Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

KILLING WITH WORDS: WAR AGAINST IRAQ (panel discussion presentation)

KILLING WITH WORDS: WAR AGAINST IRAQ (Andrew Robinson. 08-03-03)

'The deformation of culture begins with language itself... We can kill thousands because we have learned to call them "the enemy". Wars commence in the culture first of all, and we kill each other in euphemisms and abstractions long before the first missiles have been launched' (Thompson 1980:51).

Though war appears on the surface to be about action rather than words, it is conceivable only because the practices which constitute it are constructed as meaningful by particular human beings using particular types of language. The physical violence which is the primary medium of war does not emerge from a void. It is motivated and sustained by ways of thinking and acting which are susceptible to critical discourse analysis.

Indeed, the image of war as being about "action", as distinct from mere "talking" or "doing nothing", is part of its mythology. Warmongers often defend their actions by constructing them in terms of a simplistic choice. Rather than viewing the social world in terms of a range of different possible ways of thinking and acting, they create a simplistic image of a choice between "action" on the one hand, and "doing nothing" on the other. They often euphemise war as "action" and as "tackling" or "dealing with" something. When phrased in this way, it can be counterposed to inaction in such a way as to create a false sense of clarity. For instance, putting the case for war on a Newsnight Special, Tony Blair says that the 'will of the U.N.' is flouted if 'we doing nothing', 'if we don't act' (Newsnight Special:Blair on Iraq, 9-9.50 PM BBC2, 06-02-03). And Labour Chair Dr. John Reid says that there is a choice, not between war and peace, but between acting and doing nothing (Ceefax 105, 16-02-03). 'Delay is not an option', adds Bush (BBC News, 05-10-02); 'We cannot defend America and our allies by hoping for the best... In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action' (TIME 30-09-02). Blair also argues: 'I don't want to go to war, no-one sensible wants to go to war', but 'we have to' so as not to 'give permission' by the alternative, which is 'to shrug our shoulders and walk away' (BBC News 29-09-02).

In what is basically the same manoeuvre, Colin Powell at the U.N. constructs the conflict with Iraq in terms of decisiveness. The question is not about issues to be 'examined and analysed', he says, but about 'whether Iraq has made the choice' of total cooperation (News 24, 07-03-03). In this way, a complex and multi-layered situation is reduced to a simplistic either/or.

Linked to this gesture is the confusion of reality with feelings. Basically, militarists are prone to assume that whatever they feel most strongly is in fact "real", and to refer back to this ontologically privileged "reality" as a trump-card against mere "facts", "semantics" or "technicalities", and/or against others' emotions. This is more clearly laid out in the original "Killing with Words" about Afghanistan; it is, I suspect, the reason why politicians can sometimes get away with simply asserting, without evidence, that something is in fact the case. The most common versions of this device during the Iraq crisis have been "decisiveness versus wavering/appeasement" and "courage/facing up to reality versus fear/comfort/cowardice". For instance, Colin Powell states that the U.S. 'will not shrink from war' (Ceefax 104, 26-01-03) and Jack Straw says that the U.N. must enforce its will, rather than lose its nerve (Ceefax 107, 06-02-03). A U.S. official refers to war as 'stand[ing] up' and 'demonstrat[ing] leadership', as opposed to appeasement in World War II (Iraq: Britain Decides, 8.30-9.55 PM, BBC1, 12-02-03). Blair insists he is doing 'the right thing', as opposed to 'the easy thing' (Blair on Iraq). Jack Straw calls on the U.N. Security Council to 'hold our nerve' against 'this tyrant' (News 24, 15-02-03), and Blair accuses France and others of being 'afraid' to fight (Oracle 305, 19-02-03). 'We must not ignore reality', adds Bush (BBC News, 05-10-02). In another instance, Blair contrasts reality to comfort: it is 'very comfortable' to rely on inspections but this is 'not the real danger we face' (Newsnight 14-02-03). Another element of the same type of discourse is the constant use of signifiers which connote determination and certainty, including phrases such as 'make no mistake' and non-verbal cues such as a serious tone and posture. The discourse of "decisiveness versus wavering" is impositional, because it presents opponents' views within a framework preconstructed by the discourse itself. By interpreting their discourse as wavering or being afraid - an interpretation which bears little resemblance to most arguments against the war - misinterprets and silences opponents' voices by constructing them, not as an opposing viewpoint, but as what might be termed a character-flaw. Such discourse constructs opposing voices as weakness, and therefore as absence of voice.

The use of historical parallels to World War II in contemporary western militarism would make a paper of their own. Suffice it to say here that they are based, both on a selective construction of what happened in World War II, and on parallels which are at best tenuous. If one never "appeased" anybody, one would be at war against everyone, all the time.

Through similar devices, constructing the leader as the sole bearer of a privileged epistemological or ethical standpoint, discourse can be used to present the defiance of popular opposition as a kind of heroism or superiority (usually dubbed "leadership"). Unpopularity is 'the price of leadership and the cost of conviction', states Blair (BBC News, 15-02-03). He also adds that he fears 'the shame' of having known better and done nothing (BBC News, 28-02-03). On another occasion, he insists that he is right about the threat of terrorists obtaining Iraqi weapons, and says that, 'even if I'm the only person left saying it, I'll keep saying it' (Blair on Iraq). On another occasion, Bush insists that policy must be made by leaders doI.g what is right, not in response to protests or focus groups. What such arguments conceal is the problem of why this individual should be in a position to take such a stance in the first place. A powerful leader, causing mass destruction while ignoring those he supposedly represents, is reconstructed as if he were a lone martyr standing against the tide.

