George Bush's War of the Words

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The first Tomdispatch book to be published this season has just arrived in the stores. (The second will be not an October, but a late November surprise.) Mission Unaccomplished, Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters collects the interviews I’ve done at the site — from Howard Zinn, Juan Cole, and Cindy Sheehan to Chalmers Johnson and Barbara Ehrenreich (along with an in-depth conversation between Nick Turse and me). I urge you to buy a copy. The book is a record of remarkable figures of our moment in thoughtful, spirited conversation about the disastrous imperial swamp we all find ourselves in. I never ask Tomdispatch readers to reach into their pockets to support the site, but this is a small and pleasurable way in which to imbibe the word, pass word of Tomdispatch on to others, and offer modest support to the site (and me). The following essay is written in honor of the interviewees in the book, all of whom I find inspiring.

For Homer, those epithets attached to his heroes and gods were undoubtedly mnemonic devices — the fleet-footed Achilles, Poseidon, the Earth-shaker, the wily Odysseus, the ox-eyed Hera. But isn’t it strange how many similar, if somewhat less heroic, catch words and phrases have adhered to key officials of the Bush administration these last years. Here’s my own partial list:

President George (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”) Bush, Vice President Dick (“last throes”) Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald (“stuff happens”) Rumsfeld, then-National Security Advisor, now-Secretary of State Condoleezza (“mushroom cloud”) Rice, CIA Director George (“slam dunk”) Tenet, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul (“[Iraq] floats on a sea of oil”) Wolfowitz, Centcom Commander Gen. Tommy (“We don’t do body counts”) Franks, then-White House Counsel, now-Attorney General Alberto (“quaint”) Gonzales, withdrawn Supreme Court nominee and White House Counsel Harriet (“You are the best governor ever”) Miers, and most recently Dennis (“The buck stops here”) Hastert.

You know a person by the company he or she keeps — so the saying goes. You could also say that you know an administration by the linguistic company it keeps; and though George Bush is usually presented as an inarticulate stumbler of a speech and news-conference giver, it’s nothing short of remarkable how many new words and phrases (or redefined old ones) this President and his administration have managed to lodge in our lives and our heads.

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been not so much the planet’s lone “hyperpower” as its gunslinger in that great Western (“dead or alive”) tradition that George and Dick learned about in the movies of their childhood. But fast as they’ve reached for their guns (and may do so again in relation to Iran after the mid-term elections), over the last years they’ve reached for one thing faster: their dictionaries.

And of all the words that came to their minds post-9/11, the first and fastest was an old one — “war.” Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, it was already on the scene and being redefined by administration officials and supporters. We would not, for instance, actually declare war. After all, who was war to be declared on? We were simply “at war” and that was that. Since then, according to George Bush and his associates, we have either been fighting “the Global War on Terror” (aka GWOT), “the long war,” “the millennium war,” “World War III,” or “World War IV.” We not only entered an immediate state of war, but one meant to last generations, and with it we got a commander-in-chief presidency secretly redefined in such a way as to place it outside any legal boundaries.

We were, then, at war. But the first war we were “at” was a war of the words and at its heart from the beginning was the status of the people we were capturing on or near various battlefields, or even kidnapping off the streets of European cities, and exactly what we could do to them. If John F. Kennedy is remembered for saying, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” perhaps when history shrinks George W. Bush to a soundbite, it will be, “We abide by the law of the United States; we do not torture.” To say those words — repeatedly — he has had to mount not a soapbox, nor even the TV or radio version of a bully pulpit, but a pile of torn, trampled dictionaries.

If you don’t believe me, go back and read, for instance, the infamous “torture memo” of 2002 in which the top legal minds of the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s office labored over how to define “severe” and “pain” in such a way that almost no inflicted pain in a prisoner’s interrogation would ever prove too “severe.” Whole sections of that document sound like they were cobbled together by a learned panel for a new edition of some devil’s dictionary. (“The word ‘profound’ has a number of meanings, all of which convey a significant depth. Webster’s New International Dictionary 1977 [2nd ed. 1935] defines profound as…”).

