Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism

By Capie, David | New Zealand International Review, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism


Capie, David, New Zealand International Review


WRITING THE WAR ON TERRORISM: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism Author: Richard Jackson Published by: Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2005, 288pp, 55 [pounds sterling](hb), 14.99 [pounds sterling](pb).

In April 2007, the staff director of the US House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee circulated a memorandum to her staff cautioning them on the language they used in conducting its work. They were ordered to stick to precise descriptions of specific military operations and to 'avoid colloquialisms.' Specifically barred were the phrases 'the global war on terror,' and 'the long war'. While some Republicans reacted with outrage and fury, debate over the labelling of war is not something restricted to the new Democratic majority. In the middle of 2005, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, briefly attempted to have the 'GWOT' renamed the 'GSAVE'--the global struggle against violent extremism. Donald Rumsfeld also tried to shift the emphasis from the fight against terror to the struggle against extremism.

Neither man succeeded, but their efforts suggest that names and language matter--even to those in the 'real' world of policy-making. It is this relationship between discourse and action that is the focus of Richard Jackson's book Writing the War on Terrorism. Jackson's focus is 'the public language of the "war on terrorism"' and the way it has been deployed to 'justify and normalise a global campaign of counter-terrorism'. He argues that the public language of the George W. Bush administration has served 'to construct a whole new world for its citizens' and that US officials have 'created a new social reality where terrorism threatens to destroy everything that ordinary people hold dear.'

Jackson's methodology is post-modern or critical. He uses discourse analysis to explore and contest the way language has opened up some possibilities for action and closed off others. His focus is the way language has defined our understandings of what should be the most appropriate response to the 11 September 2001 attacks, including the war in Iraq in 2003.

The book opens with a chapter on 9/11 itself. Jackson looks at the strategic use of metaphor and analogy, the description of the attacks as a 'new Pearl Harbor' or the next Cold War. His discussion of the politics of labelling the response to the attacks as a 'war' is most interesting. His argument that calling for a 'war' on terror shaped expectations and responses in particular ways is hard to deny. As General Myers told the National Press Club in 2005, he opposed the use of the term war on terror because 'by calling it a war you think of people in uniform being the solution'. …

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