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Dulce et Decorum: the Marketing of War

By Dr Ken MacNab.

Weasel words have invaded the world, with pernicious consequences. The purpose of weasel words (from the belief that weasels suck the yolk from bird’s eggs, leaving an empty shell) is to deprive a word or phrase of meaning and load it with deliberately misleading implications. Their use is well illustrated in Don Watson’s masterly Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language(2003), his Dictionary of Weasel Words: Contemporary Clichés, Cant and Management Jargon (2004) and the weaselwords.com.au website.

For daily samples, try the daily media; the strong of stomach might look up the ‘Mission Statement’ of their employer. Not even universities are immune from re-branding, hyper-marketing, managerialism, bureaucratese and other such forms of gobbledygook. It is hardly surprising that weasel words are proliferating in the marketing of war.

War and propaganda have always had a symbiotic relationship. A good slogan was itself a powerful weapon. One of the oldest is the Latin saying taken from an Ode by Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, usually translated as: ‘ It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.’ Used widely by the Roman Legions, and on standards during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), it was refurbished and heavily used in Britain during the First World War (1914-1918).

It had been inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1913. So widely was it preached and propagated that Wilfred Owen, in his powerful ant-war poem, Dulce et Decorum Est,written just months before he was killed (one week before the war ended) in 1918, referred to it bitterly as ‘The Old Lie’.

A constant and striking component of war propaganda was ‘atrocity stories’, alleging abominable behaviour by opponents. During the First World War (also called the Great War), Britain excelled not only at patriotic and religious propaganda, but at the invention of atrocity stories, the most infamous being the story of the German Corpse Factory.

This war highlighted the truism: ‘In war, truth is the first casualty’. Often attributed to Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist who fought at the Battle of Marathon, and to various other sources, its first recorded use was by Arthur Ponsonby, in his Falsehood in Wartime: Propaganda Lies of the First World War (1928). In reality, truth about war is rare, before, during and after.

In the twentieth century, the marketing of war expanded well beyond wars themselves to the political campaigns justifying the deliberate use of military violence against chosen enemies. The Nazis and Fascists made war central to their identity. The Cold War saw plenty of violent interventions, both overt and covert, around the world, invariably justified as defending core values.

Probably the most sophisticated and systematic recent war marketing campaign was that leading up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, well analysed by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, in their Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq(2003). Similarly, the role of war reporting, by correspondents specifically and the media in general, has been co-opted into the marketing strategy.

The Gulf War of 1991, as well as being the first war in history televised in real time from start to finish, also reached new heights for electronic deception and audience manipulation. With the Iraq War came the ’embedding’ of journalists and photographers with active units. As Lt. Col. Rick Long of the U.S. Marine Corps commented, ‘Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.’

A growing part of this ‘information warfare’, often waged primarily against domestic targets, is the careful naming of military operations. Towards the end of the First War, offensives on both sides were named from religious, medieval, and mythical sources. Occasional Second World War campaigns were given evocative names, such as Germany’s Operation Barbarossa and the Allied Operation Overlord, for publicity purposes. These contrasted with the code names meant to be kept secret or mislead, such as ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’, the two atomic bombs dropped in Japan.

After the war, according to Lieutenant Colonel Gregory C. Sieminski, in a short piece on The Art of Naming Operations (1995), the US War Department created a new category of unclassified operation names, known as ‘nicknames’, for ‘administrative, morale, and public information purposes’, in relation to atomic bomb testing. During both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, some American commanders invented aggressive and inspirational operation names, primarily for the purposes of boosting morale among their own troops.

Somewhere along this path, the decision was made that single-word names were code, meant to be kept secret, while double-barrelled adjective/noun combinations were for propaganda purposes. Starting in the 1970s, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) implemented naming guidelines and a computer software system called the ‘Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise System’, shortened to NICKA. In Sieminski’s view, calling the US invasion of Panama in 1989 ‘Operation Just Cause’ was ‘the first US combat operation since the Korean War whose nickname was designed to shape domestic and international perceptions about the mission it designated.’