In the end, these experts defined “torture” to suit administration needs in the following pretzled fashion: “Must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” And though, under pressure, the “torture memo” was finally disavowed, the President has been able to claim that “we do not torture” only by adhering to its ludicrous definitions. (Even then, this administration’s interrogators have tortured prisoners.) This was in fact a typical Bush era document of shame, symbolic of the bureaucratic lawlessness let loose at the heart of our government by officials intent on creating a pseudo-legal basis for replacing the rule of law with the rule of a Commander-in-Chief.

Never has an administration rolled up its sleeves and redefined our terms more systematically or unnervingly with less attention to reality.

When a dynasty fell in ancient China, it was believed that part of the explanation for its demise lay in the increasing gap between words and reality. The emperor of whatever new dynasty had taken power would then perform a ceremony called “the rectification of names” to bring language and what it was meant to describe back into sync. We Americans need to lose the emperor part of the equation, but adopt such a ceremony. Never have our realities and our words for them been quite so out of whack.

Between August 2005, when, armed with two cheap tape recorders and a scribbled list of questions, I first met historian and activist Howard Zinn in a coffee shop and last summer, I had a chance to hang out with eleven iconoclastic thinkers and activists, all of whom were concerned with how to describe the realities of our imperial world as well as with the fate of our country. Recently, these interviews were gathered into a book, Mission Unaccomplished, Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. What follows are apt quotes from each of the interviewees — and my own brief discussions of Bush-redefined words. Think of it as a kind of call-and-response essay as well as my own modest bow to eleven engaged souls whom I admire.

Howard Zinn: “I came to the conclusion that, given the technology of modern warfare, war is inevitably a war against children, against civilians. When you look at the ratio of civilian to military dead, it changes from 50-50 in World War II to 80-20 in Vietnam, maybe as high as 90-10 today… When you face that fact, war is now always a war against civilians, and so against children. No political goal can justify it, and so the great challenge before the human race in our time is to solve the problems of tyranny and aggression, and do it without war.”

Collateral Damage: It’s been all collateral damage all the time from official Pentagon lips since George W. Bush launched our Afghan war just weeks after September 11, 2001 and followed it quickly with an invasion of Iraq. Wedding parties wiped out; children killed by accident; civilians murdered at places like Haditha and Ishaqi; scores of Iraqi civilians dead in the first air strikes on Baghdad (and not a single Iraqi leader killed); thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians swept up in U.S. raids and tossed into Abu Ghraib prison for endless months without charges; “terrorist safe houses” hit from the air in crowded urban neighborhoods where nearby residents simply died.

Since March 2003, over 2,700 American soldiers, over 200 troops from allied forces, and several hundred private contractors or mercenaries have died in Iraq. (Another 340 Americans have died in Afghanistan.) We have no idea how many Iraqi soldiers, insurgents, and militia members have died in that same period along with many tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, all “collateral damage.” But we do know one thing. In modern wars, especially those conducted in part from the air (as both the Iraq and Afghan ones have been), there’s nothing “collateral” about civilian deaths. If anything, the “collateral deaths” are those of the combatants on any side. Civilian deaths are now the central fact, the very essence of modern imperial warfare. Not seeing that means not seeing war.

James Carroll: “The good things of the Roman Empire are what we remember about it — the roads, the language, the laws, the buildings, the classics… But we pay very little attention to what the Roman Empire was to the people at its bottom — the slaves who built those roads… the oppressed and occupied peoples who were brought into the empire if they submitted, but radically and completely smashed if they resisted at all… We Americans are full of our sense of ourselves as having benign imperial impulses. That’s why the idea of the American Empire was celebrated as a benign phenomenon. We were going to bring order to the world. Well, yes… as long as you didn’t resist us. And that’s where we really have something terrible in common with the Roman Empire… We must reckon with imperial power as it is felt by people at the bottom. Rome’s power. America’s.”

