War Language & Lies

by Nile Stanton

March 14, 2023

      Even people with apparently normal moral standards sometimes behave reprehensibly, and this is often facilitated by the overriding of our inhibitions concerning aggression. War propaganda, for example, allows people to disengage their normal moral reservations in two ways. Victim dehumanization, that is, the creation of the ultimate out-group called "the enemy" and moral justifications such as "it's in their best interests" directly and simply operate by making sure that one's own personal moral standards are not applicable to the situation.

      A few prefatory remarks are in order here. There are two major categories of war lies: (1) those lies conveyed surreptitiously by the bastardization of language such that words are twisted to mean things other than what they clearly do and (2) those lies conveyed openly in the form of vital falsehoods and gross distortions. First, let's take a look at two ways that language is bastardized, at times very subtly, to shape our thoughts about war. Then, we will examine a few major lies that were told in order to foment support for the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. (In a subsequent post, I will note the major lies that were told to drum up support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)

Section 1. - The Bastardization of Language

      Both William Lutz and George Lakoff have made significant contributions to our understanding of how language shapes our views toward war. Lutz, a linguist and frequent consultant to politicians, has argued that language is the first casualty of war because it is often manipulated by those in power to justify their actions and hide their true intentions. Cognitive linguist Lakoff, on the other hand, has focused on how metaphorical language shapes our understanding of war and its consequences.

      According to Lutz, language is a powerful tool that can be used to distort reality and manipulate people's perceptions. He notes that, in times of conflict, language itself is manipulated, distorted, and even suppressed in order to serve political and military agendas. Governments and other institutions often massage language to justify their actions and obscure the truth. This manipulation of language is a way to control the narrative and shape public opinion about war. He argues that this phenomenon can be seen in the use of euphemisms, doublespeak, and other forms of linguistic obfuscation that are used to obscure the true nature of war and its consequences.

      In a short essay titled "The First Casualty," William Lutz 

   The use of technical, impersonal, bureaucratic, euphemistic language to describe war separates the act of killing from the idea of killing; it separates the word from that which it is supposed to symbolize. Such language is a linguistic cover-up designed to hide an unpleasant reality. It is language that lies by keeping us as far as possible from the reality it pretends to represent. With such language we create a psychological detachment from the horror that is war, and we become numb to the human suffering that is the inevitable result of war.


      Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has taken some of Lutz's ideas further, arguing that the metaphors we use to talk about war can also have a profound impact on how we view and understand it. Lakoff suggests that metaphors are not just rhetorical flourishes, but rather are deeply ingrained in our thinking and can shape the way we perceive reality.

      In one article, Lakoff observed that . . .

   [T]here is an extensive, and mostly unconscious, system of metaphor that we use automatically and unreflectively to understand complexities and abstractions. Part of this system is devoted to understanding international relations and war. We now know enough about this system to have an idea of how it functions.

   The metaphorical understanding of a situation functions in two parts. First, there is a widespread, relatively fixed set of metaphors that structure how we think. For example, a decision to go to war might be seen as a form of cost-benefit analysis, where war is justified when the costs of going to war are less than the costs of not going to war. Second, there is a set of metaphorical definitions that allow one to apply such a metaphor to a particular situation. In this case, there must be a definition of ‘cost’, including a means of comparing relative ‘costs’. The use of a metaphor with a set of definitions becomes pernicious when it hides realities in a harmful way.

   It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and in a war, they could afflict tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of real human beings....

      For example, the metaphor of war as a game suggests that there are winners and losers, and that the goal is to defeat the enemy. This framing can obscure the human cost of war and make it seem like a contest rather than a violent and deadly conflict. Similarly, the metaphor of war as a journey suggests that there is a clear destination and a path to get there. This framing can make it seem like there is a clear strategy and a predictable outcome when, in reality, war is often chaotic and unpredictable.

      Lakoff argues that by paying attention to the metaphors we use to talk about war, we can begin to understand how they shape our thinking and our attitudes toward conflict. By recognizing the power of metaphorical language, we can also begin to question and challenge the dominant narratives that are used to justify war.

Section Two. - Vital Falsehoods & Gross Distortions

      First, consider some essential background.

      What most Americans call the War in Vietnam was, at its essence, a quest for independence from foreign domination that had been going on for many years.

      The Geneva Agreements of 1954, terminating hostilities between the Vietnamese and French, provided that there would be elections in 1956 to reunify the country as it had been before the French went into Vietnam (then much of the rest of Indochina) in the mid-1800s. Those elections, however, were not held because our man in the south, Ngo Dinh Diem, wouldn't allow them. Why? Because we didn't want them to take place. Why? Because, as former President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in his memoir, we figured that even if free elections were held in the north (which we doubted would be permitted), Ho Chi Minh would have won over 80% of the vote around the country. He was quite popular throughout Vietnam because he had been the leading spokesperson and organizer for Vietnamese independence from the French, the Japanese, and then the United States from around 1917 on and had broad support from communists and many non-communists as well.

