Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, May 28, 2003

Slipping away from the stated reason for war in Iraq


Where are Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction?

Not only has that question gone unanswered, but it hasn't been seriously pursued by America's political leaders, according to University of Pennsylvania communication Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Penn’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson analyzed the semantics of war during a discussion moderated by Stanford communication Professor Ted Glasser, left. Peter Sussman, center, a former San Francisco Chronicle editor, also spoke. Photo: L.A. Cicero

As a result, the press has begun, perhaps unconsciously, to use language that lowers the threshold of accountability for those officials and politicians inside the White House, State Department and Pentagon who, in media reports, cited the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify going to war with Iraq, Jamieson said.

Jamieson spoke May 22 at the Carlos McClatchy Memorial Symposium. Titled "The Language of War and the Ethics of Journalism," the event was held in Cubberley Auditorium and sponsored by the Stanford Communication Department in conjunction with the Ethics in Society Program and the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The dean of Penn's Annenberg School for Communication, Jamieson was joined onstage by Geoffrey Nunberg, a senior researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information and a consulting professor in the Linguistics Department, and author and journalist Peter Sussman, who spent 29 years as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Originally, Sussman was scheduled to moderate the forum, but after another panelist, Columbia journalism Professor James Carey, was unable to attend, Sussman stepped in to give a presentation.

Jamieson, who cautioned that her analysis was still tentative, said she did not want to debate whether Iraq actually possesses WMD. "I don't think we know," she said. In any case, the Bush administration made the existence of WMD its justification for preemptively striking Iraq. On March 17, Bush said, "The dictator of Iraq and his weapons of mass destruction are a threat to the security of free nations."

During a March 21 Pentagon news briefing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "Our goal is to defend the American people, and to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and to liberate the Iraqi people."

On April 9, Bush said, "A free Iraq will give up all its weapons of mass destruction."

Jamieson argued that while the press has in fact tried to hold the White House accountable, the lack of an "elite" critique on the absence of WMD has played a part in the media's drift "toward a language that will create less total accountability for the Bush administration."

For example, the Washington Post reported May 7 that "the administration has been unable to point to concrete evidence of illegal Iraqi weapons activity nearly a month after the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces."

Jamieson asserted that this sentence demonstrates the slippage in accountability, questioning what "concrete" was supposed to mean. "Is there evidence?" she quipped. She also noted "illegal weapons" may or may not include WMD.

On May 2, the New York Times reported that "politically more complex for the administration is the continuing search for chemical and biological weapons, a search that so far has turned up next to nothing."

"Next to nothing or nothing?" Jamieson asked, adding that, again, chemical and biological weapons are not necessarily WMD.

On May 22, the day of Jamieson's lecture, the Times reported that "the failure so far of American forces to find conclusive evidence either of Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda or unconventional weapons has added urgency to the study's outcome." Jamieson noted that the gap between unconventional weapons and WMD is "gigantic." "An unconventional weapon is just a little eccentric," she said, adding that the airplanes used by the Sept. 11 hijackers could be considered "unconventional."

The leader who is at least noticeably trying to put the administration's feet to the fire is Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, but he "is not credible to the press" and not part of the congressional leadership, Jamieson argued, adding that he also uses language "vaguely reminiscent of Cicero on a bad day."



From the perspective of the state, the language of war serves two goals: to exaggerate the glories of the battlefield or to obfuscate the severity of the losses, Nunberg said, adding that its modern use stems largely from the time of the French Revolution.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a consulting professor in linguistics, offered a historical perspective on propaganda. Photo: L.A. Cicero

"That is the moment when mobilization of public opinion becomes an important consideration in political life," he said.

The term "propaganda" originated in the church. The College of the Propaganda, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was a 17th-century "committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church having the care and oversight of foreign missions," Nunberg said

But it was not until World War I that propaganda was systematically used by the U.S. government for the tendentious purpose of arousing enthusiasm for a military cause -- that is, to boost enlistment and sell war bonds, he added. Around the time of World War II, the term took on the more negative connotation that most people associate with it today, he said.


Watch those metaphors

Sussman suggested that the "shock and awe" of the word "war" has been dampened by its repeated metaphorical use in the press; he cited such phrases as the "war on poverty" and "war on drugs." He questioned whether such usage helped to lower the threshold for launching the "preemptive" strike on Iraq.

The press must be cautious about picking up the terms and phrases coined by Pentagon "information operatives" that are meant to turn the media into propagandists, not "independent observers and commentators," he said. For example, he said the idea of "coalition forces" was an invention of government public relations specialists, noting that there was "a coalition of three at most on the battlefield" and that "near Baghdad, it was a coalition of one" -- the United States.