The New Rome: In neocon Washington, there was an early burst of pride in empire. The U.S. wasn’t just, as in the 1990s, the planet’s “global sheriff,” it was now the mightiest power in history, an imperial goliath that put the old British Empire and possibly even the Roman one in the shade. Right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote in Time Magazine even before the attacks of 9/11: “America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.” Between the first of those “implacable demonstrations of will” in the fall of 2001 and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment in May 2003, many other pundits weighed in, embracing the idea of empire in a way that had once been taboo in this country. Fareed Zacaria of Newsweek was typical in speaking of “‘a comprehensive uni-polarity’ that nobody has seen since Rome dominated the world.” Max Boot in USA Today wrote a piece headlined, “American Imperialism? No Need to Run Away from Label.” (“[O]n the whole, U.S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century.”) For the liberal and squeamish, there was Michael Ignatieff in the New York Times Magazine urging us not to “embrace” imperialism, but merely to do our duty and pick up “the burden” of Empire Lite.

Five years later with the sack of Rome looking more applicable to our world than a Pax Romana, perhaps another old word should be making its reappearance: “Tyranny” (“A government in which a single ruler is invested with absolute power.”) Outside the United States, the Bush administration has already set itself up as a tyranny with its private network of prisons, its secret airlines for kidnapping anyone it chooses, and its power to wage war on the say-so of no one but itself anywhere it cares to. Domestically, the picture is still mixed, but the danger signals are obvious.

Juan Cole: “[Iraq] is one of the great foreign policy debacles of American history. There’s an enormous amount at stake in the oil Gulf and Bush is throwing grenades around in the cockpit of the world economy. So I think he has dug his own grave with regard to Iraq policy.”

Regime Change, Shock and Awe, Decapitation, Cakewalk: Ah, Iraq. What a field of linguistic fantasy play for Bush administration officials. “Regime change” was the global order of the day, if that “axis of evil” (and perhaps 60 other nations rumored to harbor terrorists) didn’t attend to us. “Shock and awe” was what we would bring to Iraq, thereby humbling the whole “axis of evil” in a single awesome rain of destruction from the skies. As the planet’s most dazzling military power, we would then go on a “cakewalk” (a high-strutting dance) to Baghdad and beyond, reorganizing the whole Middle East to our taste. “Decapitation” would be what would happen to Saddam’s regime.

Behind such words lay inside-the-Beltway dreams of absolute global domination, of imposing a planetary Pax Americana by force of arms. It was the sort of scheme that once would have been the property of some “evil empire” we stood against. Behind it all, for an administration deeply linked to the energy business, lay control over the oil heartlands of the planet, known to this administration as “the arc of instability.” Oil, or what George Bush referred to before launching his invasion as “Iraq’s patrimony,” was of such interest that the only places our troops guarded in those first “post-war” days of looting were oil fields and the Oil Ministry building in Baghdad. Of course, what Bush and his friends succeeded in visiting on the region was ever-spreading chaos. Since 2001, in its own version of the rectification of names, the Bush administration has actually been creating a genuine “arc of instability” stretching from Central Asia to Lebanon. The grenades are indeed now in the cockpit.

Cindy Sheehan: “Katrina was a natural disaster that nobody could help, but the man-made disaster afterwards was just horrible. I mean, number one, all our resources are in Iraq. Number two, what little resources we did have were deployed far too late. George Bush was golfing and eating birthday cake with John McCain while people were hanging off their houses praying to be rescued. He’s so disconnected from this country — and from reality. I heard a line yesterday that I thought was perfect. This man said he thinks Katrina will be Bush’s Monica.”

