Feb 16

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars, check out the articles below:

- A Partial Review of "American Sniper" (the Book) or: Good Luck to Anyone Who Wants to Slog Through It 

- Debunking (Or Not Debunking) “American Sniper” 

- On V’s What to Read on "American Sniper" Link Drop)

Since we started blogging, we’ve tried to do a week of posts on the Academy Awards. (Though the series didn’t always line up with the ceremony.)

In 2010, we did posts on Avatar, District 9 and others. In 2011, we wrote about the documentary Restrepo and its sister book, Sebastian Junger’s War. We skipped 2012, because aside from War Horse, we didn’t have anything to write about (and didn’t/weren’t going to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). In 2013, oh man, we had a plethora of riches including Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and The Invisible War. (That series came eight months late.) Last year, aside from Captain Phillips, we were blanked again, but we spent over a month writing about Lone Survivor, which didn’t get nominated for Best Picture.

What about this year? Any war films? As matter of fact, three of the Best Picture nominees are war films, including The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and American Sniper. Two other war films--Unbroken and Fury--earned critical praise, but didn’t get nominated.

Quick question: what war do you think four of those five films take place in? Don’t think too hard...

World War II.

Of course they’re about World War II. Hollywood doesn’t make films about any other war. That’s an exaggeration….they just mostly make films about World War II. This is a huge problem.

My simple take, which I hope to expand elsewhere, is that there are moral implications to this myopic focus on World War II above all other wars. World War II actually has less to teach us about war than most other wars, all based around simplified narrative that America and England needed to go to war to defeat the evil Nazis and stop the Holocaust. (As we’ve written before, World War II wasn’t nearly that simple.)

That’s why we--not just Americans, but most of the West--embrace World War II. In a strange way, it’s comforting. You can enjoy a war film without having to think too hard. No grey areas over here! Even if a World War II movie shows the horrors of war, it actually reinforces the morality of committing them; sometimes you need to do horrible things to stop evil.

This World War II focus has a real world impact. It sanitizes war. It justifies it. It makes our country more likely to go to war. Just look at politicians rhetoric about “Munich moments”. If you’ve just seen a film about World War II--and last year, that’s probably the war film you saw--you might think, “I hope ISIS isn’t Hitler.” instead of, “I hope this isn’t another Vietnam.” (Or Iraq, strangely enough.)

This isn’t the case with other wars. The war in Vietnam and World War I force us to ask moral and ethical questions about war. And about ourselves. Most importantly, they show how pointless war can be.

Speaking of pointless military conflicts...what about American Sniper?

We’ve had people emailing us and tweeting us requests to “debunk” this book since the film was announced. This week we will somewhat fulfill that request with a (partial) review of the book, a post on debunking (or not debunking) the memoir, and a link drop.

Is this as thorough as our work on Lone Survivor? No, and we will explain why over the next two posts. Fortunately for us, many writers and columnists have gone after written about Chris Kyle’s extreme politics and many critics have lambasted the film’s inaccuracies and simplified view of war. (Though the film depicts Chris Kyle as war weary and troubled by killing, his memoir tells a somewhat different story.) Expect those links in the link drop. Except for Chris Kyle’s arguably illegal interpretation of rules of engagement, they basically hit everything.

Based on the success Lone Survivor and American Sniper, movie studios are probably going to greenlight Iraq war films like crazy. But if they follow the mold of their predecessors, that’s not actually a good thing.

Hollywood hasn’t made a film about Vietnam war film in a while. Like Vietnam, Hollywood will eventually stop making films about Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars, too, will fade from public consciousness in the coming generations.

But we’ll probably always have films about World War II.


Feb 04

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.

And a disclaimer: I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

On Monday, I pointed out that media’s coverage of possible military interventions--in real talk, going to war--is incredibly pro-war. Quantitatively, the media invites on pro-war guests, up to and including people whose past advice has been utterly disastrous, ie, supporting and endorsing the original war in Iraq without ever admitting they were wrong. (Hell, Arizona and South Carolina voters keep re-electing these people to the Senate.)

