After 9/11: ten years of a war against… who?

In the first of his series of ‘On Reflection’ essays, Frank Furedi reflects on our leaders' inability to give a name to their post-9/11 wars.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

This week, spiked will be publishing a series of essays and articles on the world after 11 September 2001. Frank Furedi kicks off with an essay on the verbal acrobatics of our leaders, and what they reveal about their poverty of ideas.

One virtue of war is that it often provides society with an unusual degree of clarity about political issues. War tempts us with an irresistibly simple choice between Them and Us, enemy and friend, wrong and right, annihilation or survival. That kind of thinking came very easily during the Cold War. Every schoolboy knew that They – the so-called Evil Empire – were hellbent on destroying Us and our democratic way of life.

That was then, when it was clear who our friends and enemies were. The remarkable thing about the post-9/11 decade is that those old phrases about ‘them’ and ‘us’ no longer have much meaning. How can society make sense of global conflict when governments seem to lack a language through which to interpret it? A few weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center, President George W Bush asked a question that has proved unanswerable: ‘Why do they hate us?’ One reason why the US government has failed to answer that question is because the couplet ‘they’ and ‘us’ lacks meaningful moral contrast today. Before you can give a satisfactory reply to Bush’s question, you have to answer the logically prior question of who ‘they’ are, and who ‘we’ are. And after 10 years of linguistic confusion, Western governments appear to have made no headway in resolving that quandary.

Experience shows that when the meaning of ‘they’ and ‘us’ is self-evident, there is no need to pose morally naive questions about the issues at stake in a conflict. Roman emperors confronted with invading hordes of Vandals did not need to ask why they hated Pax Romana. Neither US president Franklin D Roosevelt nor British prime minister Winston Churchill felt it necessary to ask why the Nazis detested their way of life. Nor was that question asked by Western leaders in relation to the Kremlin during the Cold War. In all of those cases, the battle lines were reasonably clear, and so were the issues and interests at stake.

Since 9/11, it has proven increasingly difficult to grasp and characterise the interests – geopolitical or otherwise – in a variety of global conflicts and wars. It is far from evident what purpose is served by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Such interventions frequently appear to have an arbitrary, even random quality. One day, officials in Whitehall are dishing out PhDs to Gaddafi’s children; the next day, NATO’s airplanes are bombing targets in Tripoli to teach Gaddafi a lesson. These foreign adventures make little sense from a geopolitical point of view. There is no equivalent of a Truman doctrine or even a Carter doctrine today. Ronald Reagan was the last US president to put forward a foreign policy doctrine that could be characterised as coherent. Although Bush’s ‘war on terror’ was periodically flattered with the label ‘doctrine’, in truth that so-called war was a make-it-up-as-you-go-along set of responses, detached from any coherent expression of national interest.

The main achievement of the Western, principally Anglo-American response to 9/11 has been to unravel the existing balance of power in the Middle East and in the region surrounding Afghanistan. But this demise of the old order has not been followed by the ascendancy of any stable alternative. In such circumstances, it is difficult to claim that these interventions have served the interests of their initiators. Moreover, the incoherent nature of such foreign policy has, if anything, undermined domestic support for it. These wars have little populist appeal and they do little to bind people together. These are military conflicts detached from people’s lives, which is why we are confronted with a very interesting situation where there is neither enthusiasm for foreign ventures, nor war-weariness.

A war in search of a name

One of the most remarkable features of the post-9/11 landscape is that, after 10 years of conflict, there is no real public appetite for evaluating what has happened. Consequently, all the fundamental questions normally posed by a war are being evaded rather than answered. Who is winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What are the objectives of the occupying forces? And as they begin to wind down their activities and withdraw, what have they actually achieved? These interventions, as well as more minor episodes such as the attack on Libya, lack any clear political signposts. They are wars without names. They are directed at unspecified targets and against an enemy that cannot easily be defined.

The failure of language is most powerfully symbolised by the continuing reference to 9/11. Why rely on two numbers to serve as the representation of a historic moment? No one refers to the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 as 7/12, nor was the war against Japan coded in such euphemistic terms. The principal reason for labelling significant violent episodes as 9/11 or 7/7 is to avoid having to account explicitly for these events or to give them meaning. The preference for numbers rather than words exposes a sense of anxiety about the events, and an inability to communicate any lessons to the public.

The absence of a language through which to account for some key events of the twenty-first century means that rhetoric has taken on an unprecedented significance in the post-9/11 era. Consider the importance that New York Times columnist Roger Cohen attached to the new language adopted by the Obama administration following its successful elimination of Osama bin Laden earlier this year. ‘This is a triumphant day for a young American president who changed policy, retiring his predecessor’s horrible misnomer, the Global War on Terror, in order to focus, laser-like, on the terrorists determined to do the United States and its allies harm.’

