Friday, May 30, 2008

The Grand Deception Of Selling War

Selling War -- "What WE Say Goes."

Gunnar Garbo


Introduction at the Conference on the Implications of Language for Peace and Development, (IMPLAN), University of Oslo, May2, 2008.


When Hitler’s troops invaded Norway in 1940, their bomber planes also spread leaflets declaring that the troops considerately came to protect the Norwegian people and secure our freedom and independence. In warfare lies like these are common. Recently two non-profit journalism organizations in the US documented that during the first two years after 11 September President Bush and his top officials issued at least 935 false statements about reasons for attacking Iraq. Bush led with 259 lies. [1]

But the tradition of leaders’ lying is older. Already Plato proclaimed the right of leaders to tell lies in order to deceive both enemies and their own citizens for the benefit of the state. A person who enthusiastically picked up Plato’s advice was the Chicago professor of philosophy Leo Strauss, who taught his doctrines to a number of the top people who joined the staff of the Bush administration. Abram Shulsky, who produced a considerable part of the misinformation about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, once said that he had learned from Strauss that cheating is the norm in politics. [2]

However, in his farsighted book 1984 George Orwell pointed out that it is not enough for authoritarian leaders just to tell specific lies. He found that their ultimate aim is to create a new reality in the minds of people, different from the real world. Orwell gave us illustrative examples like: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. If the leaders can make most people internalize double-speak of this kind and believe that the new way of speaking depicts reality, they have actually changed the world in which we live. [3]

In connection with the first Gulf war President Bush, Sr., demonstrated that he had learned “the manufacture of consent”. Stating that the US had got a new credibility, the president proclaimed: What WE say goes.” The administration of his son is following in senior’s footsteps. A year after 9/11 Ron Suskind, a columnist who had investigated the White House for a number of years, happened to mention the intellectual principles of empiricism and enlightenment in a conversation with a presidential adviser. “That’s not the way in which the world really works anymore”, was the answer he got. “We are an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality, we’ll act again creating other new realities, which you can study too. WE are history’s actors, and all of you will be left to just study what we do.” [4]

This is the arrogance of power. It is the way empires talk. Dictatorial authority displaces arguments. The trick is to reduce the general public to a proper spectator role. As Noam Chomsky points out, the general population should be marginalized, each person isolated, deprived of the kinds of association that might lead to independent thought and political action. By constructing a grand edifice of lies terrorizing the domestic audience by images of menacing threats from “failed states” like Iran and North Korea they manufacture consent to military interventions - instead of trying to solve conflicts by peaceful means, which they are committed to by the UN Charter. [5]

Sometimes factual developments come in handily for the deceivers. Karl Rove, who for several years was President Bush’s closest adviser, recently said to an audience that “History sometimes sends you things, and 9/11 came our way.” In an article about Euphemism and American Violence Professor David Bromwich has pointed out how President Bush viewed the September 11 attack as an opportunity. The leadership should do far more than respond to the attack, he felt. Better to use it as an opportunity to “go massive”, as Donald Rumsfeld put it: “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” [6]

That is what they did. Instead of treating the 9/11 attack as an international crime, which it was, they responded by launching what they called a global war on terrorism. This phrase was a carefully chosen example of double-talk. It might indicate something as harmless as “a war on aids” or “a war on poverty”. But it could also mean an aggressive use of military weapons. The US Congress willingly gave the president the authority he wanted to use military force wherever in the world he found persons that he determined had contributed to the 9/11 attack and who might repeat similar performances in the future. As we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, his war on terror became what John Pilger calls a war of terror. And it primarily hits masses of ordinary people who had nothing to do with 9/11. [7]

Terrorism is not an armed enemy. It is a concept naming a special way of fighting, the harassing of people in order to bend their leaders to the will of the harassers. Western governments tend to define it as a cruel tool solely used by rebels. But in fact militant states are terrorizing people much more devastatingly than insurgent movements.