But as had long been the On V style, we don’t want to just complain about something. We want to offer solutions. So here they are: four solutions to the media’s pro-war stance.

1. Invite on a War Skeptic

Military insiders, reporters who’ve been to war zones, and politicians allt tend to be reflexively pro-war (pro-intervention). More political talk shows need to invite on war skeptics to push back against the rush to war. Frankly, even I don’t really know who these voices would be. (I’d guess that there are dozens of liberal college professors who would do the trick.) Find these voices, and add them to the chorus.

2. Someone Needs to Create a Responsible Anti-war Media Organization

As you can tell by the tagline, yes, I’m a pacifist. And that’s not in name only. I really believe war is not the answer. (To defend myself against knee-jerk criticism, I’m more worried about World War I scenarios than World War II scenarios.)

But you may have noticed, in the tag to this sub-section, I wrote “responsible”. Too many anti-war groups are far too extreme for the American public. They’re either far-right libertarians or far-left socialists, with few voices in between. They don’t connect to the general populace. (If anyone has any suggestions of groups or blogs I could be following, let me know. I’ve looked.)

If we had the resources of time, energy and people--Michael C and I don’t--we would create an organization dedicated to creating balance on war coverage. We’d call it the “July Crisis” organization, dedicated to putting war skeptics onto every Sunday talk show to actually balance out the point of views. (In addition to, I’m guessing, writing reports and studies about the risks of future military interventions, like Michael C and myself did here on Iran.) These experts would question the push to war, ask the tough questions, and explain the risks of intervention.

But what information and viewpoints would these guests share? Well...

3. Debate the Worst Case Scenario

The media, by its nature, tends to frame military interventions over the cost of “doing nothing”. What will happen to innocent civilians in Syria or Iraq if we don’t protect them?

Instead, as Michael C has led the charge on, let’s ask the tough questions: how could this military intervention go disastrously wrong? What’s the worst case scenario? Who could we alienate? For the first Iraq war, we should’ve asked, “What happens if we get trapped in a prolonged, decade long insurgency? What’s the cost?” “Could we end up creating another terrorist group?” “Are we creating a battlefield that will train terrorists?” “Are we going to ignore Afghanistan for half a decade?”

You know, important questions people either didn’t ask or didn’t care if they got answered.

4. Let’s Debate the Past

In my opinion, the entire debate about further intervention in Iraq should be framed around America’s past mistakes in Iraq. (Remember Santayana’s not-a-quote-behaving-badly admonition: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”) We invaded Iraq when we shouldn’t have and set up the conditions that allowed ISIS to thrive. For a primer on how the media should handle this, watch Frontline’s episodes on “Losing Iraq” or “The Rise of ISIS”. (Though even these episode overstate the ISIS threat.)

Moving into the more recent past, the media is oblivious to the fact that they spent the fall of 2013 debating “arming the rebels” in Syria, without realizing that those rebels would, less than a year later, become the Islamic radicals we feared. Instead of framing the debate around “Would America have sent arms and financing to support terrorists?”, we basically moved onto the question, “What threat does ISIS pose?” And to stop ISIS requires allying with Iran (which Congressional Republicans adamantly oppose).

Whenever we go to war, we pick and choose allies. Since World War II, when we allied with Russia to defeat Hitler, we’ve picked poor bedfellows. To defeat Russia in Afghanistan, we allied with Osama bin Laden. To defeat Saddam, we angered Osama bin Laden. To defeat Saddam a second time, we propped up Maliki. Maliki angered the Sunnis, and now we’re at war with ISIS.

This never seems to come up in media debates about war. By addressing the ISIS threat, are we creating another threat? Who is that threat? The media should be instrumental in teaching America this. And reinforcing the lesson that war has unforeseen, often disastrous consequences.

Maybe the political talk show hosts can invite someone on their shows to give this opinion.

Feb 02

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

Back in the fall of 2013, writing about America possible military intervention in Syria’s civil, I noticed something:

The media is incredibly pro-war.

