"The War on Terror is Over" : Counter-propaganda through applied memes
“What if they threw a war and nobody came?”
So goes the classic query, which cleverly reminds us that a gullible public need not embrace every war proffered to them. But of course, the war usually takes place anyway, since few peace strategists have actually tackled the notion of how to successfully RSVP their regrets to the Pentagon.
What is more consternating is the fact that so often, American wars are not even wars at all. What are so often called “wars” in the media are nothing but institutionalized PR campaigns that only tacitly resemble genuine missions, when what they really are is window dressing for agendas meant to swallow money, and citizen attention, without delivering on the implicit notion of victory. Usually, even the means of conceptualizing victory are absent.
This is inevitable, of course, when the war in question is an abstraction—a war “on” something, rather than a war “with” someone. The War on Drugs is the classic example. Richard Nixon first coined the term in 1971. Thirty-six years and untold billions of dollars later it has become an uncontested fixture of American domestic and foreign policy, despite the fact that the “war” involves no actual combat (at least insofar as acquiring territory is concerned), no battles won, no defined armies, no possibility of a cessation of hostilities, and no conceivable measure of victory. Yet despite this, skirmishes against narcotics producers and distributors are reported on the news every night across the country as if they had actually been fought in a real “war on drugs”. And although the news is always positive (drugs seized, dealers imprisoned, new and expensive stratagems launched) at no point is the idea ever tendered that this war is any closer to conclusion now then it was 36 years ago.
Any sane outsider studying this situation would have to conclude that the War on Drugs is one of the costliest and most fruitless boondoggles in history. It’s only visible accomplishment is a flourishing and intractable black market for narcotics, bloody gang warfare, the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Americans for non-violent drug crimes (with the resultant costs to society in public dollars, loss of productive labor and diminished freedom), as well as the institution of communistic seizure laws allowing for the confiscation of personal property, and finally, a foreign policy which has artificially prolonged a civil war in Columbia for decades while yielding no reduction in drug consumption. Our outsider, were he a consultant, would surely recommend terminating the War on Drugs, eliminating all vestiges of its public policy and starting from scratch with a new drug control agenda which had decriminalization, market regulation, health care and anti-poverty measures at it’s core.
Yet, let any politician declare that the War on Drugs be ended, that it’s very reason for being be put under the microscope, that the entire framework of a “war” on drugs be jettisoned, and you will hear the sound barrier break from across the country as politicians of both parties haul ass from the epicenter of this toxic spill of clear-headedness. For while one may dissent, within strict guidelines, from an actual shooting war, no quarter may ever be given in our wars of imagination, our wars ofdistraction, our undeclared wars of propaganda.
The Phantom Wars
When George Bush declared that the War on Terror would be a “new kind of war”, he was not entirely lying. The War on Terror is a Frankenstein, cobbled together from pre-existing military and marketing campaigns. Its beating heart is the War on Drugs, in as much as it is promised to be generational and vague, encompassing a wide variety of agendas unrelated to 9/11. But it is also a resumption of the Cold War, requiring expensive toys and consistent, public belligerence towards its unspoken enemy, Islam, itself undefeatable militarily as was the Soviet Union.
And then there are dashes of World War II— comparisons between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, Iraq in place of Nazi-occupied North Africa…whatever is necessary to stoke the memories of our last “good war”. But existentially, the War on Terror is the Drug War all over again, in that it is essentially nothing more than cant.
Even our Commander and Chief cannot hide his war’s nature, and so warns us not to expect peace treaties signed on the decks of battleships (a pledge he himself inverted, Stalin-like, when he declared “Mission Accomplished” on an aircraft carrier even while all of our enemies’ leaders-Saddam, bin Laden and Mullah Omar-were still at large).
The War on Terror at least made some sense as a national agenda before we routed al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and when we still believed in the WMD boogeyman. Years later, however, the sheen is off the apple. Iraq is seen as a quagmire, executed for dubious, imperial motives, the victory in Afghanistan is starting to fray around the edges as the resurgent Taliban illuminates the half-assed measures we took to wrap that war up quickly, and the Republican anti-terror agenda employed at home and abroad—domestic spying, illegal record searches, the PATRIOT ACT, torture—are widely seen as White House excess.
But from a new kind of war, we have gone to a new kind of War on Terror. Shorn of any appearance of sensibility, it has gone from being a rubric for routing terrorists and their allies to pure propaganda, a policy with no clear purpose, save to extract money from the federal budget and attention from the national audience. It is a shibboleth, invoked by senators when grilling new Defense Secretary’s to ensure that they realize that Iraq is the War on Terror’s “central front”, babbled by talk radio hosts so we know what we are “supporting the troops” for, and a clear and present danger that requires us to pause for reflection and reconsider the limits of free speech, according to best-selling author Robert “Buzz” Patterson, author of War Crimes: The Left's Campaign to Eliminate the Military and Lose the War on Terror.
