking proper infrastructure. It was devastated and not ready for another war. Its civilians had experienced decades of suffering: nine years of the Anti-Soviet War (December 1979 – February 1989) followed by a brutal twelve year period of Civil War (1989 – 2001). Like most violent conflict, both of these wars cost greater deaths and injuries of civilians than combatants. The high ratio of civilian casualties compared to combatant casualties continues in the current war in Afghanistan.

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Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan

It rarely speaks of the United States’ role in funding and supplying arms to the rebel forces of the mujahideen (the Taliban being a mujahideen faction) during the Anti-Soviet War. Nor does it mention that as soon as the Soviet forces had withdrawn from Afghanistan, the US withdrew the majority of their support, leaving behind a devastated country to pick up the pieces on its own. When the US and its allies play up the humanitarian aspects of the War in Afghanistan (‘we’re saving Afghan civilians from a brutal fundamentalist regime’), you’ve got to wonder where their humanitarian spirit had escaped to when the Afghan Civil War broke out in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, and 65,000 civilians died in Kabul alone.

The narrative also fails to recognise that al-Qaeda had been displaced within the first few months of the War in Afghanistan. The objective to ‘stamp out’ terrorism quickly became a mission to fundamentally change the way in which Afghanistan is governed – a democratising mission carried out by armed foreign forces in a country with a nightmarish past of foreign intervention. An important question, rarely voiced by the mainstream media, is: has the War in Afghanistan actually created more insurgency than it has prevented?

The narrative also shies away from questioning the human rights record of the Karzai government the US and its allies are propping up.

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Because of this, the general public aren’t provided with any context to the War in Afghanistan, nor are they given an opportunity to ask some of these all important questions. Most of the information we get comes in the form of euphemisms, weasel words, polarisations and careful construction.

Part II: The ‘War on Terror’: How Language has been Carefully Selected to Garner Support and Sanitise Atrocities

Whoever said ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ was an idiot. Language is incredibly powerful. Without getting too far into semiotics, language is how we create and understand meaning in the world. It’s how we communicate ideas and have them communicated to us. The replacement of one word in a sentence can drastically change the meaning of that sentence. We know this because we studied it as early as high school English, Media, and Social Sciences classes. And yet, we all need frequent reminders of how language is carefully chosen and constructed every day in virtually every news report on a ‘sensitive’ topic. It’s therefore incredibly important to closely examine how the ‘War on Terror’ is communicated to us.

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‘War on Terror’

Let’s start at the very beginning: the name used to describe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ‘War on Terror’ is a term that has been criticised by academics, like Judith Butler, for being too vague. A specific enemy or geographic territory is not provided by this moniker. The term ‘Terror’ is also hard to define. Terrorism is commonly understood to be the use of violence as a means of coercion for political purposes, but it has ‘no legally binding, criminal law definition’. Such a vague phrase is open to manipulation, as we have seen lately with the branding of environmental activists as ‘eco-terrorists’. Labelling someone a ‘terrorist’ allows the US government to create an ‘Other’ without recognising their own use of violence, or threat of violence, across the globe to coerce for political gain.

‘Freedom’

Operation Enduring Freedom is the operational name used by the US government for the War in Afghanistan. Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush used the word ‘freedom’ twelve times in his Declaration of the War on Terror speech to Congress, powerfully referring to al-Qaeda as ‘enemies of freedom’. In New Zealand, ACT party leader at the time (Richard Prebble) called the 9/11 attacks ‘an attack on the free world and an attack on New Zealand’. Despite ‘freedom’ being one of the most contested ideas in political philosophy*, it is often used by politicians to garner support because of its political power. No one wants to be seen as ‘anti-freedom’, even when we struggle to define what that actually means.