More accurately, the media--particularly the political talk shows--tend to favor action (read: military intervention). Two weeks of Sunday talk shows about Bashar al Assad violating human rights/using chemical weapons were dominated by pro-war voices. (I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

Of course, last September, when ISIS continued to take territory in Iraq and beheaded two journalists, the whole chorus began again. Three distressing problems stood out...

1. Quantitatively, pro-war guests dominate the debate.

SInce the debate over war in Syria two years ago, I’ve wanted to track the Sunday talk shows and quantify--look at the baseline numbers, instead of using my gut--how biased the media actually is.

Fortunately for me, when the country debated intervening in Iraq last year, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) did the work for me. Their key finding? “The study of key TV news discussion programs from September 7 through 21 reveals that guests who opposed war [in Iraq] were scarce.”

Analyzing three weeks worth of programs during the debate over another war in Iraq, “205 sources appeared on the programs discussing military options in Syria and Iraq. Just six of these guests, or 3 percent, voiced opposition to US military intervention. There were 125 guests (61 percent) who spoke in favor of US war.” Only one guest could be counted as anti-war.

To be fair--pun not intended--FAIR is a left-wing organization. But I doubt anyone who watches the Sunday talk shows regularly could disagree with their conclusions.

Frankly, it’s shocking how little debate there is. It’s almost like the inverse of how the media handles global warming. For years, newspaper articles and talk shows invited global warming skeptics and global warming scientists at a near fifty-fifty rate.

When it comes to war, almost no skeptical viewpoints are allowed...until the war turns into a quagmire.

2. The media is too dependent on official sources.

Not only are the guests on political talk shows supportive of war, they’re government officials who are supportive of war. Again, from FAIR:

“The guest lists for all the programs leaned heavily on politicians and military insiders. Current and former US government officials—politicians and White House officials—made up 37 percent of the guestlists. Current and former military officials accounted for 7 percent of sources.”

Nearly half of all guests were official sources. Most of the rest were reporters depend on official sources for their coverage. Why is this a problem? The Columbia Journalism Review explains:

“Lee Artz, who teaches communications at Purdue University, and the author of Public Media and Public Interest and Cultural Hegemony in the United States, said he sees these findings reflected in the constantly shifting narrative about the Islamic State. “The mainstream media in the US tends to accept uncritically whatever the US administration releases,” he says.”

Again, unlike virtually any other issue the mainstream media covers, when it comes to security and the military, they trust the military. Trusting the military is not their job. And it denies the government and military’s dodgy (at best) track record with the truth.

3. The televised media invited back the original Iraq war architects to discuss another war in Iraq.

Obviously, many media critics have made this point. The same neo-conservatives who pushed America into the original Iraq war are still being invited onto the Sunday talk shows as guests to discuss intervening in Iraq a second time. I could provide dozens of links to people making this point; I’ll just point you to The Colbert Report and what Jon Stewart calls “America’s tragedy herpe”.

Not only does the media invite John McCain and Lindsey Graham on to their shows to push military interventions--they favor intervention so much, I don’t even have to clarify which war--they invite them on more than any other politician or guest. Period.

Inviting Iraq war proponents on as guests proves that the media’s coverage is pro-war. Or at least, in an effort to avoid perceptions of bias, ends up biasing itself in pro-war/pro-intervention ways. This failure to provide even coverage also fails to educate the country about our military or foreign policy.

In closing, I haven’t suggested any solutions to the above problems. Good news: they’re coming on Wednesday.

Aug 26

A few years ago, I stopped listening to the PRI show Studio 360 because it just wasn’t fair. In particular, it held America to absurd standards that it didn’t hold the rest of the world to.

They used an editor taking the N-word out of Huckleberry Finn as an example of censorship one week, then in a later episode, discussing Iranian censorship, Kurt Andersen said, “Again, it is wonderful for me to see that the ambiguities that are so rife throughout this situation...it’s an authoritarian regime, yes, but they have to allow this, then they find they have to allow this...I adore when things are not as black and white as they are portrayed in the media.” In short, Iran’s censorship isn’t so bad.

Tell that to Jahar Panafi.