But missiles and bombs can’t kill a concept. Extinguishing terrorism depends upon a change in the attitudes of common people and politicians all over the world. Not the kind of brainwashing which is facilitated by double-talk, but change promoted by ethical attention, rational reflection, open debate and popular mobilization. Terrorism may be overcome when all states at long last learn to respect human rights and international law. Especially it presupposes measures to remove those underlying causes of violence which the UN General Assembly twenty years ago rightly described as “misery, frustration, grievance and despair, and which cause people to sacrifice human lives, including their own, in an effort to effect radical changes.”. [8]

Of course the Western war leaders paid no attention to the UN resolution, if they had seen it at all. Neither did they care about the motives which Osama bin Laden gave for 9/11, quoting decades of Western support to oppression in Palestine, sanctions against Iraq and US bases in Saudi Arabia as reasons for the attack. This was obviously old-fashioned language, which did not conform to the new realities which Bush and Blair were creating with their rhetoric.

They used the 9/11 attack as an opportunity to launch a war against states in which they anyhow wanted to produce “regime change” as they call it. This notion must by all means be distinguished from forced interference through military aggression. According to President Bush the plane hijackers carried out their acts because they hated the freedom of the United States. To avoid further attacks on free societies it was not sufficient to fight terrorists. It was also necessary to limit the domestic freedoms which Bush and Blair were fighting for by restrictions on private integrity, on free travel, on legal protection and on the right to information.

It may be difficult for people to understand the need to suppress freedom in order to promote it. You will first grasp its logic when you internalize double-speak.

After the hijackers on 11th September 2001 killed three thousand persons, including themselves, history was seen by the war leaders to begin anew. Neither the Bush administration nor the main media paid much attention to the fact that nearly one hundred thousand people were killed through the more trivial practice of murder in the United States during the first six years after the attack. [9] Neither were they much shocked by the fact that international acts of terrorism increased sevenfold after Bush started his war on terrorism. [10]

Rushing to the defence of USA in Central Asia Norwegian governments have exposed even Norway to the possible risk of terrorist retaliation. But the supreme commander of the Norwegian defence forces, General Diesen, has tried to calm down public opposition to war by his own contribution to the double-speak vocabulary. He states that offense is defence. Civilian assistance to rebuilding Afghanistan is according to him offensive. Military operations against Afghan resistance are on the other hand defensive. The general’s problem is to convince Afghans about the reasonableness of turning front to back. Ignorant local people may believe that words still mean what they used to do.

To demonize the enemies as evil people the way Bush did with his Axis of Evil speech is of course a valuable contribution to the new way of thinking, which also happens to be old one. Groups who oppose the US in Afghanistan or Iraq are regularly called Taliban or al-Qaida, who are seen as outlaws and free game. We are told that in Iraq a huge part of them are foreign intruders, though 98 to 99 per cent of the prisoners which the occupiers have interned are Iraqi citizens. The al-Sadr militia is vilified as “criminals” or “criminal gangs”. More than one half of the US occupying forces are mercenaries, hired by the occupier. They are referred to as contractors or security missions.

There is a striking similarity between the language used by the aggressors. When the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 they portrayed the invasion as a humanitarian intervention. They did not come to conqueror anyone. Their aim was to prevent the establishment of a terrorist regime and to protect the people against genocide. Eleven years later the US and the UK also invaded Afghanistan, this time to protect themselves against terrorism, which also happened to be in the best interest of the Afghan people. They wanted namely to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East. “We are not conquerors”, declared Bush, “we are liberators.”

Both invasions were proclaimed to be in conformity with international law, though none of them were. Governments on both sides called on their peoples to “back our troops”, who were fighting for a noble cause. In both cases the invaders paid much less attention to the huge number of Afghan victims than to their own losses. And in both cases the invaders warned that premature withdrawal of their troops would lead to catastrophic conditions for the local people. At long last the Soviet forces did all the same retire, and the Afghan people seem to have suffered somewhat less under the rule of Taliban. The USA and NATO are on their part escalating the war in order to avoid “losing face” or, to put it in proper language, not to expose the war-stricken population to the loss of peace and freedom.