Homeland: It may be an ugly word, with overtones of Nazi Germany (and perhaps the World War II-era Soviet Union as well), but now it’s ours, a truly un-American replacement for “nation” or “country.” Like a number of Bush-era terms, it was lurking in the shadows before 9/11. Now, we have a homeland as well as “homeland security,” and even a Department of Homeland Security, a giant and, as Katrina demonstrated, remarkably ineffective new bureaucracy. By its very name, the “Defense” Department should, of course, be our Department of Homeland Security. But its focus is now on dominating the rest of the planet (and space), so instead we have two Defense Departments, both quagmires of civilian bureaucratic ineptitude, both lucrative as anything, neither going anywhere soon. If this isn’t an attempt not just to redefine American reality, but to bankrupt it, I can’t imagine what is. George Bush has been our Katrina.

Chalmers Johnson: “Part of empire is the way it’s penetrated our society, the way we’ve become dependent on it… The military budget is starting to bankrupt the country. It’s got so much in it that’s well beyond any rational military purpose. It equals just less than half of total global military spending. And yet here we are, stymied by two of the smallest, poorest countries on Earth. Iraq before we invaded had a GDP the size of the state of Louisiana, and Afghanistan was certainly one of the poorest places on the planet. And yet these two places have stopped us.”

Footprint, Enduring Camp, Lily Pad: Call this a sampler of the euphemistic language that goes with garrisoning the planet. In the Bush years, the Pentagon has not only grown ever more gargantuan, but has come to occupy the heartlands of foreign (and increasingly domestic) policy. It has essentially displaced the State Department from diplomacy and is now in the process of displacing the CIA from covert intelligence operations. In these years, Pentagon strategists, discussing our 700+ military bases around the world, began speaking of our military “footprint” on the planet — in the singular. As an imperial colossus, it seems, only one military boot at a time could even fit on the planet.

By the time American troops entered Baghdad in April 2003, the Pentagon already had plans on the drawing boards for four massive permanent military bases in Iraq, but the phrase “permanent base” was not to be used. For a while, these were referred to, charmingly enough, as “enduring camps” (like so many summer establishments for children who had overstayed their leave). In the same way, the strategic-basing posture of this era, meant to bring deployable U.S. troops ever closer to locking down that “arc of instability,” involved “lily pad” bases — the thought being that, if the occasion arose, American “frogs,” armed to the teeth with prepositioned munitions, would be able to hop agilely from one prepositioned “pad” to another, knocking off the “flies” as they went. This is part of the strange, defanged language with which American leaders meant to create a Pax Americana planet.

Ann Wright: “Thirty-five years in the government between my military service and the State Department, under seven administrations. It was hard. I liked representing America. I kept hoping the administration would go back to the Security Council for its authorization to go to war… I was hoping against hope that our government would not go into what really is an illegal war of aggression that meets no criteria of international law. When it was finally evident we were going to do so, I said to myself: It ain’t going to be on my watch.”

Service: And what about missing words? “Service to country,” such an honorable concept, was swept with “sacrifice” into Bush’s dustbin of history. In response to 9/11, the President famously told Americans to sacrifice for his coming wars by leading normal lives, going shopping as usual, and visiting Disney World. The only ones capable of truly “serving” their country, as this President seems to see it, are CIA kidnappers, illegal eavesdroppers of the National Security Agency, and the interrogators who perform the tough acts of torture that have been redefined by administration lawyers as something else entirely. And yet, in these years, the ideal of service has not died. Retired colonel and State Department official Ann Wright — at present, an antiwar activist — was one of three diplomats who resigned to protest the onrushing invasion of Iraq in 2003. They have since been joined by a veritable fallen legion of government employees, who were honorable or steadfast enough in their duties or actually believed too fully in our Constitution, and so found themselves forced to resign in protest, quit, or simply be pushed off the cliff by cronies of this administration.