I bring this up, because, in the last few weeks, you could accuse us of doing the same thing. We’ve been pointing out dozens of examples of American hate speech against Islamic people without providing examples of Islamic hate speech. So let’s be clear: American hate speech has nothing on the hate speech of much of the Islamic world.

It took a lot of searching to find mainstream examples of anti-Muslim hate speech, mainly because Americans reject hate speech. To find examples, I had to search the fringes of society. (Not surprisingly, I found most of the examples on conservative milblogs. Take that for what you will.) But I can find examples of Islamic hate speech from just watching The Daily Show. Or say, listening to a speech by the former President of Iran.

Islamic extremists use one word above all others to express their hatred of the Westerners and the west: infidel, or “Kafir”.

Islamic extremists use this term to dehumanize their enemies. From Christopher Hitchens, “But in practice, Islamic fanatics operate a fascistic concept of the ‘pure’ and the ‘exclusive’ over the unclean and the kufir or profane.” Extremists use this term to separate one group (Muslims) from another (non-Muslims or “infidels”). (Though we aren’t Arabic scholars, we know that kufir has religious meanings that extremists often distort.) One would only use this phrase if they wanted to permanently cut themselves off from another group. Terms like these keep conflicts going, preventing dialogue and peace.

Except for hateful extremists, who else would use this term?

Oh yeah, soldiers.

Don Gomez of Carrying the Gun has covered this topic pretty extensively. In short, in an ironic reclaiming of the word, soldiers have embraced the term kafur and its English translation “infidel” through brands like Major League Infidel or Infidel Strong. Gomez neatly summarizes the problem with this “reclaiming”:

“My problem with this phenomenon is twofold: 1) whether people mean it or not, the word casts a conflict in religious terms, which is what we don’t want, and 2) the brand is worn to be antagonistic, not simply factual.”

(Don later wrote a second and third post on this term.)

We have three more thoughts on soldiers embracing the word “infidel”:

1. In English, infidel actually means “Not a Christian”. Seriously, we looked it up. From Wikipedia, in August of 2014:

The word originally denoted a person of a religion other than one's own, specifically a Christian to a Muslim, a Muslim to a Christian, or a Gentile to a Jew. Later meanings in the 15th century include "unbelieving", "a non-Christian" and "one who does not believe in religion" (1527).

Actually, let’s just go to Merriam Websters’ definition. The first expanded definition: “one who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity”.

So anyone wearing the word “infidel” is actually defining themselves as “not a Christian”. Oops.

2. This blog is aimed at Americans and American soldiers. Yeah, I wrote a whole introduction about how we were going to focus on Islamic hate speech this week, but that doesn’t make a ton of sense, does it? Islamic extremists don’t read our blog; soldiers do. We’re writing this blog to improve the U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy.

3. Embracing the term infidel doesn’t help us win the wars we were fighting. From the original Military.com article that inspired Don:

“Sulayman, a Lebanese American who commanded a Marine infantry platoon in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2008, said he had one Marine who made Kill Hadji stickers.

‘When your Iraqi interpreter sees that, what does he think? Your partners in the Iraqi army -- when they see that, what are they going to think?’ he would ask his Marines. ‘You wouldn't walk up to sergeant so-and-so and drop the N word on him.’

"...Sulayman said he doesn't think the companies that market infidel products to troops mean any harm. He also said he's certain that Florida pastor Terry Jones didn't mean any harm when he oversaw a public burning of a Quran last year because he believed it promotes violence.

"It’s his right, Sulayman said. But is it really helpful?"

No, it isn’t. This is the single biggest argument against soldiers embracing or co-opting this term. They are actually preventing peace and reconciliation.

It doesn’t matter if Muslims use hate speech, because we can be better than our enemies. We can be the bigger person. We can apologize when we make mistakes; we can turn the other cheek; we can treat others the way we wish we were treated; we can be the change we want to see in the world. Yeah, those are all touchy-feely idealistic (and mostly Christian) ideas…

But they also work.