Just as destroying vegetation in Vietnam was called pacification and invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq were presented as defence against terrorism or atomic weapons, US acts of torture in Abu Ghraib or elsewhere are termed interrogation in depth. One of the means of questioning which president Bush has reserved the right to allow is named waterboarding. This means starting to drown a suspect, but humanely interrupting the drowning before the victim dies.

We find the same preference for euphemism in a number of other cases. When Norway participated in NATO’s war over Kosovo our prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik described it as a peace operation. To make the attack seem in conformity with international law the Government produced false testimonies to Parliament.

We are dealing not only with double-language, but also with double moral standards. While Iran and North Korea are being threatened not to acquire weapons of mass destruction, Israel, which has long ago produced atomic bombs and quietly threaten its neighbours with them, is never blamed. And while Iraq was forced by war to withdraw from Kuwait no pressure is being put on Israel to return to the Palestinians the land of theirs which Israel has occupied and annexed as its own.

Mainstream media have gone along with all this misuse of power, practically without opposing it. A few fine journalists, like Robert Fisk and John Pilger, have stood out as rare exceptions, focusing on the impact of the military violence on the victims in the form of dead or crippled corpses, suffering relatives and homeless refugees, collateral damage as this is called by the double-speakers. Even the main media have attended to impacts on the ground, but with an enormous difference between the attention shown towards the casualties of one’s own armies than towards far greater losses of human life inflicted upon the populations of the countries which are exposed to our pacification.

How shall we disclose and counter the double-language of the war-mongers? That is a job for all of us, not least for educators. People need to learn more about the ways in which the meaning of words may be twisted. Words may be used to express thoughts, to hide thoughts or to hide lack of thoughts. They may also be used to lie, to misinform and to fabricate a false consciousness. People should be less impressed by authorities. In most cases political leaders don’t understand more than common people, though they pretend to be in the know. We need the ability to listen critically, to distinguish between proven facts and dubious assertions and to make use of alternative means of information and communication.

Above all this is a challenge for journalists. To-day they tend to defend themselves as professional, when they are in fact giving priority to writing and programming which produce that audience and further those profits which owners and advertising corporations are insisting on. Media professionalism ought to be something very different, namely to provide information which shows readers and listeners the realities behind political and commercial rhetorics and to tell people what they need to know in order to check their masters and influence the forming of our societies. A leading Norwegian journalist, Ragnar Wold, many years ago said that when Hitler stated that he wanted peace with all his neighbours, newspapers should not simply quote the dictator, but announce that now Hitler had produced one more of his lies.

That is still a good advice.


[1] http://transfondo-noticias.blogspot.com/2008/01/false-statements-preceded-war.html

[2] Gunnar Garbo: Verken ny eller liberal. Kolofon forlag, Oslo, 2008, side 66.

[3] George Orwell: 1984.. A Signet Classic published by New American Library 1977. Page 16

[4]Christian Salmon: Scheherazade in the White House. Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2008

[5] Noam Chomsky: “What we say goes”; The Middle East and the New World Order. Z Magazine, May 1991.

[6] David Bromwich: Euphemism and American Violence. Ney York Review of Books, April 3 2008

[7] Joint Resolution S.J. RES. 23, 107th Congress. To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.

[8] Measures to prevent international terrorism. General Assembly A/RES/¤”/159, 7 December 1987

[9] Bob Herbert: America’s Other Kind of Terror. N.Y. Times August 18, 2007.

[10] Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank: The Iraq Effect: War Has Increased Terrorism Sevenfold Worldwide. A Mother Jones’ Study at the Center on Law and Security at the N.Y. University.


Gunnar Garbo (b. 1924) has been a prominent public figure in Norway. His career covers a wide range of activities, in journalism, politics and diplomatic service. In 1960s- and 70s he was one of the most noticeable political activists in Norway. As a Member of Parliament for Venstre (Liberal Party) 1958-1973, and the chairman of Venstre 1964-1970, he, later on, held different position in the United Nations and also served as Norway’s ambassador to Tanzania 1987-1992. He has written a number of books on political and international issues.

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