Someone needs to redefine the “checks and balances” of the American system. The only operative check-and-balance for most of the last five years has been one the Founding Fathers never dreamed of (because they couldn’t imagine a government structure like ours) and that’s been the angry, leaking, protesting members of the federal government, the intelligence community, the military, and the bureaucracy. (On the other side of that equation, no one has yet come fully to grips with, or reported decently on, the depth of the Bush purge of the government, the replacement of officials down to the lowest levels with administration pals, cronies, and ideologues.)

Mark Danner: “When you look at the record, the phrase I come back to, not only about interrogation but the many other steps that constitute the Bush state of exception, state of emergency, since 9/11 is u2018take the gloves off.’”

Extraordinary Rendition, Secret Prisons, Torture: Donald Rumsfeld’s “office” was calling for interrogators to take off those “gloves” in the case of the “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh, soon after he was captured in late 2001. It became a commonplace phrase inside the government (and even among the military in Iraq). Given the image, you wonder what exactly was under those gloves. Off in Langley, Virginia, according to Ron Suskind in his new book, The One Percent Doctrine, CIA director George Tenet was using a far blunter image. He was talking about “taking off the shackles” (that supposedly had been put on the Agency in the Vietnam/Watergate era).

Rendition — as in “render unto Caesar” — gained that “extraordinary” quickly indeed as the CIA began kidnapping terror “suspects” around the world and no longer rendering them to the American court system (as in the Clinton years) but to various Third World allies willing to torture them or to American “secret prisons” — a phrase that, in the previous century, would have been reserved for the Gestapo or Stalin’s NKVD.

In the meantime, administration lawyers began redefining “torture,” a word not normally considered terribly difficult to grasp, more or less out of existence. By the time they were done, mock drownings, an interrogation “technique” called (as if it were surfing) “waterboarding,” ceased for a while to be what even Medieval Europe knew it to be: “the water torture.” In no other single area, did Bush administration officials (and their legal camp followers) reach more quickly for their dictionaries to pretzel and torture the language. This represented a very specific kind of reach for power. After all, if you could kidnap or capture a man anywhere on Earth, transport him to a secret prison (or at least, as with Guantanamo, one beyond the purview of any court), and then torture him, and if it could all be redefined as within the bounds of legality and propriety, then you had captured a previously unknown kind of power for the Presidency that was as un-American as the word “homeland.” Think of it this way: Those who can torture openly, can do anything.

Mike Davis: “It’s clear that the future of guerrilla warfare, insurrection against the world system, has moved into the city. Nobody has realized this with as much clarity as the Pentagon… Its strategists are way ahead of geopoliticians and traditional foreign-relations types in understanding the significance of a world of slums… There’s really quite an extraordinary military literature trying to address what the Pentagon sees as the most novel terrain of this century, which it now models in the slums of Karachi, Port au Prince, and Baghdad.”

Preventive War: From the militarized heavens to the slum cities of the Third World, the Pentagon is doing all the R&D. It already has its advanced weaponry for 2020, 2030, 2040 on the drawing boards. It’s planning for and dreaming about the future in a way inconceivable for any other part of the government. It not only has a space command, but, for the first time, a separate command for our own continent (U.S. Northcom) that is preparing for future hurricanes, future pandemics, future domestic disasters of every sort, now that our civil government, growing ever larger, handles things ever less well.

The Bush administration has elevated not just the Pentagon, but the principle of, and a belief in the efficacy of, force to the level of an idol to be worshiped. In 2002, the President suggested a new term — preventive war — which was then embedded in the National Security Strategy of the United States, a key planning document. At the time, Condoleezza Rice put the thinking behind the term this way: “As a matter of common sense, the United States must be prepared to take action, when necessary, before threats have fully materialized.” This was, in fact, a recipe for waging war any time an administration cared to. No longer would the United States wait until the eve of an attack to strike “preemptively.” Now, if it even occurred to the President or Vice President that there was a “one percent” chance some country might someday somehow endanger us, we were free to launch our forces; and “preventive” sounded so much better than the previous term, “war of aggression.” For this administration, and so for Americans, a war of aggression had preemptively been moved into the same category with preventive medicine.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: “Sometimes, though, frustration lies in the feeling that you just can’t convey the enormity of, say, the Bush administration’s unitary executive theory. How do you convey that no previous administration I know of has so openly, so brazenly, on so many fronts tried to subvert the Constitution, that what we’re living through is a crisis that may bode the death knell of our democracy. Why aren’t people jumping up and down?”