Aug 18

Everyone knows the easiest, most annoying way to win an argument on the internet: compare your opponent to Hitler. (Also known as Godwin’s Law, here are two shining examples from pop culture: Troy in my favorite monologue from the third season of Community, “I use comparisons to Hitler to win arguments on the internet at the drop of a hat.” Next, Emily Nussbaum writing about Veep, “The show has more Hitler comparisons than an Internet flame war.”)

Over the last few weeks, we pointed out examples of people--mainstream and not--demonizing America’s extremist enemies with terms like “barbarian”, “savage”, and “primitive”. But those examples explicitly denigrate and demonize our enemies. Another term has the same effect, only more subtly and with a veneer of intellectual rigor:


“Islamofascism” (and its close relative “Islamism”) compares extremist Muslims to Hitler. All in a single word. It’s a one word example of Godwin’s Law.

To start, let’s break the terms down. And they need to be broken down, because as words, “Islamofascism” and “Islamism” make no sense.

We’ll begin with the proponents of the phrase trying to defend these terms. Christopher Hitchens advocated for the term here, writing that both fascism and Islamism love empire, oppose intellectualism, and display anti-modern, anti-gay, anti-women and anti-semitic tendencies. Except that, as Hitchens writes, “There isn't a perfect congruence. Historically, fascism laid great emphasis on glorifying the nation-state and the corporate structure.”

In other words, the most important part of fascism--the importance of the state over all else--is also the biggest difference between it and so-called Islamofascism--which is based on a love of religion over all else. Fascism is, primarily, a form of government, an authoritarian/totalitarian dictatorship. Islamofascism most commonly refers to a group of non-state actors--al Qaeda--which just seems especially silly. Though al Qaeda dreams of a caliphate (a Sunni Caliphate), they don’t actually represent a state...yet.

Of course, in the last few months, Islamic extremists, for the first time, took over and maintained parts of Iraq and Syria, but the term Islamo-facism existed well before Islamic extremists started their first, completely unrecognized and fragile nation-state. And those extremists clearly value religion over the idea of a nation.

As On V fave Geoffrey Nunberg wrote, this particularly didn’t apply to Iraq:

Actually, the term "Islamo-fascism," if taken literally, doesn't make sense. The "fascist" part might fit Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with its militaristic nationalism, its secret police and its silly peaked officers' hats. But there was nothing "Islamo" about the regime; Iraq's Baathists tried to make the state the real object of the people's devotion.”

The next problem with Islamofascism is that it exaggerates the threat posed by Islamic extremists. Hitler and Nazi Germany actually did threaten millions and millions of people. They threatened all of Europe, if not the globe. As Paul Krugman’s sarcastically wrote about this comparison, “Yep, a bunch of lightly armed terrorists and a fourth-rate military power — which aren’t even allies — pose a greater danger than Hitler’s panzers or the Soviet nuclear arsenal ever did.”

Which brings us to the third problem: this term lumps way too many people together under one umbrella term. Katha Pollitt of The Nation explains:

"Islamo-fascism" conflates a wide variety of disparate states, movements and organizations as if, like the fascists, they all want similar things and are working together to achieve them. Neocons have called Saddam Hussein and the Baathists of Syria Islamo-fascists, but these relatively secular nationalist tyrants have nothing in common with shadowy, stateless, fundamentalist Al Qaeda--as even Bush now acknowledges--or with the Taliban, who want to return Afghanistan to the seventh century; and the Taliban aren't much like Iran, which is different from (and somewhat less repressive than) Saudi Arabia--whoops, our big ally in the Middle East! Who are the "Islamo-fascists" in Saudi Arabia--the current regime or its religious-fanatical opponents? It was under the actually existing US-supported government that female students were forced back into their burning school rather than be allowed to escape unveiled.

Which brings us to the fourth problem, “the Saudi Arabia problem”. If one country represents both Islamic theology and dictatorship, it’s Saudi Arabia. Why does Saudi Arabia take the crown from Iran? Because Iran has a working parliamentary system with elections. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have anything close to that, and oppresses women and minorities way more than Iran.

They’re also one of America’s closest allies.   