But as the appetite for foreign wars diminishes, and as the logic of a War on Terror recedes and dissolves, we actually see the War on Terror adopting its new shape, as a permanent fixture of our national program, a nonsense concept divorced from all function, but treated—by politicians, newspapers, pundits, and finally the citizenry—as real. Not a real war to be won (no one actually thinks we will ever win the War on Drugs either) but a permanent bureaucratic beast, which must be fed and genuflected to forever.
Though not a war, the War on Terror It is not simply a policy, which can be discussed, debated or defunded. By the simple fact that it is called a “war”, George Bush’s doctrine of executive overreach and naked military aggression is set to be ensconced as a permanent national agenda, free to be exploited by any party that wants an argument-free means to fatten a budget or overthrow a nation. To denounce the War on Terror would be a cyanide capsule for most any politician. It would imply hated surrender, even though the enemy is a ghost. The War on Terror, like the War on Drugs, is a phantom war, immune from rational discussion so long as we tolerate its existence.
The Central Front
The central front in the War on Terror is not Iraq, or any physical battlefield. It is the public’s mind.
Though the War on Terror continues to eat money and lives, it is not an actual conflict, only a “belief”, an umbrella of faith shielding its authors’ real ambitions (this week: war with Iran).
It follows, then, that you can usurp the War on Terror by ending the public’s belief in it as a real entity, or rather, by making people believe something new about it.
At a recent televised discussion of the book What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, contributor Drew Westen demonstrated the problem the peace movement has had in dealing with the well-coordinated ad campaign that is the War on Terror. Here he outlines how he thinks Democrats should respond to the “Support the Troops” mantra, which is just one of the many treacherous slogans that have popped off the malicious, metamorphosing gremlin that is the War on Terror.
“Here would be an example [of a response]: Mr. President, do you wanna really know what it means to support our troops? Don’t make their families take up a collection for their body armor. You wanna know what it means to support the troops? Armor their Humvees so they don’t lose their lives and their limbs when they don’t need to. Do you wanna know what it means to support our troops? When they come back injured to this country, don’t you dare warehouse them in Walter Reed hospital with cockroaches. Do you really wanna know what it means to support our troops? Don’t send them into someone else’s Civil War. Do you wanna know what it means to support our troops? Don’t send them to a war unless you would send your own children to that war.”
All good suggestions, but try squeezing them onto a ribbon magnet. Westen, like so many off-balance critics of the war, misses the purpose of “Support the Troops” and related propaganda, which is to cause opponents of the war to go into lengthy, incredulous denunciations of the slogan which only serve to disseminate the slogan itself and demonstrate its potency.
These slogans are more than just catchy buzzwords. They are word traps. Cynical politicians use “Support Our Troops” to throw themselves on the hand grenade of non-existent criticism of our soldiers (“Blame me! I sent them to Iraq! Spare them your spittle, America!”), but in fact, its actual function is to turn our soldiers into human shields to protect existing policies (“How dare you attack me? Can’t you see I’m trying to support our troops here??”)
However, this state of affairs cannot go on forever. Far from being hypnotized, the American public has shown a great deal of weariness with the prevailing Republican philosophies. The early, tediously long presidential campaign only demonstrates how eager the people are to cast George W. Bush onto history’s ash heap. What they have not done, and what no one seems eager to encourage them to do, is renounce what is set to become the President’s enduring legacy: a generation of ceaseless conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, in service of an obsolete propaganda juggernaut.
The War on Terror is Over
“War is over, if you want it,” said John Lennon. How to accomplish it, though? For that I will paraphrase Kevin Spacey who, as supervillain Keyser Soze, pointed out that to be in power, you don’t need guns or money or even numbers. You just need the will to do what the other guy won’t.
What the example of Drew Westen illustrates is how on the ropes the peace movement’s counter-propaganda effort really is. The Left is buffeted everyday with targeted talking points and mottos, rapidly disseminated through a well-oiled media machine. In one evening you may see Lynne Cheney asking Wolf Blitzer “Do you want America to win the war?” turning Blitzer’s own program into an ad hoc subcommittee, and then later watch Bill O’Reilly appear on the Late Show asking the same McCarthyite question of David Letterman. The side of peace and reason has to operate in bullet time just to evade the right wing’s Gatling gun barrage of jingo, rhetoric and loaded questions, much less give back in kind.
With that in mind, let us revisit the question “ What if they threw a war and nobody came?” Well, too many bombs have dropped for that sort of speculation. So, trapped as the people are by what we did not prevent, the logical question then becomes “what do we have the will to do that the other guys won’t?”
The answer is obvious: the others-- the war machine, the profiteers, the opportunists-- won’t end the War on Terror. So we will.
Getting ahead of the curve and putting the right wing on defense has largely been absent from the peace movement’s overall strategy. The Right skillfully pumps out hard to rebuff mantras such as “Support the Troops”, “Fight Them There So We Won’t Have to Fight Them Here” and “Victory is Our Only Option”, all of which serve to put the peace movement into reaction mode, requiring we cut our own throats and risk explaining why we shouldn’t support the troops, why we should let our enemies fight us here and why victory is not an option. The opposite approach, such as saying that “we DO, support the troops, BUT…” only puts us in the position of swallowing the enemy’s bait.