Unitary Executive Theory: This isn’t a theory, but a long-planned grab for tyrannical control under the President’s “commander-in-chief” powers in a carefully redefined “wartime” situation that will not stop being so in our lifetimes. This “theory” was meant to give a gloss of Constitutional legality to any conceivable presidential act. What the “unitary” meant was “no room for you” when it came to Congress and the courts. The “executive” was, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Larry Wilkinson put it, rule by a “cabal,” a cult of true believers inside the presidential bubble, impermeable to outside opinion or pressure. They were eager — when it came to torture, unlimited forms of surveillance, and the ability to define reality — to invest individuals secretly with something like the powers of gods.

Andrew Bacevich: “[W]e are in deep, deep trouble. An important manifestation of that trouble is this shortsighted infatuation with military power… There’s such an unwillingness to confront the dilemmas we face as a people that I find deeply troubling. I know we’re a democracy. We have elections. But it’s become a procedural democracy. Our politics are not really meaningful. In a meaningful politics, you and I could argue about important differences, and out of that argument might come not resolution or reconciliation, but at least an awareness of the consequences of going your way as opposed to mine. We don’t even have that argument. That’s what’s so dismaying.”

Democracy: Since September 11, 2001, George W. Bush and his top officials have aggressively advanced into the world under the banner of spreading not stability, but democracy (at cruise-missile point). But they defined the freedom to vote (as the recent Palestinian elections showed) only as the freedom to vote as they wished the vote to go — and it generally didn’t. Meanwhile, at home, the Republican Party was practicing an advanced form of gerrymandering, election financing, smear advertising, and voter-suppression tactics that made a mockery of the electoral process. Everyone was to vote gloriously, but matters were to be prepared — geographically, financially, and in terms of public opinion — so that the vote would be nothing but a confirmation of what already was. What, after all, do you call it when, in what is considered the most wide-open election for the House of Representatives in more than a decade, only perhaps 40-50 of 435 seats are actually competitive (and that’s considered extraordinary). Since 1998, 98% of House incumbents have won reelection, while in the last “open” election in 1994, when a Republican “revolution” took the House in what the New York Times calls “a seismic realignment,” 91% of incumbents were nonetheless reelected.

Barbara Ehrenreich: “Today, we have this even larger federal government, more and more of it being war-related, surveillance-related. I mean it’s gone beyond our wildest Clinton administration dreams. I think progressives can’t just be seen as pro-big-government when big government has gotten so nasty. Katrina’s a perfect example of how militarized the government has gotten even when it’s supposedly trying to help people. The initial response of the government was a military one. When they finally got people down there, it was armed guards to protect the fancy stores and keep people in that convention center — at gunpoint.”

“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!”: And it has been a heck-of-a-job! In both the United States and Iraq, government has become ever less effective and meaningful; the plunderers have been let loose to “reconstruct” each country; the deepest fears have been released and deep divisions exacerbated.

We all know what a failed state is — one of those marginal lands where anarchy is the rule and government not the norm. To offer but two examples: Afghanistan is a failed state, a narco-warlord-insurrectionary land where the government barely controls the capital, Kabul; Iraq is now a failed state, a civil-war-torn, insurrectionary land where the government does not even control the capital, Baghdad. But here’s a term that isn’t in our language: “Failed empire.” It might be worth using in any ceremonies meant to bring words and reality closer together.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His new blog is The Notion.

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