The Language of War


W.J. Astore

The language of war fascinates me.  I was reading President Obama’s response to Donald Trump on whether Obama “gets it” when it comes to the threat of terrorism and came across this passage:

“Someone [Donald Trump] seriously thinks that we don’t know who we are fighting? If there is anyone out there who thinks we are confused about who our enemies are — that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.”

That’s such a curious phrase: “terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.”  As if the United States has simply evacuated them or relocated them instead of killing them.

I think the distancing effect of air power has something to do with this euphemistic language.  The U.S. military “takes people off the battlefield” rather than killing them, blowing them up, and so on.  Obama’s personality may also play a role: a rational person, he’s been compared to the Vulcan Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” in his coolly logical approach to war.

Perhaps that coolly rational side, and not his preference to avoid terms like “radical Islamic terrorism,” is what gets Obama into trouble.  Many Americans would prefer more directness, more passion, even though such directness and passion is often the approach of posturing chickenhawks.  Consider the language of Bush/Cheney and all their blustering about “wanted, dead or alive” and “the axis of evil“ and “you’re either for us or against us.”  Bush/Cheney talked as if they had just walked off a Western movie set after a gunfight, but both avoided the Vietnam War when they were young men, with Cheney famously saying he had other, more important things to do with his life.  (Bush flew in the Texas Air National Guard, apparently gaining a slot after his father pulled some political strings.)

So, what should Obama have said in place of “we’ve taken them off the battlefield”?

Why not be honest and say something like this?  “I’m well into the eighth and final year of my administration, during which I’ve approved drone strikes and air raids that have killed thousands of suspected and confirmed terrorists.  Sure, we’ve often missed some targets, killing innocent people instead, but hey — war is hell.  I’ve approved Pentagon budgets that each year approach $750 billion, I’ve overseen the U.S. dominance of the international trade in weapons, I continue to oversee an empire of roughly 700 overseas U.S. bases.  Some have even called me the assassin in chief, and they’re right about that, because under my command deadly drone strikes have increased dramatically.  Meanwhile, we’ve already made some 12,000 air strikes against ISIS/ISIL.  So don’t tell me, Mr. Trump, that I don’t know who the enemy is.  Don’t tell me I’m not willing to murder terrorists whenever and wherever we find them, even when they’re U.S. citizens and teenagers.  Don’t tell me I don’t get it.”

Those words would be honest – though they’d really just scratch the surface of the Obama-led efforts to secure the “Homeland.”  But instead Obama speaks of “taking” terrorists “off the battlefield,” cloaking his administration’s violent actions in a euphemistic phrase that would be consistent with angels from on high coming down to lift terrorists off the battlefield to some idyllic oasis.

Odd, isn’t it, that so few Americans criticize Obama for his murderous actions in overseas wars, but so many will criticize him for not bragging and boasting about it.

Well, if America is looking for a braggart, someone willing to boast about himself, they have their man in Donald Trump.  If they’re looking for a new assassin in chief, they have their woman in Hillary Clinton.  And if they’re looking for fresh ideas, a new strategy, a way to end our seemingly endless wars, they’re simply out of luck this election season, unless you go to a third-party candidate like Jill Stein.

In these over-heated times, the chances of a third-party challenge with substance are somewhere between nada and nil.  In the United States in 2016, war and weapons sales and imperial expansion will continue to find a way, even as our leaders cloak their violent actions using the most anodyne phrases.

C’est la guerre.

11 thoughts on “The Language of War

  1. William.

    So we kill a lot of Jihadi privates, and every now and then a Jihadi colonel or general – all quickly replaced – and the center of gravity, Wahabism, goes untouched.


  2. And, if reports are correct, the Wahabi Finance Ministry donated millions to the Clinton Foundation. Lincoln Bedroom here they come – get rid if the Gideon and bring in the Koran, it pays better..


  3. Walt: I have to think so much of this is about oil (the Saudis “guarantee” a certain rate of production, keeping prices predictable as well as profitable) and also weapons sales (I’d have to check for the exact figure, but we’ve sold scores of billions of weapons to the Saudis). I’ve always been curious about the Royal Saudi Air Force — they buy almost everything we make, with lots of money flowing to U.S. military contractors.