Some pundits--like Christopher Hitchens above--fear a pan-Islamic front. They believe that all Islamic nations could rise up together to oppose, and possibly destroy, the Western world. Except that Muslims aren’t uniting; they’re dividing. Dexter Filkins, on the New Yorker’s “Political Scene” podcast, (somewhat accurately) predicted an all out Sunni/Shiite civil war. Instead of the world facing a unified front, America’s greater concern would be a multi-state religious war...between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Which just goes to the point of the whole thing. If there is a giant Sunni/Shiite rift in the religion of Islam--even if there isn’t a gigantic pan-national intra-Islamic war--it doesn’t make sense to use one term to bunch all extremist Muslims together. Unless you want to dehumanize and demonize them.

America has enemies. Some of them are Islamic, but we can’t group them under one umbrella term. Especially an umbrella with overt references to America’s number one historical enemy, Hitler--who superseded the British for Northerners and Abraham Lincoln for formerly confederate states--as America’s number one enemy. It prevents any sort of dialogue or bridge building.

Instead of “Islamo-fascism” we should use what we always have: Islamic extremists. This phrase does two things: 1. Identifies a group (or groups) that uses violence to achieve a myriad of political goals. 2. Separates the extremists from the rest of the Muslim world.

Which is much more accurate.

Jun 30

(To read the rest of our posts on language and war--our “Getting Orwellian” series--please click here.)   

In our ongoing quest to “Get Orwellian” on the uses of language in war, for the next few weeks, we’re writing about hate speech. Since we try to limit the length of posts, consider this post “Exhibit 1” of using language to dehumanize one’s enemy.

In this short post, we provide examples of mainstream ] sources demonizing the Islamic world and Muslims:

“I think that the Islamists, whether elected or not, whether violent or not, Islamists of any sort whatsoever are barbarians, are totalitarians, are far worse than dictators.”

- Daniel Pipes, Intelligence Squared US, “Better elected Islamists than dictators

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

- Pamela Geller and American Freedom Defense Initiative’s subway ad

“To meet these guys in these remote Pashtun villages only made the conundrum more difficult. Because right here we’re talking about Primitive with a big P. Adobe huts made out of sun-dried clay bricks with dirt floors and awful smell of urine and mule dung. downstairs they have goats and chickens living in the house. And yet here, in these caveman conditions, they planned and then carried out the most shocking atrocity on a twenty-first-century city.”

- Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson

“What people are not dealing with is the fact that we’re going up against a culture that finds it acceptable to do things that the rest of the world left behind with the barbarians in the 6th century. I’m a little tired of people worrying about being polite. We are fighting in the face of fascists.”

- Frank Miller, Los Angeles Times interview.

“Like Alexandria, like Bamiyan, Timbuktu's priceless manuscript heritage destroyed by Islamic barbarians.”

- Richard Dawkins, via Twitter

“To all the Operators here today I give you this charge: Rid the world of those savages.  I’ll say it again, RID THE WORLD OF THOSE SAVAGES!”

- Dorothy Woods, originally quoted on Blackfive.

“It’s hard to keep track of all the barbaric behavior emanating from that part of the world.”

- Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit.com (H/T Glenn Greenwald)

“The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers soldier was killed whilst off duty near Woolwich Barracks in South-East London in May. Islamist barbarians, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, are accused of the 25-year-old’s murder.”

- Andrew Sullivan

Jun 24

We’ve been writing about language for years here at On Violence. If I, Eric C, have a bigger obsession than lying in memoirs, it’s using words properly. (The military is an easy target.) But we’ve never collected all of our language posts in one place before, so consider this an “On V Link Drop” to our language posts, finally collected in one place.

We first “got Orwellian” analyzing “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, “Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists”, and “Military Intelligence and Interrogation”. We also briefly discussed “heroes” in this link drop. We might as well have called our post “What You Should(n't) Be Afraid Of” “Getting Orwellian: Existential Threat” instead. In August, we added a new addition to the series in “Getting Orwellian: Navy SEALs”.

I pointed out how writers can say more with less in my post on post-9/11 war novels, “The Humvee Flew Over The Mountain: Jargon, Lingo and Military Writing”.

