Trump and the Rewriting of History

orwell-nineteen-eighty-four-large-cover

W.J. Astore

George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom.  Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons.  You can limit how and what they think.  You can, in a major way, control the future.  Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.

Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com.  They make no apologies and take no prisoners.  They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth.  The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).

Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House.  They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.

As the Congressional Budget Office reported:

The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.

I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.

george-orwell
George Orwell

Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place.  Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.

In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):

I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.

One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.

In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.

Trump: Yet Another War President?

trump
Yet another war president?

W.J. Astore

Is Donald Trump going to be yet another American war president?  Come to think of it, is there any other kind?

This is no accident.  Tom Engelhardt has an insightful article at TomDispatch today about how Trump the blowhard is a product of blowback from America’s failed wars, notably Iraq.  There’s much truth in this insight, since it’s hard to imagine demagogue Trump’s rise to power in a pacific climate.  Trump arose in a climate of fear: fear of the Other, especially of the terrorist variety, but also of any group that can be marginalized and vilified.  Think of Mexicans and the infamous Wall, for example.

In a separate post, Engelhardt noted the recent death of Marilyn Young, an historian who found herself specializing in America’s wars, notably Vietnam.  He cited a New York Times obituary on Young that highlighted her attentiveness to America’s wars and their continuity.

Since her childhood, Young noted, America had been at war: “the wars were not really limited and were never cold and in many places have not ended — in Latin America, in Africa, in East, South and Southeast Asia.”

She confessed that:

“I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war.  I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese civil war, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II and forward to the wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries.”

“Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace or postwar,” she said. “Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold.”

As George Orwell wrote in 1984, all that matters is for a state of war to exist (whether declared or, nowadays in the USA, undeclared).  A war mentality is the driver for autocratic excesses of all sorts.  It serves to focus the attention of people to various perceived enemies, whether from without or from within.  It promotes simplified thinking and generates fear, and fear is the mind-killer.  “Us and Them,” as Pink Floyd sang.

Aggravating simplistic and hateful “us and them” thinking in the USA is the lack of a major political party dedicated to peace.  In the USA, we have two war parties.  Trump knew this and readily exploited (and continues to exploit) it.  He knows the modern Democratic Party won’t seriously challenge the war rhetoric that drove and drives America’s new militarized reality.

Why?  Because the Democrats nurtured it.  Recall that in 2004 John Kerry “reported for duty” by saluting the Democratic National Convention.  Barack Obama in 2008 quickly morphed from a “hope and change” liberal to a drone-wielding assassin-in-chief while pursuing his “good” war in Afghanistan.  Hillary Clinton in 2016 proudly embraced Henry Kissinger and projected a harsh exterior as a hardheaded hawk.  “We came, we saw, he died,” she famously chuckled about Libya and the death of Qaddafi.  Even Bernie Sanders, with all his dreams, said little about cutting the Pentagon’s budget.

You can go back further and tag other recent Democratic presidents, such as LBJ during the Vietnam War or JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Candidate Kennedy wantonly exaggerated the “missile gap” in nuclear capability between the US and USSR (JFK had it backwards; it was the US that had clear superiority).  Jimmy Carter took a different approach, but he too soon learned his lesson, ordering a huge military buildup (overseen by the Reagan Administration) and declaring the “Carter Doctrine” to safeguard Persian Gulf oil supplies as a vital US interest.  That policy contributed in its own way to America’s recent disasters in the Greater Middle East.

Did Jimmy Carter, then, lead to Donald Trump?  Indirectly, yes.  America’s insatiable hunger for global resources (especially oil) and its desire for global power bred the conditions under which blowback came to America’s shores.  Blowback helped to generate the fear and confused desires for revenge that Trump tapped with great success in his campaign.

Today, America’s state of incessant warfare is consuming its democracy, yet President Trump’s answer is to call for more military spending, more violent attacks overseas, and more walls at home, all in a vain quest to “win” again.  Small wonder then that he’s ramping up military spending while ordering more attacks.