I propose that what must happen is that the peace movement debut more aggressive and subversive communication strategies than simply murmuring “Give Peace a Chance” or “Troops Home Now.” Successfully undermining the right wing’s scheme requires that we attack the disease and not its symptoms, and the disease is the War on Terror itself.
Well-targetted subversion comes from an understanding of what makes propaganda of this sort work, and that is its function as a meme. The term "meme", first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, refers to a self-propigating unit of cultural information, such as a catch phrase, a jingle, a superstition, etc.; a "virus of the mind". An excellent example of a contemporary meme is the "23" phenomenon--the notion that the number 23 has a mystical significance, and that it occurs inordinately more than any other random number in both natural phenomenon and artifacts.
This is no more than a superstition that has found a viable niche. Like the number 13, it has its loyal adherants who have assigned it significance for reasons that are utterly divorced from fact, but who propigate its worth and by doing so make it a sort of "truth". Just as the number 13 means "bad luck", the number 23 has come to stand for "magical coincidence". As such, it invariably appears in books, movies, etc, that have the mystery of coincidence as a topic. "23" has turned up as an explicit plot point in the comic book The Invisibles, the movie Serendipity, and the coincidental occurence of 23 in Hurley's lotto numbers on Lost is, of course, no coincidence. The significance of 23 has even auto-spawned its own movie, The Number 23.
This is what is meant by "virus of the mind". Someone--who knows why or when--once proffered the notion that the number 23 is an avatar for the very notion of coincidence, and coincidentally, it appears to be everywhere.
The War on Terror is itself a meme. The concept is wedded to 9/11, a real event which validates a myth. It has come to take the meaning "justice for 9/11" on a subliminal level. To stand against the War on Terror, to sap its worth as propaganda and thus as policy, will require nullifying it on that level as well.
To that end, I submit that the core of a rejuvenated attack on war propagandists is contained in this slogan: “The War on Terror is Over.”
Although no single slogan can alone reverse the trajectory of a determined government agenda, “The War on Terror is Over” contains within it the seeds of several new concepts for tackling the Bush legacy which have not so far been considered. Here are some of the ways I think this phrase, if properly disseminated, would affect the public mindset:
It hijacks the existing paradigm. By taking the pre-established concept of the War on Terror and reversing its intent in the fewest words possible, you sabotage the idea without having to come up with a completely new notion for people to accept or reject.
It inspires discussion. Like the word traps of slogans like “Support the Troops”, the beauty of “The War on Terror is Over” is that it puts the onus of denying this claim on the war proponents, compelling them first to deal with us on our terms and then denounce us (“The War on Terror is NOT over!), thereby perpetuating our notion at the expense of their own.
Furthermore, it gets people to think about the very concept of the War on Terror, and what it really means. “Is it really over?” “Who won?” “Who decides?” “How did it end?” Even if a person is disinclined to believe the statement, they will still have to ask themselves why it isn’t over, and just when will it end?
It is a wedge to change current policy. Hot-button legislation like the PATRIOT Act requires the underpinnings of support that the War on Terror provides. To roll back the Republican’s Constitutional violations, their raison d’etre must first be discredited.
It is aggressive. Contrary to other messages the peace movement might try to advance, this one does not imply that any further debate is needed or asked for. By simply declaring that the War on Terror is over, the disseminators of this message not only take the audacious step of making themselves the arbiters of its end, but they actually grant themselves (and allwho will listen) the thing America most wants but are being denied by the actual War on Terror’s authors: it’s conclusion.
And since the War on Terror is not itself an actual war, but simply a well-merchandised mindset, “The War on Terror is Over” has the added advantage of being completely true. A faith-based war is war you can walk out on.
The political tide may have turned, if only just so, against the neo-conservative agenda, but the prevailing emotional sentiment remains dug in. Politicians who might otherwise be inclined to take a stronger stance against the Bush/Cheney objective are hampered by an inability to denounce it in the language required for fear of being cast as weak and unpatriotic. Still others, while paying lip service to peace, are more than happy to see the War on Terror survive for their own purposes, and those of their backers.
The damage done in the past seven years to our country by the ascendancy of the Far Right will likely long outlast anything brought to our shores by the terrorists who made it possible. It is not just enough to broom George Bush off the stage. The ground must be salted lest a future administration try to continue the work of the current.
The deliberate spreading of memes is done everyday through political and advertising campaigns. The purposeful multiplication of a simple phrase or idea has often been the key that opens the public's mind to a new, larger concept. The very notion that the War onTerror can end, that it is unreal, and that its advocates can be made to look foolish, is at present a foreign notion to most of the country. And yet, it is undeniably a concept that the nation is ready to receive.
Ending the War on Terror only requires the will to do so. I propose that if this meme has now infected you, that you contaminate as many people as you can without haste. Below I have provided a simple means to begin this process. This button can be used however you see fit: as a signature for e-mails or forum posts or as clickable links for your website. If you wish, please link it to this page so that others can understand the campaign you are part of, or link it to other pages with similar agendas.
The war is over. Do you want it?
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