As I was cleaning out computer files, I found a paper from several years ago that I wrote for a “Sociology of Language” class I was taking. I still find the topic fascinating, so I thought I would post my paper here. It is rather lengthy, but I hope those who take the time to wade through it, enjoy it.



Weapon of Mass Perception

Edwin Starr, in 1970, sang the following words, “War! huh! yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing-Uh huh.”[1] Replace the word “War” with “Conflict” in Starr’s heavy-handed soul song, and it no longer has its original, hard driving, and simple meaning. By this simple substitution of words, the sentence is transformed from a forceful, emphatic statement to one that loses its force, bluntness, and impact.

Nowhere has this ploy of “doublespeak” been more successful than in the arena of international conflict by grasping, forging, and twisting language in such a way that words diminish and detract from the true nature of war. Politicians have employed this tactic for decades to create political rhetoric that influences, controls, and leads Americans into battle, whether it be labeled war or conflict.

Language shapes reality. To call something a “war” mobilizes national sentiment behind a common objective, justifies the use of military power as the means to achieve this objective, amplifies whatever existing resentment, prejudice, or hatred may exist toward the people or peoples one is waging war against, and through its call to patriotism, moves people to make personal sacrifice for the greater good.[2]

As long as wars have existed, language has tried—mostly in vain—to encapsulate an experience that is far beyond words.[3] War, broadly construed, as a cultural event that extends beyond the battle theater, is decidedly full with rich and complex language, with indoctrination, elaboration, justification, and propaganda.[4] However, by a definitional event, war is a state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties.[5]

Conflict, on the other hand, is a state of open, often prolonged fighting, which may involve a state of disharmony between incompatible or antithetical persons, ideas, or interests.[6] It is less encompassing than war and may not involve nations or states.

Since a central goal of any political rhetoric is to develop support and consent from the people, the use of vague terms such as freedom, justice, terrorism, and evil are examples of how language can be utilized to produce such support and consent.[7] Political rhetoric is designed to be deployed in the service of public policy.[8] We all want freedom and justice and we all oppose evil and terrorism. Thus, a politician employing this type of language can justify a variety of different actions with impunity.[9]

More broadly than human consent, language, as something particularly human, shapes how we see the world in general.[10] The link between language and violence works in at least two ways that combine to create an endless cycle of justification.[11] First, language helps to create a climate in which the need for military action appears to be self-evident. After 9/11, journalists echoed politicians by agreeing that the United States had no choice but to respond. Thus, subsequent war was given an aura of inevitability.[12]

While consent is critical to entry into the state of war, a second use of language is to shape how we view the world once engaged in war. Military language is used to soften the visceral impact of the violence of ordinary citizens.[13] To speak of “collateral damage” is a far cry from acknowledging the blown-off limbs, the mutilated torsos, the shrapnel wounds, and the psychological horror that are caused by heavy bombardment.[14]

To help overcome citizen resistance to a “proposed” war, “code names” have been used to designate wars and have become part of the process through which war is made to seem noble. [15] In the second World War, operation names were supposed to be neutral and non-descript: ‘avalanche’ and ‘overload’ and ‘winter garden’. This use of neutral terminology held for 30 years until the 1970s, when politicians and military planners decided the language of war should be required to do double-duty.[16]

Not only have code names become a euphemism for brutal conflict but also the use of alternate phrases for the actual mission itself. The foremost word for incursions into other lands has been the use of the word “operation.” Rather than referring to the invasion of Panama as simply a war or invasion, it became Operation Just Cause. The mission into Afghanistan was originally named Operation Infinite Justice, a phrase that offended Muslims, who pointed out that only God can dispense infinite justice. The military planners backed down and later changed the offensive to Operation Enduring Freedom instead. The Iraqi invasion was labeled with the moniker of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” [17] The word operation has now become substitute terminology for war and has now become part of the language of war.

George Orwell wrote in 1946:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” “Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemisms, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”[18] Orwell was a shrewd observer of the politics of and language. He did not actually invent the term “doublespeak,” but he popularized the concept, which is a combination of two terms that he coined in his book “1984”.[19]

Orwell used the term “doublethink” to describe a contradictory way of thinking that lets people say things that mean the opposite of what they actually think. He used the term “newspeak” to describe words deliberately constructed for political purposes: words which not only had in every case a political implication, but also were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.[20] This “art of ambiguity”, has accompanied the military in its waging of war for thousands of years.

Sometimes doublespeak completely reverses the meaning of words. In normal times, diplomacy refers to the process by which nations seek to resolve their differences peacefully, through negotiations and compromise. During the buildup to war, however, diplomacy became the process through which the United States attempted to pressure other nations into supporting the war.