Trump knows what got him to the Oval Office, and it wasn’t his keen intelligence or gentlemanly charm or skill at diplomacy.  Recall that his favorite generals, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, were all about “winning” even as they both wanted to wage the wrong wars (Patton was ready to take on the Soviets in 1945; MacArthur wanted to cross the Yalu River and invade China during the Korean War).

Will Trump, like his favorite World War II generals, seek to wage the wrong wars?  Will he recognize that fighting the wrong war is a loss even when you “win”?  Does he want to be a “war president,” and, if so, who will stop him?

Get Another Goat

Michael Murry

Democrats need an honest post-mortem – not dishonest scapegoating – in the aftermath of their devastating 2016 defeat.

Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct. – George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism” (London: Polemic, 1945)

Many have written about the recent Women’s March in Washington, D.C. — and in other cities across the United States – which occurred in response to President Donald Trump’s early executive orders, cabinet appointments, in-your-face culture-war media-baiting, and (of course) his signature late-night twitter trolling. Lots of things to legitimately oppose and protest, surely, but to my knowledge, few of these articles have analyzed the women-led protest marches from the standpoint of exculpatory political scapegoating, if not transferred nationalism, as George Orwell explained the meaning of that term in his famous essay. For my part, I would like to try and address this imbalance.

First off, several signs that I saw from the Women’s March addressed President Donald Trump personally in terms that I had difficulty connecting with Women’s Rights, such as I understand them. I don’t have a problem with either the imagery or the language, however crude or even profane, since Donald Trump himself seems to delight in offending as many persons, nations, and institutions as he possibly can if it serves his purposes. So, if he receives rough treatment, in picture or word, then he has it coming. He gets no sympathy from me. My problem with these signs stems not from their tone of deserved disrespect, but from their strange fixation on Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin who – as far as I can tell – has no power to deny an American woman equal pay, access to a safe abortion, maternity leave, or quality public education for her children, among other issues that women – as women – typically consider important.

For example, take the following piece of work, a pointed paraphrase of an old children’s nursery rhyme:

tinkle

I saw other signs of a similar nature, another of which I will cite later as a further example. I cannot speak to the generality of such sentiments, and I would hope that only a few persons harbor them, but this unfortunate expression of malignant partisan irrelevancy immediately gets to the point raised by Robert Parry in an article he wrote for Consortium News (February 1, 2017): namely, “Dangers of Democratic Putin-Bashing – Exclusive: As national Democratic leaders continue to blame Russian President Putin for their 2016 defeat, they’re leading their party into a realignment with the neocons and other war hawks.”

While I concur with Mr. Parry’s article in the main, I have to disagree with his use of the present progressive tense and the word “realignment.” As a matter of fact, the alignment of the Democratic Party with “neocons and other war hawks” took place decades ago, with President Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama and the hapless Democrats in Congress, for their part, have only reinforced and strengthened this alignment.  To speak of this dreadful reality as if it exists only as a possible development in the future rather misstates the truly grim and long-established reality. Otherwise, and specifically as this article relates to the Women’s March, consider a comment I came across in response to Robert Parry’s article:

“evelync”
February 1, 2017 at 11:35 am

I have to admit that I was unable to drag myself to the women’s march because I was unsettled by the concern that it was being used, perhaps, to try to keep Hillary Clinton’s foot in the door.

Another commenter wrote:

“D5-5”
February 1, 2017 at 2:15 pm

I don’t know that having allowed themselves to sink into the behaviors employed to knock off [Senator Bernie] Sanders, then expanding these to Russia-bashing, as the Dems and Clinton did, will likely take them in the direction of an ‘oh, let’s get honest here and see why we lost the election, and straighten ourselves right out to become an actually decent alternative to offer to the American people.’

Two points here:

(1) Why not blame the Democratic Party and its deeply unpopular, demonstrably inept, largely unaccomplished, and repeatedly discredited candidate, You-Know-Her [Hillary Clinton], for losing instead of crediting the political rookie Donald Trump – and by extension, Russian President Vladimir Putin – for “winning”?