A similar theme is the idea that violence is necessary in order to give "meaning" to words. This strange idea reflects a broader tendency among dominant groups to use violence as a communicative act. For instance, Jack Straw states that: 'We have to ensure, if law is to mean anything, that words are turned into deeds' (Iraq: Britain Decides). Only by 'holding our nerve' can the U.N. give 'meaning' to its previous words (News 24, 15-02-03). Blair accuses anti-war protesters of sending a 'mixed message' to Saddam Hussein, encouraging him to think that the West was not serious about tackling him (Ceefax 108, 01-03-02). He also adds that failure to act would send a 'signal of weakness' to Saddam (Ceefax 109, 02-03-03). In this way, human lives are turned into pawns in communicative games, with killing used as a means to assert particular statements as true or to present a particular fictive and fantasmatic framework as realistic.

Another form of discourse which is widely used involves the misappropriation of ethical concepts. Basically, these concepts are identified with a particular agent and thereby lose their critical and referential potential. For instance, Bush asserts, 'We must choose between a world of fear and a world of progress' and that 'It is our deepest conviction that every life is precious' (BBC News, 12-09-02), and Blair repeatedly states that he does not want war. Bush also says: 'nobody likes war in America. We are a peaceful nation' (ITV News, 05-10-02). This kind of rhetoric takes characteristics such as freedom, peacefulness and progress (and for that matter "evil", "terror" and so on), and strips them of all specific content. They become interchangeable with the proper names of the people and organisations they are attributed to, and this in effect strips ethics from out of language entirely.

There is also an especially slippery type of language which attempts to silence ethical and even practical critiques of a particular agent's actions by writing the agent out of the description of the action - a form of discourse I term "deagentification". In its weaker form, this involves spuriously asserting the necessity of an act as a way to put it beyond criticism. For instance, Blair says civilian deaths are inevitable in war - 'that is why you avoid war if you possibly can' - 'but in the end... we had no option' in Kosovo and Afghanistan (Blair on Iraq). This "necessity" is an illusory construct resulting from the mistaken counterposition of war to "doing nothing", and the representation of ethical motives as if they were unchallengeable necessities. It is worth noting that the good which renders war "necessary" is never explicitly declared or compared to the evils of war in arguments of this kind.

In the stronger form of deagentification, the use of passive voice or the displacement of agency allows a speaker to put agency out of the statement entirely. For instance, Bush states: 'The security council demands will be enforced, the just demands will be met, or action will be unavoidable' (BBC News, 12-09-02), and Jack Straw says 'We must make it clear Iraq will face the use of force if they don't resolve this by peaceful means' (Ceefax 104, 25-09-02). Colin Powell also states that Iraq should have 'understood' that it must obey (News 24, 07-03-03). In these instances, a threat of violence is presented as if it were a morally neutral statement of fact. In other cases, the west's agency is displaced onto Saddam; for instance, in breaking pledges Saddam 'has made the case against himself' (BBC News, 12-09-02), and Powell says that 'it is up to Iraq' whether a peaceful solution can be found, otherwise 'military force will have to be used - we cannot step back' (BBC News, 26-01-03). In these instances, western policy is treated as if it were a fixed and unchangeable objective fact, and as if only the opponent has agency. In all three kinds of deagentification, an attempt is made, not to justify one's actions ethically, but to conceal and displace the agency involved in the actions so as to put oneself above critique.

In the case of Iraq, western leaders have relied on a pseudo-juridical discourse to frame most of their discourse. A case is not made against Iraq as such, but rather, Iraq is taken as a case of a breach of a rule, and a case is then made as to why the rule should be maintained. This draws on the widespread success of a different set of oppressive discourses connected to the functioning of juridical and policing organisations. As regards Iraq, the use is not properly juridical because the application of the "rule" is extremely selective, the "juridical" institution is neither nominally "impartial" nor autonomously powerful, and the procedures and timetable of enforcement are largely arbitary.

The construction of the enemy is of great importance to militarist discourse. In contrast to the Afghanistan war, the enemy in the Iraq case has been strongly personalised. Western leaders nearly always direct their rhetoric against the named individual Saddam, even though their violence will also be directed against Iraqi civilians. According to Blair, it is 'of relevance' to the issue of war that Saddam is a 'monster' (Blair on Iraq), and Powell says that 'Saddam Hussein will stop at nothing until someone stops him' (Ceefax 106, 06-02-03). The individualising of the enemy is a way of mobilising emotions and simplifying conceptions. It is easier to fight an "evil man" than a nation of innocents, and the device also allows the introduction into the debate of issues such as human rights in Iraq which are not part of the official justification for war.

Amidst all the mystification, a ray of honesty shines through - but only via a slip of the tongue, when Blair declares in all seriousness: 'we are a terrorist threat' (Blair on Iraq). Perhaps the only reassuring thing in this situation is that most people in Britain and around the world have not fallen for militarist discourse this time. This is not to say, however, that they are unresponsive to the forms of oppressive discourse it involves. People may yet change their minds once war actually starts, and similar discourses have been used with great effectiveness to stir up anti-immigrant prejudices and to manufacture support for other wars such as the ongoing war in Afghanistan. As the neo-imperialists of Washington and London step up their global project of repression and control, it remains to be seen whether people can be persuaded to see through oppressive and mystificatory discourses well enough to reject the warmongers and sabotage their agenda.


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