When they refused, this became the “failure of diplomacy.”[21] The idea of a “war on terrorism” itself is a form of doublespeak. It reflects a now pervasive habit of using war as a metaphor for all sorts of things that are not really wars at all: the war on drugs, the war on illiteracy, etc.[22]

The military is acutely aware that the reason for its existence is to wage war, and war means killing people and the death of American soldiers as well. Because the reality of war and its consequences are so harsh, the military almost instinctively turns to doublespeak when discussing war.[23] Doublespeak often suggests a noble cause to justify death and destruction. Practically speaking, a democratic country cannot wage war without the popular support of its citizens. [24]

Yet, definitions aside, one of the most enduring, and difficult, philosophical questions with regard to war focuses on the ethics of getting involved with it in the first place.[25] Again, language becomes a factor in analyzing whether or not war has been declared. Under Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, Congress has sole power “to declare war [and] grant letters of marque and reprisal”, yet the United States has not once formally declared war since World War II.

Even though the Framers intended for Congress alone to declare war, presidents don’t always check with Congress before acting.[26] Although Congress is the body of elected representatives that the Founding Fathers felt most qualified to declare war through an established constitutional process, for the better part of fifty years-since the Korean War-these constitutional procedures have been bypassed.[27] American soldiers have been sent into armed conflict many times in the past decades—Panama, Haiti, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Iraq again—and never once has Congress declared war.[28] The legal nicety of declaring war pursuant to constitutional directives has all but disappeared.

However, the constitutional problem with Congressional authorization is not lack of clarity; it’s that Congress passed the buck.[29] On August 7, 1964, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution, H.J. Res 1145, better known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the president “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”[30] This Resolution has been the foundation for invasions and incursions since the Vietnam War.

The United States has been involved in several distinct military forays since Harry Truman entered the Korean War and disregarded Congress’s constitutional role in declaring war. Again, although Congress had officially proclaimed no “war”, American troops were sent into battle. In addition to the Korean War or Conflict, the United States spent over 14 years in Vietnam, all without an official declaration of war by Congress. The confusion arising from the interchanging of the words war and conflict is apparent when citizens speak about the various military excursions. Some refer to Korea and Vietnam as conflicts; others refer to them using the word war.

The Vietnam War led to a Congressional attempt to curb the president’s war powers that had been so readily enhanced and expanded by the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act, the goal of which was to reestablish and reaffirm the purpose of the framers of the Constitution by ensuring that the Congress would be consulted in the event the United States Armed Forces were introduced into hostilities.[31]

However, even in this attempt to curb presidential war powers, Congress used language that provided an avenue in emergency situations for the introduction of troops without the full blessing of Congress. Since the passage of the War Powers Resolution, the United States military has engaged in three major conflicts: the Gulf War of 1991, the War against Afghanistan, and the current Iraqi War. Other less well-known military incursions also were undertaken.

Ultimately, substitution of words with less impact and the creation of words that dilute the meaning of more descriptive words are tactics used by those who exploit the “language of war” to lessen and to downgrade the usual meanings associated with wartime activities and atrocities.

[1] Edwin Starr, War, Motown, 1970.

[3] KRON. What is the Impact of Language on War? <;

[4] James Dawes, The Language of War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 210

[5] The American Heritage Dictionary of the Englilsh Language. 4th edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

[6] The American Heritage Dictionary of the Englilsh Language. 4th edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

[7] John Collins and Ross Glover, Collateral Language (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 3

[8] Sandra Silberstein, War of Words (New York: Routledge, 2002), xii

[9] Id

[10] Id at 4

[11] Id at 7

[12] Id at 8

[13] Id

[14] Id

[15] Id at 119

[16] KRON. What is the Impact of Language on War?

[17] Id

[18] John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, The Fog of War Talk, <

[19] John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, The Fog of War Talk, <

[20] John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, The Fog of War Talk, <

[21] Id

[22] Id

[23] John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Weapons of Mass Deception (Penguin Group: New York, 2003), 118

[24] Id

[25] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[26] Lithwick, Dahlia. What War Powers Does the President Have?, 13 Sept. 2001. <;

[27] Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), 177

[28] Id

[29] Michael C. Dorf, “Is the War on Iraq Lawful?” <;

[30] Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, “30-Year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War”. <;

[31] H.R.J. Res. 542, 93rd Con. (1973)


About Charlotte A. Weybright

I own a home in the historical West Central Neighborhood of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I have four grown sons and nine grandchildren - four grandsons and five granddaughters. I love to work on my home, and I enjoy crafts of all types. But, most of all, I enjoy being involved in political and community issues.
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