(2) Why not insist that the losing Democrats conduct a long-overdue autopsy, summarily purge their Wall-Street/Permanent-War “leadership” (the names Clinton and Obama come to mind here), and reform themselves into a truly working-class, anti-war party capable of winning back the loyalty of those impoverished Americans whom they have betrayed and abandoned for Ivy-League University degrees and swell vacations on Martha’s Vineyard with other newly rich members of their privileged “professional” class?

But attaining emotional salvation through scapegoating – so as not to require actually doing anything to cure the real political and economic disease of neoliberalism – does seem the order of the day among these marchers, most of whom one must suppose voted for You-Know-Her and the neoliberal status quo that downwardly dropping American workers hate with an abiding and vengeful passion. The Damsel of Distress has done it again, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as only a “New Democrat” named Clinton could manage. How that must hurt!

Moving right along, I came across another image from the Women’s March that showed a man holding a mask of Vladimir Putin in front of his face while holding what looked like marionette strings from which dangled the image of Donald Trump as a puppet.

puppet

Now, I know You-Know-Her openly called Donald Trump a “puppet” of Vladimir Putin during one of the fall campaign debates, so it does not surprise me that some of her partisan supporters would credulously accept this gratuitous slur without bothering to think through the preposterous illogic behind it. For as those who have read the WikiLeaks documents have explained, the Clinton campaign tried everything they could to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump on the theory that he would make the weakest opponent, one whom You-Know-Her would have the least trouble vanquishing. Consider the following excerpt from the articleThey Always Wanted Trump: Inside Team Clinton’s year-long struggle to find a strategy against the opponent they were most eager to face”, by Gabriel Debenedetti, Politico (November 07, 2016):

Clinton’s team drew up a plan to pump Trump up. Shortly after her kickoff, top aides organized a strategy call, whose agenda included a memo to the Democratic National Committee: “This memo is intended to outline the strategy and goals a potential Hillary Clinton presidential campaign would have regarding the 2016 Republican presidential field,” it read.

“The variety of candidates is a positive here, and many of the lesser known can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right. In this scenario, we don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party,” read the memo.

“Pied Piper candidates include, but aren’t limited to: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Ben Carson

We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”

Now, aside from the arrogant (but not implausible) notion that You-Know-Her’s campaign could tell [as in, “command”] the press whom to take seriously, no one has ever questioned the accuracy of these memoranda from John Podesta to You-Know-Her’s campaign. But just consider what they tell us.

First, if Donald Trump owed his candidacy to You-Know-Her’s campaign to promote him as a Pied Piper over all the other Republican candidates, and if Russian President Vladimir Putin somehow contrived to make all this happen, then that would credit Vladimir Putin with first manipulating one puppet, You-Know-Her, to control Trump, another puppet. In the interest of metaphorical accuracy, then, the marching protester here should have worn a Putin mask while holding the strings to a puppet of You-Know-Her holding the strings to another puppet, All-About-Him [Trump].

Second, if President Putin had successfully pulled off this convoluted manipulation of both presidential candidates, then why would he possibly let that fact come to light in these WikiLeaks memos? Wouldn’t he want to keep his sinister Machiavellian machinations a secret, so as not – as America’s CIA spooks like to say – reveal his “sources and methods”? As a former KGB intelligence officer, surely he knows his espionage tradecraft better than that. So, logically, President Putin would have no interest in revealing his omnipotent control of America’s two hapless presidential candidates. It makes no sense that Russia would leak anything about this to WikiLeaks or any other journalistic source. That would only discredit Trump as a dupe of both You-Know-Her and Vladimir Putin.

Complete bullshit, either way. It would appear that – in truth – John Podesta and You-Know-Her got just the opponent they wanted to run against: Donald Trump. Then they lost to their own “Pied Piper” puppet. But still they want to scapegoat Russian President Vladimir Putin for their own manifest failure to recognize and respond to the seething desperation of America’s working class. The people want jobs and incomes, not more NAFTA or TPP trade deals. You-Know-Her promised more of the latter. Trump promised at least some of the former. Gee whiz. Who could have ever figured out which way that “choice” would go?

