Episode 193: How Military Jargon and Clichés Make Mass Death Seem Sterile (Part II)

Citations Needed | November 15, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
34 min readNov 15, 2023
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks at a White House press briefing in 2023. (Sarah Silbiger / Reuters)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yes, as always, if you listen to the show, if you like it, please subscribe at Patreon. We’d be very grateful.

Nima: “U.S. shipment of ‘lethal aid’ reaches Ukraine amid Russia tensions,” NBC News reported in January 2022. “US adopting ‘deterrence posture’ as aircraft carrier heads towards Israel,” France 24 announced in October 2023. The same month, The Hill warned about “Nutrition: The national security threat no one is talking about.”

This is part two of our episode on the language of war. Last week, we discussed terms like “boots on the ground” and “military footprint;” “precision” or “targeted airstrikes;” “terrorism,” and the very Orwellian phrase “enemy noncombatant.”

Adam: If you haven’t listened to that episode, we strongly encourage you to do so. On today’s episode, we’ll examine more of these most insidious terms that our US media and government officials use to sanitize military aggression worldwide, how this is affecting coverage of Israel’s nonstop bombing in Gaza, and discuss how we can and should use clearer and more accurate terms when describing the real human stakes of state violence.

Nima: Once again, for this episode, we’re joined by guests, David Vine and Maha Hilal, who study the words of war quite closely. They have both contributed to the recent report Words about War Matter: A Language Guide for Discussing War and Foreign Policy, which was released just this past September and which you can find at wordsaboutwar.org. As the Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza also continues tragically, backed completely by the US government, and the words of war continue to be weaponized in our politics and our press. Not only does this continue to be a very timely topic, but the Words About War Matter guide has been edited with a companion piece related to Gaza, specifically, which you can find at www.wordsaboutwar.org/gaza. So once again, Maha and David, thank you so much for joining us on Citations Needed.

David Vine: Thanks so much, Nima and Adam. It’s great to be with you again.

Maha Hilal: It’s great to be here.

Adam: Yeah, thank you so much for coming back and talking about Words of War. And we’re gonna continue drilling down our list. At number six, we have some gems: deterrence and power projection. These terms obviously serve a similar purpose. The Pentagon defines “deterrence” as “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” And it defines “power projection” as “the finite application of military power by national command authority to achieve discrete political ends outside the borders of the United States, its territories, and possessions.”

In other words, these terms are basically a threat. They’re a way of saying, we’re gonna put this guy here and if you get out of line, he may hurt you. Now, people say, oh, well, just because the US has a “military footprint” in certain countries, whether it be Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Germany, it’s basically like a DMV or like a civil servant, right? It’s kind of just there to make sure that the wheels are spinning. But of course, if I have five armed gunmen in my house, how much control do I really have over my house, right?

There’s a reason why they’re there. And actually, as the war in Israel, which is probably again, by the time you’re listening to this, probably the dimensions of it will have changed considerably, broke out, there were initial reports that Biden had delayed the ground invasion by Israel, and originally sort of pitched as a humanitarian thing. But we now know according to reports, from a freelance for The Washington Post, that it was actually to prepare the American troops in Syria for potential combat with Hezbollah, and maybe God forbid Iran. And I remember when there were troops left in Syria, and I know Dave, you spent a lot of time trying to figure out how many are actually there. It’s very impossible to know, they were originally pitched as a buffer to the kind of Shia crescent. And then that got a little awkward. So then it became actually there to fight ISIS. And then it was there to prevent the Turks from genociding in the Kurds.

Nima: So they’re there for deterrence and then possibly also power projection.

Adam: Yeah, it may be a combination of all three. Who knows, right? Sort of things that are like preventing the Turks from genociding the Kurds. That seems fine, but there to sort of menace, you know, Hezbollah, maybe not the best idea in the world. And as the conflict popped off, it was clear like oh, that’s why they’re there. They’re there in case something like this happens, right? This is a very long-winded way of saying I want to talk a bit about what it means by saying deterrence and power projection, and how those same types of things and this is something along with military exercises, which you also note in your report, how these things are kind of given this benign hall monitor vibe, when in reality, of course, if China or Russia or another major power did similar things, I don’t think we would view them in those terms.

