Language, Cultural Narrative, Symbols, and Myths Used for Political Purposes in the "War on Terrorism" Today
In the initial years of the 21st century, the United States has entered a new heyday of manipulative language use, especially by high-level post 9-11 politicians and political operators. Increasingly, for example, metaphor, myth, cultural narrative and storytelling (for often distracting, obfuscating, or even downright nefarious purposes) by high-level politicians and their associates, is used to construct politically advantageous "truths," usually out of thin air. Moreover, in post-9-11 America, these sometimes even humorously hyperbolic, supposedly patriotically-inspired phrases and slogans are remarkably successful, in their aim convincing many Americans to think, act and believe in particular "appropriate" or "patriotic" ways. In fact, it increasingly seems that manipulative metaphorical or hyperbolic language is employed, with frequent effectiveness, to draw verbal distinctions between supposedly "patriotic" Americans (those who still favor the war with Iraq) and "unpatriotic" ones (those who do not). This uniquely hyperbolic, divisive, and often misleading metaphorical "pro war" language is unique to the George W. Bush administration, and to this time in American life. In this essay, I will analyze several such uses of "patriotically inspired" language used most often by George W. Bush and his various spokespeople (although in recent weeks and months with ever-decreasing effectiveness) to rally public support for the continuing "War on Terrorism," and (as one misguided manifestation of it) the continuing war in Iraq.
First, in general, according to President George W. Bush and various members of his cabinet (e.g., Vice president Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others) our present cultural narrative of choice includes the key idea that "freedom-loving people everywhere" should (and, at least in his mind, do) continue to support current American war efforts in Iraq, despite there in fact being no real connection between being "freedom-loving" and supporting the war, especially against a government (and now an insurgency) that has never threatened anyone's freedom, except perhaps, arguably at least, its own. Further, since America is, at least according to another (musical) icon of American culture, the song America the Beautiful, "the land of the free, and the home of the brave," implicitly, to not continue to support the war is to, by association, not be sufficiently "freedom-loving," and therefore, not "brave." Moreover, the terrorists themselves are very often described by leading American (and, ever since the recent London subway and bus bombings, British) politicians as "weak" and as "cowards." By implication, then, to oppose the Iraq war (which has been rhetorically, inexorably melded to the "War on Terrorism" is to be other than a "freedom loving person," and by inference "weak" and a "coward," just like a terrorist.
Further, according to Keefer (June 12, 2003):
Bush is strategically connecting Iraq to the September 11 attacks with his rhetoric, claiming that the attack on Iraq is part of a campaign against
"international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." Certainly, Bush's statements are at least partially responsible for the persistent public misperception that Iraq and Saddam were involved in the September 11th attacks.
And, even with the Iraq war currently going badly, with American troops being killed and maimed daily, President Bush and his closest representatives continue to doggedly insist, now almost risibly, that "Freedom is on the March." The hoped-for outcome of the Iraq war (and again, by association, the "War on Terrorism" is today spoken of by the President and his closest advisors only metaphorically. Strategically repetitive use of the word "Freedom," or some derivative of it, is at the root of the administration's war rhetoric; Bush and others insist, for example, that "Freedom will prevail." After all, "America is a democracy," and therefore (as if these two ideas were somehow related, "we who love freedom must not give in to those who would threaten our way of life" [who are, by the way, terrorists like those led by Osama bin Laden, not the Iraqis]. In that same vein, our current, stubbornly pseudo-patriotic cultural narrative, delivered often by those who favor the war, is that we must "stay the course."
Sometimes, within today's sometimes frothy and often deceptive pro-war rhetoric, even unusual capitalizations of words or phrases, those never capitalized before the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, e.g., "War on Terrorism"; "Axis of Evil"; "America's City" [post-9-11 New York]; and "America's Mayor" (then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani), implicitly insist on their own embedded truthfulness, as if these words were the stuff of banner newspaper headlines or huge overhead billboards. Eventually, many Americans then (understandably) come to regard such phrases as important truths about who to look up to; who to dislike or distrust; who and what to believe in.
During the 2004 U.S. Presidential election campaign, George W. Bush, running for re-election against Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, successfully sold himself as a 'war president', convincing voters 'changing presidents in the middle of a war', even a manufactured war, was a bad idea.
Meanwhile, Democratic opponent John Kerry was a "flip-flopper," a label that stuck to Kerry and probably hurt. The campaign featured, in television commercials paid for by private donations, the charge by the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" that Kerry had lied about his wartime achievements in Vietnam, then causing labels far worse than "flop-flopper" to also stick to Kerry.
Other common uses of symbolic or metaphorical language for political purposes include ways that "hot button" political issues are often described metaphorically or figuratively. For instance, those who favor keeping abortion legal in the United States are "pro choice." Those who oppose abortion are "pro-life," a term that is, at least by any objective standard, exaggerated and hyperbolic.
As Hoffman observes, a frequent Bush post-911 tactic, has been to:
. . . resort to Orwellian rhetoric. The President told Americans that the war was not a policy chosen among others, but a necessity imposed by Saddam.
Nations that resisted the administration's rush to war were presented as hostile for reasons of greed or of an incurable anti-Americanism. Colin Powell
stated that Jacques Chirac had said that France wouldn't go to war against
Iraq "under any circumstances." In fact, as Powell must have known, and as I
have been told on very good authority, the French President had earmarked
French forces for war if the inspectors, after a limited number of weeks and after having followed a series of "benchmarks" not dissimilar from those Tony
Blair had demanded, concluded that Iraq did have forbidden weapons and could not be disarmed peacefully.
Similarly, as Rich notes (July 25, 2005):
On May 1, 2003, Mr. Bush celebrated "Mission Accomplished." On May 29,
Mr. Bush announced that "we found the weapons of mass destruction." On
July 2, as attacks increased on American troops, Mr. Bush dared the insurgents to "bring 'em on." But the mission was not accomplished, the weapons were not found and the enemy kept bringing 'em on. It was against this backdrop of mounting desperation on July 6 that Mr. Wilson [Joseph
Wilson, husband of "outed" CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame] went public with his incriminating claim that the most potent argument for the war in the first place, the administration's repeated intimations of nuclear Armageddon, involved twisted intelligence.
Bush's key deputies, including "Shock and Awe" Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney,
All have their own unique (and often equally, or even more misleading) pro-war rhetoric. Recently, in a stretch of the truth that even diehard war hawks may well have found questionable, Cheney, for example, insisted that the insurgency was "in its last throes" (Brown and Fadel, June 23, 2005). When questioned about the validity of that assessment, in a later CNN interview, Cheney stuck to his guns, explaining that:
"If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period . . . The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand if we're successful at accomplishing our objective, standing up a democracy in Iraq, that that's a huge defeat for them'
Clearly, here is yet another example of the Bush Administration's uniquely distracting language of obfuscation and distraction at work.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld weighed in on the Abu Ghraib controversy with some creative language use of his own. As he stated, for example:
My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I
believe technically is different from torture ... I don't know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word.
("Bush Administration Orwellian Logic," March 23, 2005)
More recently, and on a similar note, Rowley (August 10, 2005) states: