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Silly word games

Democrats – against GWOT, for TWAT

The Washington Post reports:

Erin Conaton, the Democratic staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, urged aides in a March 27 memo to “avoid using colloquialisms,” such as the “war on terrorism” or the “long war,” and not to use the term “global war on terrorism.” In preparing the annual defense authorization bill, the staff is directed to be more specific, such as referring to operations in Iraq.

“Colloquialisms”? That is rather unfair to the finely machined Unspeak that resurrected Reagan’s “war against international terrorism”, or WAIT, but gave it a hipper, snappier makeover in the form of the “war on terror”, alternatively known as the GWOT, or as WIIIAI rightly calls it, “The War Against Terror”, or TWAT.

Rep. Ike Skelton, the committee chairman and Conaton’s boss, defended the memo. “GOP objections to our efforts to clarify legislative language represent the typical Republican leadership attempt to tie together the misadventure in Iraq and the overall war against terrorists,” Skelton, D-Mo., said in a statement Wednesday.

Oh, so there is still something that answers to the name of “the overall war against terrorists”, or TOWAT? How’s that one going?

“The Iraq war is separate and distinct from the war against terrorists, who have their genesis in Afghanistan and who attacked us on 9/11, and the American people understand this,” Skelton said.

“The war against terrorists”, or – hey! – TWAT, is aimed, in Skelton’s understanding, at people who “have their genesis in Afghanistan”. Eh? Their genesis? In Afghanistan? I suppose it is easy to forget about that tiny and insignificant backwater Saudi Arabia, although there might be subtler political reasons for not reminding us right now that Sudan was the base of Al Qaeda activities in the the early 1990s.

Well, at least the Democrats have noticed that “war on terrorism” is deliberately conflationary, although they apparently don’t mention the preferred form – not war on terrorism but war on terror. “War on terror” is better because it allows you to creatively confuse state terror with acts by non-state groups. Thus it was oft said that Al Qaeda practised “terror” (where it would be more usual to say “terrorism”); and also that Saddam Hussein practised “terror” against his own people. Naturally, all practitioners of “terror” were in it together, and so Iraq had something to do with Al Qaeda from the start. Some people may still dimly remember the sordid spectacle of John Kerry in 2004 robotically promising that he would “do a better job of fighting the War on Terror”, thus crawling humbly right into George W. Bush’s propaganda cave and moaning a little before expiring on the earthen floor.

But the other major implication of “war on terror”, that it is a fruitful idea to try to fight a “war” against terror, or terrorism, or terrorists, howsoever defined (and they are defined rather howsoever, aren’t they?) doesn’t appear to bother these Democrats a bit. In effect, they’re letting Bush keep at least half the propaganda peach, leaving him munching happily on it, handsfree, with juice dripping down his chin. What is presented by these Democrats as a righteous stand against Unspeak is little more than a testy complaint about the Iraq war in particular. A point worth making, no doubt, and one that would have been even more worth making four years ago. (There is a lot more, if you can bear it, on the contemporary language of “terror” in Unspeak, Chapter 7.) But anyway, let’s hear it for the firm Democratic stand against GWOT and, er, in favour of TWAT:

Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Republicans were playing “silly word games in an attempt to score political points” in the debate.

Oh dear. Again the Democrat is submissively gulping down Republican FUD-juice, where the notion of scoring “political points” contemptuously demotes what is “political” to the level of mere cynical manoeuvring. And the idea that the careful promulgation of phraseology such as “war on terror” constitutes “silly word games” is poignantly wide of the mark, too. “Silly word games” would be a bit of refreshing light relief. If George W. Bush were a secret fan of Call My Bluff, he would rise massively in my estimation, like some sort of engorged primate linguolude. What the Democrats have blearily half-woken up to is that the administration’s brilliantly engineered slogans have already done their job. These were serious word games, and we were all losers.

  1. 1  JCR  April 6, 2007, 5:12 pm 

    GWAT. TWAT. WAIT. TOWAT. Sheesh, no wonder they won’t let Farley Mowat into the country.

  2. 2  Vronsky  April 6, 2007, 8:14 pm 

    First noted your blog when you mentioned the irrationalism of the square root of two. Ok, I’m a bit odd. Even so, more mathematical abstractions implied in your piece: terrorism is become transitive. Because (oddly) it has now been revealed to me that I may be a terrorist, as a result of parentage. Mum in the IRA, and all that. And a catholic (even) to boot, so a fundamentalist, obviously (using the ‘o’ word is called ‘proof by intimidation’ – isn’t that wonderful?).

    Guilty, m’lud, by DNA. Things get more Philip K Dick (rhyming slang?) every day, don’t they? Tempting to to look for more: the bombing of the subway – does terrorism also commute? Is Al Qaeda provably a group? What is its identity element? Oops, best go – spotted Sokal and Bricmont coming.

  3. 3  ozma  April 9, 2007, 11:13 pm 

    This is a very funny post.

    I think this is a place where you get beyond unspeak and you are basically wrangling with the upside down rhetoric of the schoolyard. There are certain things that these people aren’t allowed to say without losing the larger rhetorical war. The dems who are not idiots are afraid that if they bring in any complexity whatsoever to the discussion (e.g., by pointing out that many groups use terror for different purposes and even for opposing ideological aims–that Al Qaeda is not the PLO or Hamas, etc.–i.e., that terror is a tactic, not a group of people)–the rightwing spinmeisters will somehow turn it around to show the dems are soft, etc.

    I’m giving a kind of crude description of the phenomenon. It’s a schoolyard game where the person who speaks the truth (which others know is true) loses because everyone is afraid of the truth. Or perhaps because speaking the truth involves showing a level of reflection that only the weak have. In fact, evidence of reflection and acknowledging complexity is a kind of weakness, at least in the sense that you have now admitted you might be wrong or (much, much worse!) no one knows for sure what to do.

    Of course, the certain botch things horribly and will drag the world down in flames but that destruction is a kind of strength.

    As a Serbian friend once told me, Milosevic would still be the popular president of Servia had circumstances not intervened. Each war he started, he lost more of Serbia. And after each war, he was more popular. You can’t apply rationality to this kind of enemy-seeking militaristic rhetoric. No matter glaringly obvious the discomfirmation of these claims, when it hits that nationalist sweet spot, people will believe it.

    I’m not explaining this well but if you have the slightest idea what I’m talking about I hope you will consider this phenomena as a topic of your next book. Of course, I’m conflating a lot of different things in this comment.

  4. 4  Steven  April 10, 2007, 9:35 pm 

    Mad props to Vronsky for the wonderfully subtle “Does terrorism also commute?” I do hope Sokal and Bricmont have fucked off by now.

    Ozma – thanks! And I agree – the Dems in saying what they have said are not stupid per se, but making a political calculation that they have butted up against the limits of the sayable in the current climate. As you say, it is depressingly schoolyardish. Actually, ever since the Guardian said I was the author of a book called Unthink, I have been wondering what subject could justify such a brilliant title. Perhaps you have found it?

  5. 5  Richard  April 11, 2007, 3:04 am 

    Defining the limits of the sayable in current US politics is both a depressing and a necessary task; I’m just wondering if anyone but foreigners would read such a work.

    Those limits delineate a teeny, tiny space – rather smaller than the space within which serial killer movie plots operate… an association which, now it’s occurred to me, doesn’t feel accidental.

  6. 6  WIIIAI  April 14, 2007, 12:40 am 

    Dick Cheney: “They’ve even created controversy over the words we use to describe the challenges now facing America. According to news accounts, one committee in the House has decided to stop using the phrase, “Global War on Terrorism.” I’m left to wonder — which part of that phrase is the problem? Do they deny the struggle is global, after the enemy has declared the ambition of building a totalitarian empire that stretches from Europe around to Indonesia? Do they deny this is a war, in which one side will win and the other will lose? Do they deny that it’s terror that we’re fighting, with unlawful combatants who wear no uniform, who reject the rules of warfare, and who target the innocent for indiscriminate slaughter?”

  7. 7  Steven  April 15, 2007, 12:33 am 

    My problem is with the word “on”. Unaccountably, Dick forgot to explain that one.

  8. 8  Jeff Strabone  April 16, 2007, 4:53 pm 

    Ozma’s comment reminds me of the now common rule of American political rhetoric: ‘If you’re explaining, you’re losing.’ (268 hits on Google)

    The phrase was apparently coined by Julius Caesar Watts when he was a prominent Republican in the U.S. House. The idea is that the act of having to explain oneself to the public, as, say, John Kerry often found himself doing, signals weakness and introspection, which we all know is the surest sign of weakness in these depraved times.

    If the rule has a positive value, it is that, read a certain way, it can be taken as a caution against allowing one’s foes to frame the question. Sadly, it instead codifies the need to speak in atomic soundbites which no amount of thoughtfulness can split.

  9. 9  Richard  April 18, 2007, 3:22 pm 

    My problem is with the word “on”

    Mine too. “on” is ambiguous here: it’s tempting to imagine that we mean a “war on” in the sense of a “ban on” – making terror (or terrorism, I can never remember) itself the enemy, or do we mean “on terror” – a war on (concerning) the subject of terror, like “on becoming a father (an ode)?” – where terrorism is treated as the jumping-off point for a series of rhetorical variations?

