This story later appeared in the LA Times following its publication in the Chronicle’s Special Edition
The language of warfare has always been provocative. Chairman Mao, for instance, urged followers to “Civilize the mind, but make savage the body.”
In the age of media war…at a time when the battlefield’s most valuable real estate is occupied by the TV screen…media spin, and what PR grand master Edward Bernays called “linguistic tyranny,” can prove more powerful than the smartest bomb. Winning the war in words is the indispensable prelude to winning it in blood and treasure. This is a speech writer’s special op…slogan combat…a punch-line war.
We are a story-telling species. It is only through our stories that we make sense of our world. You don’t need armies to win the story-telling game. After all, Saddam Hussein has successfully claimed that he won the 1991 Persian Gulf War that drove his forces from Kuwait. That so many in his part of the world believe him, is testament to the power of image over substance.
Being able to prefer certain vocabulary and turns of phrase becomes vital to any nation that hopes to write its own history. The U. S., for instance, promises shock and awe. We promise “violent precision and eye-watering speed.” We talk “regime change.” We mispronounce Saddam’s name so that, in Arabic, we seem to call him a shoe-shine boy. During the Cold War the “West” had “allies”. The Soviets had “satellites”. Language shapes perceptions, and people act on those perceptions regardless of the accuracy behind the phrases. Never under estimate the power of picking the language in which the story will be told.
The “War on Terror” and the “Axis of Evil” become powerful images that we can transfer from enemy to enemy as circumstances arise. Before destroying Iraq’s war-making abilities, we staged a photo op by dropping the MOAB (“Mother of All Bombs”) at Florida’s Eglin AFB. Our Air Force promises reporters and commentators that the air war will be spectacular and photogenic. Our generals brag about how visual this war will be for the viewers in the cheap seats. We blur the boundaries between war, news and entertainment. Our politicians become bad performers, and our actors into horrible politicians. We seem obsessed by the circus maximus aspect of modern war. We cannot escape the need for dramatic spectacle.
Thus it seems that we have built showmanship and grandiloquent language into our war-fighting strategy. If “doing Iraq” gets good ratings, perhaps we’ll think series.
The novelist John Gardner once wrote that we will never write anything better than what we read. I now fear that, as a civilization, we will devolve into nothing better than what we watch.
Associate Professor of Mass Communications