So what is Obama’s laser-like linguistic alternative to Bush’s ‘horrible misnomer’? A memorandum sent to Pentagon staff members in March 2009 stated that ‘this administration prefers to avoid using the term “Long War” or “Global War on Terror” [GWOT]’. It advised Pentagon staff to use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO)’ instead. Whatever the merits of this name might be, they have nothing to do with clarity. Indeed, if anything, OCO is even more mystifying to normal human beings than GWOT. For all its faults, at least ‘Global War on Terror’ is comprehensible to someone with a basic grasp of the English language – which is more than can be said for OCO. Even someone with a PhD in linguistics is likely to feel challenged when asked to explain the precise meaning of a ‘contingency operation’.

Throughout the past decade, the correction of official language and the invention of new phrases have been flourishing enterprises. In his first speech as head of the UK’s national security intelligence agency, MI5, in November 2007, Jonathan Evans pleaded with newspaper editors to avoid using words that could help the enemy. He said we must ‘pay close attention to our use of language’ and avoid words that encourage the association of terrorism with Islam, since that could undermine the government’s ability to win the hearts and minds of Britain’s Muslim communities. Soon after he made that statement, it was reported that officials were ‘rethinking’ their approach to the terrorism problem and ‘abandoning what they admit has been offensive and inappropriate language’. The admission by UK officials that they had been using inappropriate language betrayed a palpable sense of disorientation in Whitehall. We were assured that ministers would stop using the phrase ‘war on terror’ and would never refer to the post-9/11 threat as a ‘Muslim problem’.

Officials have continually altered the language they use to describe the post-9/11 war without a name. ‘We strongly urge the government to abandon talk of a “war on terror”’, demanded a report on the issue of homegrown terrorism in the UK. At times, the BBC has seemed very linguistically challenged and has been at a loss to know when the use of words like ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ is appropriate. ‘The value judgements frequently implicit in the use of the words “terrorist” or “terrorist groups” can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality’, stated the BBC’s editorial guidelines. The European Union has also become obsessed over the past 10 years with not using words that could give the slightest hint of associating Islam with terrorism. Consider the guidelines issued by EU officials in April 2006, on the difficult question of what to call the enemy. The guidelines counselled against using the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ in favour of the Orwellian-sounding phrase ‘terrorists who abusively invoke Islam’. The invention of this term was part of the EU’s project of constructing a ‘non-emotive lexicon for discussing radicalisation’.

It is important to recall that even before the Obama presidency, Washington was painfully aware of its linguistic deficit in relation to 9/11. During Bush’s second term (2004-2008), the then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld advocated replacing GWOT with GSAVE: ‘global struggle against violent extremism’. Bush rejected this Rumsfeldian formulation, but not because he wasn’t open to adopting new phraseology. Indeed, Bush was quite prepared to concede that he had got his lines mixed up after the events of 11 September. ‘We actually misnamed the war on terror’, he said in August 2004. Without a hint of irony he added that ‘it ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world’. Funnily enough, that snappy turn of phrase was not adopted as a new name for the post-9/11 conflict.

In the very attempt to rectify the ‘misnaming’ of a war, Bush exposed the poverty of the intellectual resources with which the battle against terror is being fought. It has become clear that the confusion lies not just with the occasional malapropism, but with the entire script. The constant display of verbal acrobatics is testimony to the poverty of ideas underpinning strategic thinking in the post-9/11 era. And that is possibly the greatest threat to have emerged over the past decade. It also provides an answer to what ought to be the most fundamental question about this era: ‘How could our leaders get it so wrong, so often?’

The damage caused by terrorist violence in New York, Bali, Madrid, London and Mumbai can be fixed relatively easily. The last decade has shown that despite its capacity to inflict serious harm and damage on its target population, terrorism cannot triumph. What can prove to be far more damaging, however, is an incoherent and ill-thought-through response to terrorism. So what is it that we should really worry about 10 years into GWOT or GSAVE or OCO?

Probably the most negative consequence of 9/11 is that far too many Western governments have allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by this event, to such an extent that they perceive it to be the defining moment of the twenty-first century. Such defensive and reactive posturing has encouraged the implementation of policies that institutionalise a sense of uncertainty, rather than making society feel more confident. It is about time we all moved on and stopped using 9/11 as a global displacement activity. There are far more important challenges facing humanity than fighting a war so pointless that we can’t even give it a name.

Frank Furedi’s latest book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics Politics


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