    If it were a war “against terrorism” there might be some sort of accountability implied; the use of terror tactics by Bush et al would be patently self-defeating (rather than obviously, but still deniably, so). What we’re in might be better described as a war “of terror,” however (like a war of attrition: a competition to see who can terrorise civilian populations the most effectively).

  10. 10  Steven  April 19, 2007, 11:49 pm 

    I sometimes like to think of it as analogous to a war on carpet or on parquet flooring. Obviously you have to tread a bit more carefully when warring around on terror, as on hot coals. War On Ice would make for a great family skating spectacular, with Dick Cheney pirouetting around as the Evil Snow Queen.

  11. 11  Lee Ward  April 20, 2007, 5:22 am 

    I’m confused. The very fact of writing a comment that appears to defend Cheney makes me a bit queasy, but here goes:

    Can someone state exactly what they would like the shorthand phrase to be, if it’s not War On Terror? War Against Terror? What’s the difference, except for a marked decrease in euphony?

    Isn’t this a bit like Rumsfeld’s celebrated comment about known knowns? Torn apart for its supposed opacity; actually a model of lucidity?

  12. 12  Bevis  April 20, 2007, 7:41 pm 


    How about “The war in Iraq” and “The war in Afganistan?”


    Aww.. Condi doesn’t get to play the Evil Snow Queen?

  13. 13  Richard  April 21, 2007, 6:07 am 

    Dude, what are you on?

    Terror, man – wanna hit?

    Dude, sometimes, this whole war, seems like it’s on, no… wait. This war is on mescaline.

  14. 14  Richard  April 21, 2007, 6:15 am 

    Lee – I think GWOT is about the most euphonious thing you can come up with to describe an unending war against any and all ill-defined enemies of your policies, plus all foreign nations you’ve been itching to have a go at for years, plus (incidentally) anyone who may wish your citizens harm anywhere.

    Some other ways to describe it are “belligerant drunk, looking for trouble” or “self-replicating abusive behaviour.”

  15. 15  Lee Ward  April 21, 2007, 1:27 pm 

    Richard – I don’t believe I have any policies, I haven’t been itching to have a go at any countries, still less do I have any citizens… oh’re not talking about me, are you?

    It seems to me, and I’ve yet to hear anything to disabuse me of the notion, that the problem people have with the language is just a corollary of the problem they have with politicians, the American administration in particular, but also Blair and co.

    But that seems to me a fundamental confusion of a political argument (The war in Iraq is wrong, etc) and a language argument (The War On Terror is being prosecuted by idiots. Therefore the phrase must be idiotic). Remember, just becuase the Telegraph says something, that doesn’t make it untrue.

    I, an an individual, feel that there is a serious problem in the world with violent Islamism. What should I be calling the battle against this belief system? If you think there’s no such problem, that’s fine (I think you’re wrong) but let’s recognise that the WOT is fairly lucid acronym, and then debate that.

  16. 16  Richard  April 21, 2007, 4:29 pm 

    Hi Lee

    yes, I was using the colloquial “you” as a stand in for “one” – rather vaguely, since the “one” I have in mind here is the Bush administration and its various toadies.

    If you (actually you, this time) feel that violent Islamism should have a war declared against it, why not call such a war “the war against violent Islamists?” This seems pretty broad, but is at least a starting point for an identifiable group of people (where a war on Islamism would imply battling a set of beliefs, an altogether more slippery enemy). It would also lend some clarity to the proceedings, to which accused Islamists could respond, and which persons in the US and UK could debate (a lively debate, I’d think, because it would focus on what, exactly, Islamism is, and how one becomes a ‘card carrying’ Islamist, and open up quite legitimate questions regarding jihad, counter-jihad, crusade and counter-crusade).

    The alternative actually chosen, terror/terrorism is particularly unfortunate if one’s goal is to actually bring violent action against non-state parties by non-state groups to an end, rather than merely to enter an interminable state of vague paranoia. Terror is a response to violence, not the act of violence itself. Terrorists can mostly be identified and classified after they commit such acts. The total gamut of all potentially violent non-state groups is enormous (and has, historically, included church congregations, individuals with personal axes to grind, companies and various kinds of clubs and societies). Since the enemy in this case is defined not a priori by a lucid set of criteria but a posteriori by the results of its actions, every time a violent act is committed by a non-state actor (the recent Virgina Tech shootings spring to mind) it is possible to say that “terror” has occurred and the war therefore must continue.

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