A War of Words: How Language Was The Only Weapon Of Mass Destruction In Iraq
George Orwell wrote in 1946 an essay criticizing the overall demise of the English language. He claimed that dropping an atomic bomb on Japan can certainly be defended, but not in a language that could coincide with the aims and goals of political parties. And so, discourse becomes overflowed with what he called “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” (“Politics and the English Language”, n.d, para 22).
In 2003 George W. Bush needed a language resembling that which Orwell despised, one that could sell a plan to invade Iraq to the populace smoothly and effectively. His campaign made use of what is called “Dichotomous Language” (Alexander & Hanson, 2009), defined by Tewksbury et al. as assigning meaning to visual and oral signs (as cited in Alexander & Hanson, 2009). A classic example of such is the ‘good’ verses ‘evil’ or ‘us’ verses ‘them’ distinction. His administration needn’t do much more than formulate a narrative in which Iraqi leadership was synonymous with ‘evil’/ ‘unjust’, and military intervention being the ‘good’/ ‘heroic’ thing to do. They created polar opposites with infinite possibilities in between that they refused to explore.
The campaign stressed on two themes; (a) there were only two options in dealing with Iraq – ‘do nothing’ or ‘use military force’. (b) anyone who was not with ‘us’, was with the ‘terrorists’. (Alexander & Hanson, 2009). Bush and his management were able to utilize such terms and manipulate language to associate them with their enemies, and thus create a general hatred against ‘them’ in order to rally support for their agenda.
This kind of politicized language does not leave room for the ‘other’ to be human. The Iraqi President was a ‘tyrant’ and anyone who followed him was an accomplice. The notion of dissecting this abstract idea of ‘enemy’ and perhaps considering those alleged ‘terrorists’ as people- with stories, would be met with sounds of derision. In order for Saddam Hussain to be the bad guy: people need not know anything about his human experience, or the challenges he faced being the leader of a country torn by religious strife. He must be vague as an individual, clear as the spawn of Satan.
The use of such manipulative language reaped its reward for in March 2003; polls showed 47-60% of Americans in support of the invasion (popular opinion, n.d). Nonetheless, deception could only go so far, for the same poll was taken again in April 2007, only to result in 58% of the participants stating the initial attack was a mistake. Moreover, The New York Times and CBS News released similar results of a poll in which 61% of participants believed the US should have stayed out of Iraq (popular opinion, n.d).
Evidence is compelling that media coverage of the situation failed in its primary responsibility: to be objective in its approach towards Iraq in order for critical decisions about war and peace sans influence, to be made. This was not because objectivity failed per se, rather the result of few media outlets understanding that they were being misled by authorial figures. To help lure the public into supporting a war that should not have happened.
The Iraqi invasion is well behind us, tucked away in the pages of history as a ‘major oopsie’. However, the approximate one hundred and fifty thousand deaths, its repercussions which continue to have strong effects in the region, on American foreign policy, and on thousands of families (Taylor, 2018) on both sides, shall not be forgotten.
Question is, how many oopsies have Arabs endured as a collective, in service of agendas that are not theirs? How many more are they still enduring? And what role does ‘othering’ play in the deteriorating current political climate in places like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the chronic stiffness down humanity’s spine, Palestine.
One thing is for sure, language is a powerful tool. In the wrong hands, it can cause more damage than a British short rifle. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Arabs to abandon the role of credulous victims and take charge of their own destiny. It is up to Arabs to reclaim their narrative, power, and consciousness. To stop history from repeating itself, force a permanent halt to the weaponizing of language, thus effectively ending the war of words.
Samah J Abu Marzouk, PhD.
Alexander, A., Hanson, J. (2009). Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society. 10th ed. New
York, USA: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Politics and the English Language. (n.d) Retrieved October 17 2011, from Wikilivres
Popular opinion in the United States on the Invasion of Iraq. (n.d) retrieved October 17 2011,
from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org
Taylor, Alan. (2018, March 20). Photos: Looking Back at the War in Iraq, 15 Years After the
U.S. Invaded. The Atlantic.