War of the Words

Language as a Weapon

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Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

When Barack Obama took over as president in 2009, the global war on terror, or GWOT, just didn’t seem to fit the tenor of his “hope” and “change” message. So wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were rebranded as “overseas contingency operations.” Talk about the banality of evil! Even Orwell’s Big Brother might be impressed by OCOs as a substitute for invasion and war.

A euphemistic word Obama didn’t banish was “surge.” The “surge” in Iraq allegedly had worked under General David Petraeus, even though its gains proved as “fragile” and “reversible” as Petraeus hinted they would be. So Obama conducted his own surge in Afghanistan, the so-called good or smart war after the Bush/Cheney disaster in Iraq. And of course the “gains” in Afghanistan also proved both fragile and reversible, though no one was held to account for the miserable failure of the Afghan War. Whoops. I mean the Afghan contingency operation for democracy and enduring freedom.

Showing that he too could learn from America’s folly, Vladimir Putin termed his invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation.” U.S. leaders laughed at this, criticizing Putin for his propagandistic euphemism, even as they persisted in using terms like “overseas contingency operation” for America’s “kinetic” military actions. The eye of the beholder, I guess.

These thoughts came to mind as I perused my Twitter/X feed this morning and spied this illustration posted by Chay Bowes:

Though the Russian flag is on the left, it could be the flag of China, Iran, North Korea, or any other alleged evildoer. The Russians invade, we intervene (for the sake of democracy, naturally). The Russians commit war crimes, we have unfortunate instances of collateral damage. In the war of the words, the U.S. military is clearly rather clever in a self-aggrandizing and self-exculpatory way.

Looking at comments from this Twitter feed, I came across another useful illustration of manipulating language and information in the cause of war. Take a gander:

I confess I’d never heard of Arthur Ponsonby and his book, Falsehood in War-Time. I need to check it out.

This may prove a handy list to keep around as America’s national (in)security state acts to gin up the next war.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.