War of Words

Political speech and the defense of the indefensible.

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From George Orwell’s 1946 essay,
“Politics and the English Language”:

“[O]ne ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. … Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

From George Bush’s Tuesday press conference:

“Liberating the people of those nations from dictatorial regimes was an essential step in the war on terror. The world is safer today because Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are gone. …

The “Mission Accomplished” sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln saying that their mission was accomplished. I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from staff. They weren’t that ingenious, by the way. …

We must never forget the lessons of September the 11th. The terrorists will strike and they will kill innocent life, not only in front of a Red Cross headquarters, they will strike and kill in America, too. We are at war.

I said right after September the 11th, this would be a different kind of war. Sometimes you’d see action and sometimes you wouldn’t. But it’s a different kind of war than what we’re used to.

And Iraq is a front on the war on terror. And we will win this particular battle in the war on terror. …

David Kay’s report said that Saddam Hussein was in material breach of 1441, which would have been casus belli. In other words, he had a weapons program, he’s disguised the weapons program, he had ambitions. And I felt the report was a very interesting first report, because he’s still looking to find the truth.”

The past few months haven’t been kind to the administration’s case for war in Iraq, any more than they have been to the administration’s willfully rosy view of the post-war reality.
David Kay has yet to find the weapons of mass destruction; the administration was cornered into admitting the non-existence of the Qaeda-Iraq link; Baghdad is plagued with violence; and Donald Rumsfeld, having publicly suggested no such thing, worried in a memo that the war on terror is going to be a long “slog.”

Despite all these complications, in Bush’s most recent press conference, he used his old stand-by lines to discuss Iraq. The president described Iraq as a front in the war on terror, and re-emphasized the close relationship between September 11th and recent attacks in Iraq.

While many of Bush’s critics argue that Bush misspeaks because he’s not the smartest guy around, a closer look reveals a deliberate and subtle pattern of rhetorical manipulation that’s proved effective with the American people.

The language the president used in his press conference was nothing new; his message echoed his speeches of the past few months. While he describes the “war” as being over in Iraq, he explains the high number of American casualties and bombings in Iraq as the work of the terrorist network and not general Iraqi rebellion. His language easily conflates the attacks in Iraq with the larger anti-American terrorist network — our large and amorphous target in the war on terror. Attacks can be conveniently framed as outbursts by freedom-hating terrorists trying to destroy the great project of freedom being jointly undertaken by America and the Iraqis.

But the happy talk is wearing thin. Whenever WMD questions were raised, the administration told the public that the head of the Pentagon’s Iraq Survey group, David Kay, would lay all doubts to rest. But on October 2nd, when Kay gave his long awaited address to Congress, the WMD evidence didn’t materialize. Slate‘s Fred Kaplan describes Kay’s findings:

“Throughout the report, Kay kicks up a sandstorm of suggestiveness, but no more. He notes, in alarming tones, the discovery of ‘a clandestine network of laboratories and safehouses within the Iraqi Intelligence Service,’ including equipment ‘suitable for continuing CBW [chemical and biological weapons]…This is an interesting finding, but it says nothing about CBW development or production or deployment, and proves nothing about whether the equipment was actually intended or designed for CBW purposes.”

But the president disregarded any of the less than affirmative evidence Kay presented and told the press that U.S. actions were justified because Kay’s findings confirm that “Saddam Hussein was a danger to the world.” Kay clearly did not deliver any conclusive evidence that Hussein possessed the feared weapons, but such minor factual discrepancies did not stop the president from making his favorite assertions.

Recent surveys have raised the question that matching evidence with U.S. policy is perhaps not all that important to Americans either. While president Bush has continually linked the September 11th attacks to Iraq, very little evidence has confirmed such a thesis. The Washington Post reported in early September that seven out of 10 American’s believed Saddam Hussein had a role in September 11th. Matthew Dowd, a campaign strategist for the president, told the Post that the public isn’t capable of making a distinction between Iraq and the war on terror.

“The intellectual argument is there is a war in Iraq and a war on terrorism and you have to separate them, but the public doesn’t do that…They see Middle Eastern terrorism, bad people in the Middle East, all as one big problem.”

As chaos reigns and casualties mount in Iraq, the administration is sticking to its official story. But small signs are showing that perhaps the unofficial picture is considerably less clear. On October 16th secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, wrote a memo to his staff where he expressed doubt that the war on terror was the brilliant success he had previously made it out to be. Rumsfeld writes:

“Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

But these minor White House leaks don’t seem to make a difference to a leader for whom politics has been known to take priority over truth.

So what to do? Again, Orwell:

“One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase […] into the dustbin, where it belongs.”


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