Two years ago, we discussed whether it was “Eye-Rack, Ee-Rack or Ur-Ahk?” and made an argument for how “How Lexicography Can Create World Peace”.

Last year, going a bit weirder, we wrote about “Language Behaving Badly: Strategic Reachbacks, Service Members and Operation Nude On”, “Army Words for Regular Things” and our “Readers Nominate More "Language Behaving Badly".

This year, we got Orwellian on “The Legal Dodge: Getting Orwellian on the NSA's Most Popular Defense” and “We're All Ordinary Americans: Getting Orwellian on the NSA”.

More "Getting Orwellian" posts:

- Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 1: Mainstream Media

- Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 2: Milblog Edition

- Islamo-Nazi-Facists: Getting Orwellian on Islamofascism

- Infidel Strong: Getting Orwellian on the Military’s Favorite Brand

- Dictators Can’t Use Our Word! Getting Orwellian on Fake “Terrorists”

- Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate: Getting Orwellian on Hate Speech

- The Most Confused Term in IR Theory: Getting Orwellian on "Realism"

Demonizing Your Enemy, Exhibit 1: Mainstream Media-

Getting Orwellian on Orwell

We choose the title “Getting Orwellian” for our series on language because George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language” is probably the most famous essay on writing in the last century.   

But if I’m being intellectually honest, too many writers and thinkers overrate this essay’s importance, and insight.

First, if you’ve read any of our guest posts on writing at Write to Done, you know that I hate rules about writing. No one rule can govern all writing. Orwell loves rules, but he doesn’t like following his own advice. From the brilliant Language Log blog:

“Orwell wrote (apparently without irony, Nunberg noted) that in the evasive kind of writing he disapproves of, "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active".

Just to clarify: in the very sentence where Orwell tells writers to not use the passive voice, he uses the passive voice. Oh, he also uses the passive voice in his opening sentence. Find other examples of Orwell breaking his own rules in this second Language Log blog post on the essay, including using long or foreign words and outdated metaphors. Geoffrey Pullum points out other inconsistencies in two articles at the Chronicle of Higher Education, including Orwell’s use of metaphors and the “not un-” rhetorical technique.

More important than the style advice is the overall message. On Violence fav, Geoffrey Nunberg, criticized the overall message in his book Talking Right:

“Objections to jargon and euphemism are well taken, but they tend to leave you with the impression that the ‘plain’ or ‘common’ words that people defend are unproblematic. Yet in political language, it’s the common words that work the most mischief, precisely because they’re the ones that people are unlikely to examine for their hidden assumptions...

...Those ‘plain words’ work on us far more deeply and unconsciously than any others, and they can persist for long periods of time without becoming frayed or yellowed they way euphemisms tend to do.”

This passage turns Orwell’s argument on its head, in the most logical way possible: average people don’t like complex words. They stop paying attention to them. So what words will politicians use and manipulate? The plain, little ones.

We use the phrase “Getting Orwellian” because it neatly sums up what we’re doing with our language posts: questioning the standard uses of language. Orwell’s essay does just that. But don’t think he had all of the answers; he didn’t.

Jun 11

Yeah, we beat up on Peter Berg and Marcus Luttrell a lot on this blog. Mainly, it comes from wanting to correct the record on Navy SEALs. For instance, on The Q and A with Jeff Goldsmith, Peter Berg said:

“Navy SEALs are the least political people I’ve ever met...To talk to Navy SEALs about politics is an exercise in pointlessness.”

Berg repeated this claim in dozens of interviews; so did members of the media. In our research on SEALs, though, we’ve come across quite another beast from Berg’s archetype of a SEAL:

The political Navy SEAL.

As a group, SEALs have an incredibly powerful (and positive) public image, and some of them use that image for political purposes. In fairness, the vast majority of SEALs go through their service and post-service lives without using their time in uniform as a platform to express political views. Most SEALs. Some, though, can’t get out of the spotlight. These uber-vocal SEALs give the lie to the myth peddled by Berg and others that SEALs eschew politics to simply do their job, especially since Navy SEALs, when they do go public with a political message, get a lot of press.

