L.I.E.S.    Language in Extreme Situations

A web against the use of Language as a Weapon of Mass Deception





La Guerra de la Palabra

With God and the Bard on our side
(Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor)
The Observer, September 15, 2002)

When nations go to war, the public language of politics and the media becomes a weapon of conflict. It is used to invoke a sense of solidarity, shared victimhood and a shared purpose. It promotes a sense of 'us and them' - and of right and wrong - in the coming struggle.

Last week, as the United States marked the first anniversary of 11 September and looked forward to an invasion of Iraq, much of its public language was moving into war mode. Among the US media it was the Washington Post that was, perhaps, the most extraordinary in its use of language in its main front-page article.

President George Bush, the paper's team of writers informed us, 'visited the 11 September battlefields today to deliver comfort to the bereaved, reassurance for the nation and intimations of more bloodshed to come'.

'It was,' the article continued, 'an exercise in renewal, recapturing for a moment the unity and purpose that gripped Americans in the hours and days after last year's attacks.' In a resonant flourish - deliberately reminiscent of the minute's silence on the 'the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month' of Armistice Day - 11 September became 'the eleventh day of the ninth month'.

The use of 'battlefields' in this context is important. It is suggestive of a conflict that was pre-existing, even if Americans did not know it; suggestive too that US civilians - by the very circumstance of their death in an act of terrorism - are engaged in a military struggle.

The Post's rhetoric was in keeping with the other main strand of public language on 11 September, the speeches and ad hoc comments of Bush himself, which he reiterated at the United Nations on 12 September.

Tone is critical in these things and Bush - who has declared himself an admirer of Churchill's defiance of the Axis powers - chose to attempt a Churchillian mode in his not-quite-declarations-of-war on subsequent days last week.

To be precise, Bush appears to have been aiming for the cadence and sentiments of the speech delivered on 13 May 1940 by Winston Churchill, in his first address to Parliament after becoming Prime Minister three days earlier in the middle of a growing war.

Then Churchill dedicated the British people to 'an ordeal of a most grievous kind... to wage war by land and sea and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.'

So Bush on 11 September, in a televised address from Ellis Island, combined the Churchillian with the Shakespearean. 'There is a line in our time and in every time,' he declared [perhaps unintentionally recalling the equivocal figure of Brutus in Julius Caesar], 'between the defenders of human liberty and those who seek to master the minds and souls of others. Our generation has now heard history's call and we will answer it.'

It was a reflection, in short, of the belief of Bush and his key advisers and officials in the idea of an America of 'manifest destiny'; an America with 'imperial responsibilities' for good.

Such grand ideas require a special grandiloquence of style and Bush's speech had historic echoes for American listeners too.

In his words last week, and other recent speeches, Bush and his supporters, both in his administration and in the media, have also tipped a nod to another orator more familiar to American ears - President Theodore Roosevelt - in particular his 'Man in the Arena' address to the Sorbonne in 1910, a speech that spoke of marvellous and martial struggle, and damn the doubters and appeasers.

Then Roosevelt thundered: 'It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy course; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.'

But perhaps it was the least reported contributions by the Bush team on the morning of 11 September last week that history may judge to be the most prophetic: an appeal to God in the coming struggle.

Again it was the Washington Post that drew attention to the readings delivered by members of the Bush team almost unremarked by much of the world's media at St John's episcopalian church in Washington early last Wednesday.

This time Bush's advisers and friends had no need to rewrite the lines of history, of Shakespeare, Churchill or previous Presidents. Instead they cut and pasted the Bible for effect.

'He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth,' declaimed the Reverend Kathleene Card, the wife of Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, from Isaiah. Karen Hughes, a long-time adviser, took up the martial theme: 'Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or peril, or sword?'

'No,' she concluded, 'in all these things we are more than conquerors.'



Poema: No a la guerra
Life under the chief doublespeak officer
Dubya war glossary
Kid Row
Truth is strongest weapon in war
Loyalty oath
Did our leaders lie to us?
War watch. Claims and counter claims made during the war over Iraq
War-speak worthy of Milton and Chuck Norris
Metaphor and war, again
Language of war.Decoding the jargon of war
Fighting war with words
With God and the Bard on our side




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