Not that Republican Donald Trump will necessarily deliver anything more than tax cuts and deregulation to the Corporate Oligarchy while shoveling loads of crappy culture war to the proles who voted for him, but sheer luck, some media-sense, and good timing have given him the chance. I seriously doubt that he has the knowledge and competence to pull off anything resembling PEACE, but he does now have that opportunity. Who knows if he has the wit to seize it?

At any rate, it appears as if the defeated Democrats have chosen Russian President Putin as an attractive scapegoat simply due to (1) his “foreignness” and (2) the nature of transferred nationalism. This psychological transference, Orwell wrote, “has an important function. … It makes it possible for [the nationalist] to be much more nationalistic – more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest – than he [or she] could ever be on behalf of [their] native country, or any unit of which [they] had real knowledge.”

Americans know little, if anything, about the Russian Federation or its duly elected, competent, domestically popular, and internationally respected president. Creative costumes and too-clever-by-half slogans aside, it seems like a monumental waste of time, energy, and limited American attention span for the Democrats to scapegoat President Putin for their own stupidity, arrogance, and insensitivity to their party’s traditional base.

The Democrats had better look inward and get their own act together. Either that, or get another goat.

Michael Murry is a Vietnam Veteran, gargoyle sculptor, and poet.  A loyal correspondent to Bracing Views, he is also a contributor to The Contrary Perspective.

“Unquestionably Syme Will Be Vaporized”: Lessons from Orwell’s 1984

orwell-nineteen-eighty-four-large-cover

W.J. Astore

Syme is a minor character in George Orwell’s “1984.”  A philologist, Syme works on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, “the definitive edition” according to him.  What’s fascinating is Orwell’s description of the intent and main functions of Newspeak, as given by Syme in this passage:

“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”

“Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

This brilliant passage by Orwell sends chills up my spine.  There will be no thought.  Orthodoxy means not thinking.  Is this not in fact true of many people today, content to express unquestioning and unwavering obedience to “the Party,” like the people who support Donald Trump simply because he says he’ll make America great again?

After Syme’s oration on Newspeak, Winston Smith, the main protagonist of “1984,” thinks to himself: “Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”

A couple of pages later, Syme makes another penetrating observation:

“There is a word in Newspeak … I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.”

To this observation, Winston thinks to himself: “Unquestionably Syme will be vaporized.”

Why?  Orwell notes that Syme is a Party zealot, a true believer.  But what he lacks, Orwell makes clear, is unconsciousness.  Syme is too self-aware, and speaks too plainly, therefore he must go.  And indeed later in the book he does disappear.

(As an aside, I like Orwell’s reference to some of Syme’s fatal flaws: that he “read too many books” and “frequented … [the] haunt of painters and musicians.”  Yes: books and the arts are indeed the enemy of unconscious orthodoxy in any state.)

The other day, a reader sent to me the following unattributed saying:  We build our houses out of words, then we live in them.

In “1984,” the Party sought total control over language, over words, as a way of dominating people’s consciousness.

One of my favorite sayings of Orwell, also from “1984” and one I always shared with my students, goes something like this: Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.

I think you could add to that: Who controls the language, the very words with which we communicate and think, controls the present.

Language is the key, a point Orwell brilliantly makes through the character of Syme in “1984.”

This Modern and Dystopic World

orwell 006
My copy of Orwell’s 1984

W.J. Astore

The modern world is a kluge of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with screens everywhere in which people submerge themselves, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with “soma” of all sorts to keep us drugged and happy, and of course George Orwell’s 1984 with constant surveillance and the “two minutes of hate,” directed mainly at “the enemy,” especially the enemy within, known in 1984 as Goldstein (for some Americans today, “Goldstein” is Donald Trump; for others, it’s Hillary Clinton; for a few, it’s Ted Cruz or perhaps all of the above).

Dystopic elements characterize our American moment, hence the appropriateness of dystopic science fiction novels.  Bradbury was especially good at poking holes in the idea technology was in essence a liberating force.  He captured the way people might submerge their identities within screens, neglecting the real people around them, even those closest to them, for the “virtual reality” of infotainment.  Huxley was keen to debunk mass production as a liberating force, but his invention of “soma,” a mood-enhancing drug that leads to detachment and inaction, captured our overly medicated ways.  (I can’t watch network news without being bombarded by drug ads that promise me release from pain or acne or other nuisances and hence a better life, as long as I take this pill or use this inhaler.)  Finally, Orwell captured the total surveillance state, one driven by fear, obsessed by enemies created by the state to cow the masses.  Perhaps the darkest of the three, Orwell left little hope for the “little man” oppressed under the jackboot of a militaristic and totalitarian state.