    And of course the Saudis own a lot of our debt as well. All of this influences our politicians and their corporate masters to look the other way on Saudi support of radical Islam, especially since it’s Sunni, and the U.S. is more concerned with Iran and Shia.

    It’s a “grand bargain” in which the US often gets the shaft.


  4. As Mary McCarthy famously said of fellow writer Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”

    Those words came immediately to mind when I read the quoted excerpt from President Obama’s recent speech, especially when he spoke of “the battlefield” from which he claimed to have “taken off” thousands of “terrorists.” I mean: he could just as easily and more truthfully have said, “the Earth,” since he has arrogated to himself the power to order anyone killed, for any or no reason at all, at any time, anywhere on the planet.

    We use the definite article “the” when we speak of one specific thing. Otherwise, we use the indefinite artlce “a” or “an” in reference to anything which has multiple equivalents, like battlefields, for example. When I think of “battlefiields” I think of Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Verdun, Stalingrad, and Dien Bien Phu: historic fields where armies clashed and died in significant numbers until one side emerged victorious, thus settling for a time some momentous issue. But just the other day — and tyically — President Obama had an unarmed man — “an obstacle to peace,” he claimed — murdered while driving in a taxi along a lonely highway in Pakistan. President Obama also had the taxi driver killed, as well, leaving a widow and four children with no one to provide for them. Some “battlefield.”

    So, not only does President Obama lie when he speaks of “battlefields” — i.e., any place on earth where he has people killed — but he even lies when he attempts to use the word “the.”


  5. Although I enjoy discussing issues relevant to the abuse of language for political purposes, I do realize that the lame-duck President Obama has pretty much run out his time in office and has therefore, for most practical purposes, ceased to matter. So who cares what he says? The “bipartisan” foreign policy establishment — whether Republican neocons or Democratic humanitarian interventionists — has melded into an undifferentiated war party that has already annointed You-Know-Her as the country’s next (and perhaps last) president. Stand by for Gotterdammerung and the Ride of the Valkyries (Michelle Flournoy (“Defense”) and Victoria Nuland “State”), et al). How Richard Wagner would savor this moment.

    Nevertheless, we can expect from You-Know-Her and her sisterhood of sick sycophants the same mellifluously modulated mush — i.e., Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification — that we have come to expect from Barack Obama. The cast of caricatures will change but the tendentious tune and lying lyrics will not. Still, we powerless and disregarded citizens ought to prepare ourselves for the blizzard of belligerent bullshit to come by analyzing President Obama’s excerpetd comments with a view towards using them to develop our own, reality-based vocabulary so that we may continue to think clearly in spite of our own government’s assidous efforts to deceive and manipulate us. As George Orwell said in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language (1946): “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

    Let us consider, then, a brief but outstanding example of bad English employed to (sort of) mention war without actually talking directly about it:

    “Someone [Donald Trump] seriously thinks that we don’t know who we are fighting? If there is anyone out there who thinks we are confused about who our enemies are — that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.”

    First off, and just as a matter of basic English grammar, President Obama cannot properly distinguish between the pronouns “who” (subject) and “whom” (object). In only two sentences, he manages to use who correctly only once while failing to use the proper pronoun whom three times. So I would say that evidence of his confusion about things — like “actor” and “acted upon” — begins right there.

    Next, President Obama’s two-sentence paragraph begins with an incredulous rhetorical question which, as Wikipedia informs us, “is a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked to make a point rather than to elicit an answer.” And the point that President Obama wished to surreptitiously insinuate while pretending to ask a question?

    “No one can seriously think that we don’t know [whom] we are fighting.”