      When the Japanese took over Vietnam in World War II, Ho Chi Minh and his followers were inspired by the Atlantic Charter, which assured that our intentions in Asia were not of domination and were intended to uphold the right of self-determination. Accordingly, Ho's forces helped us in WWII against the Japanese and declared national independence after the war ended. However, the British allowed the French colonial forces to resume power. (General Douglas MacArthur referred to this as a "terrible betrayal" of the "little people" who trusted us.) By the way, when Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence (modeled in large part on our own) in Hanoi in early September of 1945, U.S. jets flew over and tipped their wings in honor of the occasion. Unfortunately, as we know, the French reasserted themselves yet again but were defeated. 

      After the French left, the U.S. got involved incrementally, then in a big way.
In the eyes of most Vietnamese, Americans simply replaced the French as attempted imperial masters.

      1. - The American public was badly misled and deceived into believing that communism presented a vast monolithic threat that had spread across Russia and much of Europe then into China and was at the time in the process of taking over Vietnam in the south as it already had in the north. And, if the communists weren't stopped in Vietnam, the next thing you knew
there would be all those "falling dominoes." They'd soon take Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and Japan, and come across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S.A., so Americans had to fight the communists in Vietnam so they wouldn't have to fight them in San Francisco. 

      Of course, after the last U.S. forces were ignominiously forced out of Vietnam and a communist government ruled all of the country, the "dominoes" never did fall.

      2. - The fabrication and/or gross distortion of evidence to provide supposed "just grounds" for war is an egregiously foul act, although it has been done many times by several nations. One of the most serious deceptions the U.S. government engaged in regarding the Vietnam War concerned what is called the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.
The military and the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson foisted on the American people and, importantly, the Congress, the notion that American navy ships were attacked by North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin.

      A great deal of information that was declassified in 2005 by the National Security Agency (discussed on the National Security Archive's webpage) pertains to the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 1964. Based on pertinent parts of that and my previous extensive research, it appears to me that the evidence suggests that, at best, although the navy had reason to believe there *might have been* an attack on August 2, 1964, there was none on August 4th.

      However, a discussion of whether there was or was not an attack on our ships in the Gulf of Tonkin deflects attention from an even more basic matter: Our ships were there affording direct assistance to a belligerent, thus making our forces co-belligerents which could be lawfully attacked.

      What President Johnson claimed was that two U.S. ships, the Turner Joy and Mattox, were in international waters on "routine patrol" in the Gulf of Tonkin when they were subjected to an "unprovoked attack." He lied about the matter and misled the American public and Congress. Not only was it questionable whether any attacks took place, but at the same time that U.S. warships "happened" to be cruising about the Gulf of Tonkin, South Vietnamese forces, using to a large degree American equipment, were shelling two North Vietnamese islands (Hon Nieu and Hon Me) in 34A-OPS. Our ships had orders to attempt to draw the North Vietnamese navy away from the operations and were also stimulating North Vietnamese radar with special devices to determine their locations. And, our ships remained in the area even after we knew that the North Vietnamese considered their actions hostile.

      When the islands were attacked and the presence of our ships was known, the North Vietnamese immediately reported this to the International Control Commission, which was created by the Geneva Accords of 1954 to resolve disagreements between the northern and southern parts of Vietnam. Rather than report our version of things to the ICC, President Johnson immediately demanded and after very brief debate obtained, congressional authorization for war. Only two Senators, Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest
Gruening of Alaska, spoke out vigorously against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and voted against it. It was obtained by deceit.

      3. - Americans were repeatedly assured that progress was being made, that the enemy was on the run, that we could see light at the end of the tunnel now, that it would only take a little longer, that victory was in sight, and so were absolutely shocked by the Tet Offensive of 1968, the major turning point of the war. Although South Vietnam and the U.S. won all the major battles of that offensive, it was such a stunning event to most Americans, who believed the enemy was weak and about to be defeated, that support for the war rapidly dwindled because they felt they had been badly misled.

      In his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Robert S. McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 (for much of the war) belatedly admitted that U.S. involvement in Vietnam had been "a terrible, terrible mistake." (Watch his Harvard lecture regarding what he wrote of, the tragedy and lessons of Vietnam.)

      And, the Pentagon Papers confirmed the worst suspicions that many Americans had for years: The Johnson Administration had repeatedly and systematically lied about the war, both to the Congress and to the public.

      The U.S. government’s use of lies to garner support for the war in Vietnam was a shameful and dishonorable act. The lies were used to manipulate public opinion and to justify the U.S.’s involvement in a war that had devastating consequences for the people of Vietnam and the U.S. alike.

      The vital falsehoods. the outright blatant critical lies, that were told to the American public and Congress worked: They seduced people into supporting two ill-begotten, totally unjustifiable, wars.

      Soon, I will post a short piece noting several specific lies that the U.S. military and executive branch officials spewed to mislead the country into war against Iraq. After that short piece, I plan to post essays regarding just war theory, aggression, and religion and war. 



* Nile Stanton lives in southern Spain. He was a professor for the University of Maryland University College for 20 years, where he taught U.S. active duty service members on U.S. military bases in Spain, Italy, Bosnia, and (mostly) Greece as well as online to troops throughout Europe and Asia. The course he taught most often (32 iterations) was the upper-level government course called “Law, Morality, and War.” Thereafter, he taught for the University of New England at its Tangier, Morocco, campus for two years, where his signature course was “War and Public Health.” He was born and raised a Quaker and tends to examine the excuses for war and lack of diplomacy more carefully and from a different perspective than many people.

Nile |@|