The times are not quite that dark in America today, but these three classic novels offer warnings we’d do well to heed.  An aspect of these dystopias we most definitely see in America today is the degeneration of news, of information, of knowledge.  As a society, America is arguably less fact-based today than at any point in its history.  Even as we’re immersed in information via the Internet, the news itself has become shallower, or trivial, or frivolous, when it’s not out-and-out propaganda.

I grew up watching the news.  Before going to school, I used to watch the “Today” show in the morning in the 1970s.  It was a decent show.  Some real and serious news made the cut.  Now it’s largely a laugh-fest featuring celebrities making sales-pitches.  The news as soap opera; the news as vanity.

To state the obvious: The network “news” has been dumbed down.  Image is nearly everything.  Stories are far shorter and without context.  Designed for people with limited attention spans, they’re also designed to keep people watching, so they feature sensationalism and “quick hits” — nothing too taxing or disturbing.

Of course, the real news is still out there, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest probing article at TomDispatch.com.  It’s just much harder to find on the network “news”:

What’s left out?  Well, more or less everything that truly matters much of the time: any large, generally unphotogenic process, for instance, like the crumbling of America’s infrastructure (unless cameras can fortuitously zoom in on a bridge collapsing or a natural gas pipeline in the process of blowing up in a neighborhood — all so much more likely in an age in which no imaginable situation lacks its amateur video); poverty (who the hell cares?); the growing inequality gap locally or globally (a no-interest barrier the WikiLeaks-style Panama Papers recently managed to break through); almost anything that happens in the places where most of the people on this planet actually live (Asia and Africa); the rise of the national security state and of militarism in an era of permanent war and permanent (in)security in the “homeland”; and don’t even get me started on climate change…

Coming to grips with the real news would require thought and necessitate action – changes, radical ones, to the status quo.  And what powerbroker wants that?

Focus instead, America, on your screens.  Take your soma.  Hate your Goldstein.  That’s the method driving our madness.  Dystopia, anyone?

 

Words about War Matter

orwell-nineteen-eighty-four-large-cover

W.J. Astore

In my new article for TomDispatch.com, I argue that words about war matter.  A clear sign of America’s post-democratic military is the language our leaders use when they talk about war.  Specifically, words, euphemisms, and expressions that muddle or obfuscate meaning while excluding most Americans from the debate.  Acronyms like VUCA and 4GW and COIN, moreover, create a specialized language that suggests war is beyond the understanding of regular folk.  Meanwhile, euphemisms and rhetoric hide the truth about war.

In a democracy, how are proper decisions to be made about war if the truth is deliberately cloaked or hidden?

The entire article is here at TomDispatch.com; what follows is the last section of my article, featuring a strong contribution from Mike Murry, a regular contributor here at Bracing Views.

The proliferation of euphemisms, acronyms, and neologisms has no end.  You might start with “defense” instead of “war” department, followed by “homeland” security, the “PATRIOT” act, and on and on.  I still recall Ronald Reagan’s christening of the MX nuclear missile, with its multiple warheads capable of unleashing city-wide genocides, as the “Peacekeeper.”

The United States may be losing our many “overseas contingency operations,” but when it comes to manipulating words, it’s truly “mission accomplished.”

The Truth About “Progress” in America’s Wars

These days, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter often resorts to cancer imagery when describing the Islamic state. “Parent tumor” is an image he especially favors — that is, terrorism as a cancer that America’s militarized surgeons need to attack and destroy before it metastasizes and has “children.”  (Think of the ISIS franchises in Libya, where the organization has recently doubled in size, Afghanistan, and Yemen.)  Hence the proliferation of “surgical strikes” by drones and similarly “surgical” Special Ops raids, both of which you could think of as America’s equivalent of white blood cells in its war on the cancer of terrorism.