David Vine

David Vine: That’s exactly right. I mean, you know, there’s definitions I think are helpful in their incomprehensibility. Both of these terms are examples of the kind of elitist language that is actually encouraging people to turn their brains off and encouraging people to not get involved in matters of foreign policy and war, matters that should concern all of us. They’re part of the jargon of what’s referred to as the Washington DC foreign policy blob, the group of elites that have dominated US foreign policy since World War II, and as a result, dominated the distribution of now upwards of $1 trillion a year if you add it all up that the US taxpayers spend on on war.

And what as you rightly explained, what they’re really talking about when they’re using language, like deterrence and power projection is a threat. They’re using military, the US military to threaten other countries. And that sort of language gets thrown around sort of, for a variety of reasons, including just to sound smart, as well as to shut off debate, when actually there is very little, if any evidence that the deterrence that they are talking about, which is, you know, the deployment of US military bases and US military forces abroad, there is very little of any evidence that deterrence works as a strategy. And that is the way US foreign policy has been made since World War II largely, just by declaring that this is a deterrent force, that this is deterrence and thus we must do it.

There is little, if any evidence that these strategies are effective. And what I and others have been calling for is, you know, a foreign policy based in evidence, in evidence that the strategies being proposed actually work. Instead, what US military leaders and US civilian leaders have been doing is spending billions upon billions of dollars every year keeping hundreds of military bases deployed outside the United States and hundreds of thousands of US military personnel deployed outside of the United States to threaten other countries in ways that frequently far from making the United States more secure, or the world more secure, frequently, heighten military tensions with other countries, accelerate processes and militarization. Again, as you pointed out, I think how people in the United States would react if China or Russia, for example, were to build even a single military base near our borders, in Canada, or in Mexico, or in the Caribbean. And of course, we don’t have to speculate when the Soviet Union built a single missile base in Cuba during the original Cold War, US leaders and people in the United States completely freaked out and brought the world closer to nuclear Armageddon than we ever were, probably until this moment amid the war in Ukraine, Putin’s war in Ukraine and which now the world, of course, is in even more danger amid the genocidal actions of the Israeli government in Gaza. So again, this is the kind of language that the Words About War Matter language guide encourages people to discard completely, and instead just speak in plain clear language about what militaries are doing. In this case, the US military is deploying bases and forces around the world to threaten other countries.

Nima: Yeah, and just you know, about a four days span in September, we saw these headlines. This from September 8th, 2023, in Foreign Policy: “Deterrence in Taiwan is Failing.” So, clearly about China. From CNN on September 12th, we have: “Pentagon vows to use cyberspace to project power and frustrate US adversaries.” And then from France 24, this from the 10th of October: “US adopting ‘deterrence posture’ as aircraft carrier heads towards Israel.” Again, the deterrence is not going to be against Israeli action, really, right? Unsaid.

Adam: Yeah, cause I want to talk a little bit about this for a second if you would, which the obvious rejoinder to this by your liberal imperialist is like, Well, if the US doesn’t do it, someone else will, right? This is something we’ve talked about in the show before. But you know, we’ve talked about Joseph Conrad; he was this huge critic of Belgian imperialism, but he, he was actually a huge defender of English imperialism, in his sort of heart of darkness is this scathing criticism of Belgian imperialism, but he actually said no, English was preferable. And then of course, the Belgians said that they were preferable to the Arab slave traders, etc, etc.

There’s always some other evil bad guy that was going to fill the power vacuum if the US doesn’t fill it, right? And it seemed like there was at least, once upon a time, a kind of left premise, on the left, that there was a such thing as mutual antagonism, that you didn’t really do this, like, two kids in the back of the seat, you know, they started it thing. You sort of said, generally, we should try to reduce our “military footprint” because it promotes the forces of paranoia and nationalism and militarism within other countries, regardless of what we think about the moral properties of those countries. That there was a sense of, we have an obligation to tone down our own side. Talk about that, if you could, because I think that really plays into this idea of deterrence and power projection, especially post Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There’s this idea that like, Well, we’re the best bad option. And if we don’t do it, some other baddie will.

