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 17

When I joined the Army, like most impressionable young cadets, I dreamed Special Operations dreams. The Army path to becoming a modern John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando) roughly follows: 1. Branch Infantry. 2. Get my airborne wings. 3. Graduate from Ranger School. 4. Become an Army Ranger. 5. Join the Special Forces. 6. Go to Delta Force. 7. Go to the even more secretive Intelligence Support Activity.

Of course, as a nerd, I dreamed of doing intelligence work for Delta. (Or, as they’re called now, the Combat Applications Group (CAG).) The farthest I got was doing intelligence for 5th Special Forces Group. By the time I left the Army to pursue my MBA, the allure of CAG had worn off.

But it wasn’t just me who didn’t care about CAG/Delta; Americans don’t really carry either. America now loves its SEALs. Kick-started by SEAL Team 6’s assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the SEAL legend has morphed from puppy love into full-blown stalker obsession. The Navy SEAL’s emphasis on secrecy only fuels this passion. Oh, the Navy SEALs, America’s quiet professionals, they don’t brag, they keep to themselves, they don’t do interviews and they shun media coverage.

Except when they don’t.

Though they are “quiet professionals”, they make quite a bit of noise. (Find examples of SEALs or SEAL supporters boasting about their “quiet professionalism” here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.) While the last movie about Delta Force came out in the 80s (Fine, The Unit was probably Delta Force), Navy SEALs have filled American airwaves with their stories, silently and quietly in the news constantly since 2010.

On cable television alone, we have seen...

- The Military Channel cover SEALs 24/7. In a post last year, Eric C looked at the schedule for The Military Channel. That night, their schedule included the TV programs “Weaponology: Sniper Rifles”, “Weaponology: Navy SEALs”, “Secrets of Navy SEALs” and “Secrets of SEAL Team 6”. Notice a trend?

- Not to be outdone, the National Geographic channel rushed out a movie on the Osama bin Laden raid last year.

- Oh, and the Discovery Channel also filled us in on the secrets of SEAL Team 6, which again, are not very secret any more.

SEALs are even more prominent on the big screen. Though Hollywood made Navy SEALs in 1990, they hadn’t made a movie featuring these quiet professionals...until the Osama bin Laden raid. (SEALs made guest spots in Tears of the Sun (which no one saw) and Transformers (which also had Rangers).) Now our “quiet professionals” have starred in Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty two years ago, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips last year, and Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor this year. And Clint Eastwood’s upcoming American Sniper comes out next year.

All of this reminds us of Marcus Luttrell’s outstanding description of SEALs from the introduction to Service:

In these pages, you’ll get a glimpse of our elite special operations warriors who occasionally make headlines but strongly prefer to remain anonymous, quiet professionals.

Coming from a man who has written two books (and sold one of them to become a film), we couldn’t agree less.

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.)