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‘Bad apples’

In the midst of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, US Defence Force spokespeople and politicians managed PR by claiming the abuse was carried out by a ‘few bad apples’. The US military and its allies are generally good, it’s just a couple of misbehaving soldiers responsible for these atrocities. Obviously the Bad Apples Theory was quite hard to maintain when the Bagram prisoner abuse scandal had also recently surfaced, and the use of torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay, video footage of the Baghdad airstrike on innocent Reuteurs staff, and the abundance of instances of deep cultural insensitivity (such as urinating on corpses and publically burning the Quran), all coming under the spotlight. ‘Bad apples’ is a euphemistic term which allows the Defence Force to blame poorly behaving individuals rather than reflecting on their jingoism.

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‘You’re either with us or against us’

‘Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. When George W. Bush delivered this line in his Declaration of the War on Terror speech, he was purposefully using polarisation to garner support. Polarisation presents complex issues as having only two sides. It is designed to motivate bystanders (on-the-fencers) into choosing one of those sides. Obviously you can be against a US-led ‘War on Terror’, without supporting al-Qaeda – international governments could have had any number of reasons for not wanting to commit troops to Afghanistan. A mere nine days after the 9/11 attacks, however, this polarising statement was immensely powerful. It likely put huge pressure on other countries to pledge support to the ‘War on Terror’.

**

Concluding thoughts:

Examining language is not an exercise resigned to English Literature degrees. Language has immense political power, even in day-to-day exchanges with friends. Recognising this doesn’t make you a conspiracy nut.

You may think that this all sounds incredibly obvious. It’s certainly not my intention to patronise, but I think these things are easy to forget. And when people in power manipulate language to garner support for questionable wars, we all have a responsibility to each other to remember.

Notes:

* Freedom has a popular meaning of ‘without restraint’, but deciding what this really means is fundamental to many debates in political philosophy. For example, liberal theory states that ‘law is essential to liberty’ and that in order for an individual to have freedom, restrictions need to be placed on other people’s freedoms in the form of laws. Ie: my right to life is a restriction on your right to kill me: murder is therefore a crime. My right to personal property is a restriction on your right to that property: as such, theft is a crime. A right-Libertarian would argue that freedom is found in the free market and that only a minimal state should exist to enfore private property laws. And so on and so fourth. This is just one example of how freedom is debated in political philosophy. There are many more. So, if a politician uses the word ‘freedom’ to rally support without specifying what they mean by that, they’re essentially just using a powerful weasel word.

** Although I’ve written a very US-centric blog post here, New Zealand soldiers were in Afghanistan for longer than their involvement in WWI and WWII combined. And yet, the details of our country’s activities are not public knowledge. Euphemisms and weasel words were frequently used by NZ politicians and the NZDF to describe the New Zealand ‘Provincial Reconstruction Team’ and the NZSAS’s activities. Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager’s investigative journalism provides compelling evidence to contest claims that the NZ PRT were carrying out ‘humanitarian aid’ projects and NZSAS were simply providing a ‘mentoring’ role to the Afghan special forces.

Sources

The Discourse of Terror: An Interview with Judith Butler: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/14555/the-discourse-of-terror_an-interview-with-judith-b

Jodi Dean: Why are we suddenly at War with ‘Islamic Fascists’?:  http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/i_cite/2006/09/john_dean_why_a.html

George W. Bush’s Declaration of War on Terror speech to Congress (20th September, 2001):

http://www.britannica.com/presidents/article-9398253

For a New Zealand perspective:

Jon Stephenson’s ‘Metro’ article:  Eyes Wide Shut: The Government’s Guilty Secrets in Afghanistan http://metromag.co.nz/metro-archive/eyes-wide-shut/

Nicky Hager’s book: Other People’s Wars: New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the war on terror (2011).

Professor Annie Goldson and producer Kay Ellmer’s documentary: He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan. TV broadcast version streaming free here: http://www.maoritelevision.com/tv/shows/anzac-2013/episode/he-toki-huna-new-zealand-afghanistan-0

Other docos I recommend on the ‘War on Terror’ (that are pretty much all up in full on Youtube):

Why we Fight (2005) dir. Eugene Jarecki

Dirty Wars (2013) dir. Rick Rowley

No End in Sight (2007) dir. Charles Ferguson

Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) dir. Alex Gibney

by Alex Edney-Browne

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