Not everyone was impressed. A New York Times editorial called it ‘Operation High Hokum’, and an ‘overreach of sentiment’. Several years later one critic called this attempt to portray a ‘blatantly unjust invasion’ as a ‘morally righteous cause’ a case of ‘blatant propaganda’ and ‘an extremely cynical gambit’. Nonetheless, the marketing of war by the calculated nicknaming of operations has become standard American military and political operating procedure. In 2011 ‘Operation Odyssey Dawn’, the mission in Libya, set new standards in obfuscation.

Such marketing is not confined to America, and has a long history in some countries. In a very impressive study of 239 names of Israeli military operations (76) and weaponry (163) used between 1948 and 2007, Israeli lecturer on culture and communication, Dalia Gavriely-Nuri concluded that ‘perhaps the main purpose of militarynaming’ is ‘the subtle inculcation ofpositive attitudes toward the use of violence’. Writing in the journal Armed Forces and Society in 2009, she analysed the phenomenon of ‘annihilative naming strategies’, whereby the use of military violence was sanitised, normalised and shielded from scrutiny.

In the naming of Israeli military operations, 38% used names and concepts from the Bible, and 27% used names and concepts from nature. Using names from the Bible, which most Israelis study for at least ten years, implied that these operations continued Biblical leadership, promises and commands. OperationHomat Magen‘ (Defense Wall), for example, was the massive attack in West Bank cities in 2002. Many names from nature (such as Operation Snow, the 1982-5 invasion of Lebanon) framed the use of force as ‘a common, normal phenomenon, as if it were an integral part of the natural chain of events’. In general, these naming practices both tapped into and perpetuated a supportive Israeli ‘cultural ethos regarding the use of military violence.’ They also disavowed agency and responsibility by the Government and IDF.

Tis method of marketing war has become prominent in the West. Operation Desert Storm has become synonymous with the First Gulf War of 1991, while Operation Enduring Freedom (originally called Operation Infinite Justice, but changed for P.R. purposes) was the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The invasion of Iraq was nearly called Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL), but became simply ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. In September 2010 the war in Iraq was renamed ‘Operation New Dawn’. Announcing the news the previous February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in brilliant Orwellian Newspeak:

Aligning the name change with the change of mission sends a strong signal that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended and our forces are operating under a new mission.

Even the word ‘mission’ reeks of self-justification and self-righteousness. But the fashion is ubiquitous, although the results aren’t always propitious. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was called Operation Allied Force (OAF). The Russian military campaign repelling Georgia from South Ossetia in 2008 was called ‘Operation Forcing Georgia to Peace’.

Closer to home is Exercise Talisman Sabre, the biennial joint Australia-United States military exercises carried out since 2005 in Northern Australia. The military claim there is no symbolic significance in the name; Australia provided the first word, the US provided the second. Obviously, however, since a talisman is ‘an object supposedly endowed with magic powers’ and a sabre is ‘a heavy cavalry sword with a one-edged, slightly curved blade’, the exercise name embodies the national military ethos of the participants.

The point of all these operational names is that they are marketing exercises. They are simply part of the armoury of weapons of mass deception deployed against the public. They imply that war and violence are normal, legitimate, necessary and praiseworthy, when in most cases none of these claims is true.

This article was first published on Opinion Online, 27th February 2012.

Dr Ken Macnab, BA (Hons) (UNE) D.Phil. (Sussex), retired in 2001 from the Department of History, University of Sydney, where for 36 years he taught courses ranging from broad Modern European history, through Imperialism, Nationalism and Racism and English Class and Culture to the histories of Crime and Punishment, Deviance and Violence.

His research interests include the history of warfare and peacemaking, and capital punishment and interpersonal conflict (such as duelling). He also concentrates on the nature and history of terrorism, and the implications of the post-September 11 “war on terrorism”.

He has been for some years President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, where he also teaches a postgraduate unit on “Cultures of Violence” and supervises postgraduate research.