We’ve found quite a few Navy SEALs who are very political. A few examples:

- Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund. First up, we have a series of Political Action Committees. There is nothing more political than a political action committee lobbying the government, most of whom have obscure sources of funding. The biggest and most political SEAL of them all is Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, who founded this group. He and his organization briefly made waves in the last Presidential election with political ads against President Obama. Taylor also ran for a Congressional seat in Virginia. (They also have an accuracy problem.)

- Special Operations Speaks. Special Operations Speaks’ website demands “accountability” for President Obama’s response to Benghazi and its masthead features at least one former SEAL demanding action.   

- SEAL Benjamin Smith. Another founder of Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, Ben Smith deserves his own section because of his role in circulating an email in conservative circles that had so many errors that Snopes debunked it. Read about it here.   

- SOF for America. This is yet another PAC and website using their military experience to lobby and campaign for conservative causes. Founded by a former Navy SEAL, this group explicitly backs Republican politicians to “take back control of the Senate”.

- Former Navy SEAL Christopher Mark Heben. He went on Fox News to denounce critics of Marcus Luttrell’s film Lone Survivor. Along the way he said, “Nobody who wears a trident...is a fan of Obama or Hillary.” That sounds political to us. And, according to Heben, it means that all SEALs are political.

- Former Navy SEAL Don Raso. In this NRA “Patriot Profile” as a part of the NRA’s “Life of Duty” series, former Navy SEALs describe their love of the NRA and how it helped them protect America. In this feature, former Navy SEAL Don Raso uses his personal experience at war to criticize Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

- Books. At least five books about or by Navy SEALs repeat the false claim that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, as we wrote about here.

- SEAL Gabriel Gomez. While not involved in the current war on terror, Gomez was a former SEAL who left active duty in 1996, but he ran for John Kerry’s vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2014. He has been associated with the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund group described above, which specifically campaigns against President Obama.

- Father of sailor Michael Strange. The father of a sailor who conducted electronic intercept intelligence for the U.S. Navy--and frequently assigned to Navy SEAL teams--he sued the Secretary of Defense and blamed President Obama for killing his son. His son died in the Chinook helicopter crash in 2011 that killed 33 troops, the single largest loss of life in Afghanistan. You probably didn’t hear about this, but it made the rounds through the conservative blogosphere.

(Why didn’t we call Michael Strange a SEAL? Because frankly, we can’t tell if he is. Though his father repeatedly uses the phrase “SEAL” and let reporters/bloggers write that his son was a SEAL, multiple other reports don’t mention that he was a SEAL, and specifically do not classify him as a SEAL. We can’t tell what is the truth.)

- Navy SEALS Against Obama. This now defunct blog has a self-explanatory title.

- “The Shooter” in Esquire. This anonymous former SEAL has lobbied Congress for increased benefits and funding for special operations, using his veteran status to bolster his position.

- Of course, we’ll end with Marcus Luttrell’s memoir Lone Survivor. At its worst, the memoir Lone Survivor actually blames liberals for the deaths of SEALs during Operation Red Wings. If accusing a political party of killing soldiers isn’t politics, we don’t know what is. Marcus Luttrell semi-regularly appears on Glenn Beck’s show, recently attacking Obama for negotiating with the Taliban to free Bowe Bergdahl. (Luttrell also misuses the term “terrorist” which we wrote about here.)   

We don’t want anyone to think we are denying SEALs the right to engage in politics. Navy SEALs--especially retired SEALs no longer bound by decorum or UCMJ--can make their political viewpoints known. However, we don’t want SEALs describes themselves as “apolitical” when many SEALs are as vehemently political as any conservative radio host.

A better description of SEALs is that they engage with politics with the same gusto as most Americans. Some eschew politics; some love to talk it. What we can say, with certainty, is that among those vocal SEALs, they tend towards conservative or very, very conservative.

(Finally, why pick on SEALs and not Green Berets, Rangers or especially Delta Force? Because examples of uberly-vocal political Green Berets and D-boys are much, much harder to find. And they don’t describe themselves as apolitical either.)