    What a ridiculous thing to say. In the first place, anyone — even Donald Trump — can seriously think anything they like. In the second place, since America now finds itself fighting more people in more countries than when President Obama first assumed office, it takes hardly any thinking at all to recognize how little President Obama and his administration know about what happens when you fight people in their own countries. This does not mean that Donald Trump or You-Know-Her would know whom to fight, where to fight, when to fight, how to fight, why to fight, or even whether to fight, either. Expecting intelligence and self-awareness — let alone a little common sense — from any current or prospective American president stetches credulity beyond the breaking point. Therefore, even the simplest of sentient carbon-based life forms has every reason for skepticism when it comes to American presidential rhetoric about “fighting someone”.

    Next, we come to President Obama’s second sentence, a real piece of convoluted crap if I have ever read one (and I have read many). Professor Astore has dealt with this at some length, focusing on the whopper of a euphemism “terrorists [whom] we have taken off the battlefield,” and I do not wish to repeat what he has already (and correctly) said. I’ve already dealt with my objections to “the” and “battlefield” in a previous post above, so I’ll just stop here and post additional comments and analyses later, as time and energy permit.


  6. Regarding the second sentence of President Obama’s fatuous fusillade against the facts, I haven’t gotten around to covering all of my many criticisms of it, but just as a passing note, I refuse to accept or in any way endorse his misuse and outright abuse of the word “terrorist.” As one would expect, Glenn Greenwald has already covered this travesty of law and language in depth and detail.

    See: Democrats’ War on Due Process and Terrorist Fearmongering Long Predate Orlando.

    So much for that Law degree ostensibly posessesd by our present President. So much for his sworn oath “to protect and defend the Constituton of the United States.” What worthless words.

    As well, I probably ought to question just whom President Obama means when he says “we,” as in “terrorists [whom] we have taken off the battlefield.” According to a an ongoing FBI criminal investigation of You-Know-Her’s private/public e-mail correspondence, the former Secretary of State for President Obama approved CIA drone assassinations over her unsecured cellphone. Does this mean that President Obama directly delegated to her that death-dealing power, or did she simply arrogate it to herself, just like he did? Get ready, fellow Crimestoppers. Here comes yet another lying lawyer swearing — “Honest Injun!” — to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.” More worthless words.

    Coming next: the ludicrous concept of “surprising” dead or abducted and incarcerated people by suggesting that “we don’t know [whom] we are fighting.” I have to admit, deconstructing this piece of bogus brain drool may prove beyond my poor power to read and reflect upon the risible.


  7. Finally, as promised (or threatened), I would like to attempt a parsing of President Obama’s second sentence: a priceless piece of pious pontification indeed:

    “If there is anyone out there who thinks we are confused about [whom] our enemies are — that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists [whom] we have taken off the battlefield.”

    Now, Professor Astore has helpfully observed that the euphemism “taken off the battlefield” in reality means “killed.” I would agree but go further in pointing out that it also means “abducted, relocated to some secret prison, (in many cases) tortured, and incarcerated indefinitely without charge or trial.” So, yes, President Obama — like several of his immediate predecessors — has had people (both foreigners and U.S. citizens) “taken” — meaning either killed or kidnapped wherever on planet earth that American special-ops assassins or robot drones have managed to locate them (or their cell phones).

    Expanding the sentence and proceeding logically from the idea of >b>killed or kidapped people, however, leads a thinking person to ask two questions: (1) How does one surprise a dead person whom one has already killed? and (2) Why would thousands of persons whose relatives one has killed and whom one has illegally abducted from their homes and neighborhoods not find one confused about whom one’s enemies are?

    Regarding the first of these questions: Does President Obama have a frequent-traveller coupon for Charon’s boat so that he may frequently cross the River Styx to Hades where he can interview these dead souls following which he can return to the land of the living so as to report to us the results of his survey? Does this man have any clue at all how blindingly stupid he sounds?

    Regarding the second of these questions: If nothing else, President Obama’s illegal actions have certainly convinced his surviving victims that he is not just dangerously confused but is b>their mortal enemy, without a shadow of a doubt. “Confusion” doesn’t come anywhere near to describing President Obama’s delusions about whom America’s enemies are. But one thing seems irrefutably obvious: He makes thousands more of them nearly every day.

    Lots of people “out there” do not just think this about President Obama and the United States. They know</b it.

    So much for "the language of war."


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