The way we use words matters — a lot. When words begin to lose their meaning or get distorted, the things we say begin to mean something entirely different…perhaps even expressing a sentiment opposite to the original intent. This is not unlike the term “doublespeak” (a concept highlighted in George Orwell’s 1984, where war is peace and peace is war). An important thing to note is that words do not change their meaning overnight. Rather, it’s more often a case of “meaning creep;” the more often red is called orange, it will eventually come to be considered so.
While this may not matter much for colors, it matters immensely in the world of war, peace, and foreign policy. Ideas form words, and action follows from ideas. When war is falsely called “defensive” or “humanitarian,” the words provide a vehicle for the public at large to silently (or openly) condone violent, immoral action against other humans. Let’s take a look at some of the common phrases bandied about modern American foreign policy, and assess whether they mean what they say…or something entirely different.
Department of Defense: It used to be called the Department of War, which was a lot more appropriate. Take, for instance, the Merriam-Webster definition of defense: “the act of defending someone or something from attack.” By definition, the word “defense” implies that an attack is occurring, or perhaps imminent (which is another of those words that has been twisted beyond recognition). In reality, the Department of Defense manages fighting forces that have a presence in dozens upon dozens of countries around the world. Even the “National Guard” is deployed in support of numerous engagements: just last week, the Wisconsin Guard sent 65 members to Iraq and Kuwait.
Humanitarian War: It’s actually kind of appalling that the phrase “humanitarian war” even exists. This is the notion that sometimes, the best way to help people is by starting, meddling in, or taking sides in a violent conflict, often without the proper context or desires of the affected people in mind. US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is a prime example of the liberal war hawks who push this sort of agenda. Robert Parry provides a quick synopsis of Power, the humanitarian intervention agenda, and it’s dismal failings here. Intervening on behalf of Iraqi, Libyan, or Syrian citizens (if that was indeed the aim, rather than regime change) has not helped them much at all.
Preemptive Defense: See above for a brief discussion of what “defense” actually means. In practice, preemptive defense is used to justify violent action on the suspicion that someone is planning or might plan a crime; it’s the next closest thing to thought police. The Anwar al-Awlaki case, in which two US citizens (father and son) were killed in separate drone strikes in Yemen in 2011 is one of the most striking — and disturbing — cases in which the doctrine of preemption has been used. But the notion of preemption far precedes the Awlakis. It was used to justify the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, one of the greatest war crimes of this century. Senator Robert Byrd put it very well in February of that year when he said:
This nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time. The doctrine of preemption — the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future — is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the UN Charter.
American media is chock full of fear-mongering and divisive words, and the meanings we ascribe to them will have real effects on people around the world. By accepting altered definitions of words like defense, preemptive, imminent, and humanitarian, many people are duped into supporting or calling for illegal and immoral warfare. The next time you hear these terms on your television inciting us to violence, remember what they really mean.
Pavoni is a former Air Force Special Operations instructor pilot and conscientious objector. She has 1,335 combat hours, and has deployed eight times to three regions of the world. Visit her blog LibertyBug.
Reprinted with author’s permission from her website.