But is terrorism really a civilizational cancer that can be “cured” via the most aggressive “kinetic” treatments?  Can the U.S. render the world cancer-free?  For that’s what Carter’s language implies.  And how does one measure “progress” in a “war” on the cancer of ISIS?  Indeed, from an outsider’s perspective, the proliferation of U.S. military bases around the world (there are now roughly 800), as well as of drone strikes, Special Ops raids, and massive weapons exports might have a cancerous look to them.  In other words, what constitutes a “cancer” depends on one’s perspective — and perhaps one’s definition of world “health,” too.

The very notion of progress in America’s recent wars is one that a colleague, Michael Murry, recently critiqued.  A U.S. Navy Vietnam War Veteran, he wrote me that, for his favorite military euphemism, “I have to go with ‘progress’ as incessantly chanted by the American military brass in Iraq and Afghanistan…

“We go on hearing about 14 years of ‘progress’ which, to hear our generals tell it, would vanish in an instant should the United States withdraw its forces and let the locals and their neighbors sort things out. Since when do ‘fragile gains’ equate to ‘progress’? Who in their right mind would invest rivers of blood and trillions of dollars in ‘fragility’?  Now that I think of it, we also have the euphemistic expression of ‘drawdown’ substituting for ‘withdrawal’ which in turn substitutes for ‘retreat.’ The U.S. military and the civilian government it has browbeaten into hapless acquiescence simply cannot face the truth of their monumental failures and so must continually bastardize our language in a losing — almost comical — attempt to stay one linguistic step ahead of the truth.”

Progress, as Murry notes, basically means nothing when such “gains,” in the words of David Petraeus during the surge months in Iraq in 2007, are both “fragile” and “reversible.” Indeed, Petraeus repeated the same two words in 2011 to describe similar U.S. “progress” in Afghanistan, and today it couldn’t be clearer just how much “progress” was truly made there.  Isn’t it time for government officials to stop banging the drums of war talk in favor of “progress” when none exists?

Think, for instance, of the American-trained (and now re-trained) Iraqi security forces. Each year U.S. officials swear that the Iraqi military is getting ever closer to combat readiness, but much like one of Zeno’s paradoxes, the half-steps that military takes under American tutelage never seem to get it into fighting shape.  Progress, eternally touted, seems always to lead to regress, eternally explained away, as that army regularly underperforms or its units simply collapse, often abandoning their American-supplied weaponry to the enemy.  Here we are, 12 years after the U.S. began training the Iraqi military and once again it seems to be cratering, this time while supposedly on the road to retaking Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from its Islamic State occupiers.  Progress, anyone?

In short, the dishonesty of the words the U.S. military regularly wields illustrates the dishonesty of its never-ending wars. After so many years of failure and frustration, of wars that aren’t won and terrorist movements that only seem to spread as its leaders are knocked off, isn’t it past time for Americans to ditch phrases like “collateral damage,” “enemy noncombatant,” “no-fly zone” (or even worse, “safe zone”), and “surgical strike” and adopt a language, however grim, that accurately describes the military realities of this era?

Words matter, especially words about war.  So as a change of pace, instead of the usual bloodless euphemisms and vapid acronyms, perhaps the U.S. government could tell the shocking and awful truth to the American people in plain language about the realities and dangers of never-ending war.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular.  He blogs at Bracing Views.

 

War is Peace

W.J. Astore

Out shopping today at my local used bookstore and came across an early paperback copy (from 1952) of George Orwell’s 1984.  A little overpriced at $15.00, but the cover called to me.  What a classic!

My "new" old copy of Orwell's 1984
My “new” old copy of Orwell’s 1984

If you click on the picture, you can just make out, if you look closely, the slogans on the Ministry of Truth in the upper left: War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength.

The reverse of the cover is also quite well done:

Which one will you be in 2014?
Which one will you be in 2014?

That tag line haunts me: “in a world many of us may live to see!”  Hype, reader?  Or prophecy?

I haven’t read Orwell since college, circa 1984 in fact.  Time to get crackin’ before my old copy is confiscated and sent down the memory hole.