David Vine: I think one of the problems with the deterrence strategy and argument, my response would be, show me the evidence. This is always what people claim when there are calls for the closure of a US military base. So the withdrawal or reduction of US military presence, meaning the presence of US bases and forces in other parts of the world, that the sky is gonna fall, that some other nation is going to take over and project its military force, its power into a region. This is what people threatened when the Philippines’ government and people in the 1990s were struggling to remove the major US military bases in the Philippines, and were in fact, successful, and all the worst-case scenarios that were predicted did not indeed come to pass. And this has been shown again and again, the assumptions that you described that there would be a power vacuum is indeed just that, an assumption built on an underlying ideology about how the world works and ideology born of itself of the original Cold War, dating to longer-term ideologies, but again, I think the response should be, show me the evidence.

Adam: Well, the evidence is last fiscal quarter’s Raytheon’s buybacks. Did you see those dividends? I mean, that was huge.

Nima: [laughs]

David Vine: Indeed, this so often, you know, the language of war and foreign policy has some direct beneficiaries, and the kind of fear-mongering that we’re really talking about benefits people like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman and Boeing in the form of massive increases in their stock prices and transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer wealth to a very small number of incredibly powerful corporations that have bought off members of Congress and the executive and are determining so much of our national policy as a result of the formation that is the political economic structure that President Eisenhower, rightly identified as the military-industrial complex.

Nima: Yeah, I think with that, this idea of all these military contractors, again, a kind of amazing euphemism for companies that build and supply weapons, we get to our next term. This one is “lethal aid,” and obviously, its assumed companion “non-lethal aid.” The term “lethal aid” has garnered rightly, a good deal of criticism in recent years, but certainly not outstripping the use of this term as like a legitimate phrase.

And the term lethal aid has risen significantly, right around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. You see headlines like this CBS News from early 2022, “U.S. leaders vow support for Israel after deadly Hamas attacks: ‘There is never any justification for terrorism.’” You see this from Reuters from April of this year 2023, “On lethal aid to Ukraine, South Korean leader says Seoul considering its options.”

But it’s definitely worth parsing how awful this term is. You know, you’ve both been talking about let’s be clear about what we mean. And this term certainly predates what has been happening in Ukraine by decades. For instance, a 1981 William Safire column employed the term regarding the US-backed contras in Nicaragua. He wrote this:

We should have learned by now that no chorus of miffed outsiders, shouting ‘For shame!’ is going to oust the communist regime in Nicaragua. More effective than this so-called diplomatic pressure will be a combination of (1) a clear presidential articulation of the goal to help Nicaraguans replace a regime that will find any excuse to kill its opposition; (2) serious and sustained military pressure by contras supplied with plenty of the most lethal aid, and (3) economic pressure beyond an embargo.

The kind of inverse term “non-lethal aid” has been used as well. For instance, in an AP article from December of 1988, also about the Contras that said this: “Most Contras have fled to camps in Honduras, where they received US-supplied aid ranging from food to uniforms. Congress stopped US military aid to the rebels in February but allowed distribution of non-lethal aid to continue in neighboring Honduras.” I would love to hear your thoughts on this quite, you know, sanitizing term “lethal aid.”

David Vine: So as our guide says, “lethal aid” should really be an oxymoron because aid is a word that usually appears in humanitarian and medical context. This is clearly again, language, a form of propaganda that is covering up what’s going on. And as we suggest, people should just describe honestly, what’s going on, which is that when the government is shipping weapons and other military supplies to another or another group, and this is entirely what we are trying to get people to avoid, to stop repeating this kind of euphemistic language that again, often is the case with this term lethal aid, covers up the deadly nature of war, it disguises. We need to just be honest, when it comes to a matter as important and as deadly as war about what is going on. And that’s what we’re asking people to do.

Adam: The next word we have is a word you had on your list specifically about Gaza, which I thought was one of those words that’s so big, you don’t notice it. And I’ve noticed this, the CNN graphic, the NBC graphic, all says, Israel-Hamas war. And this gives the impression that there are two kind of relatively symmetrical armies going to battle on a battlefield, as one would see in sort of a World War I or kind of winding up troops. Can we talk about why in the context of what we’re seeing in Palestine, the word “war,” and maybe even “conflict,” which is a term we use, because I feel like you sort of have to settle on something, why the word “war” is perhaps not a useful word to use in this particular, “conflict?”

Maha Hilal: Well, I mean, I think what we’re seeing now, obviously, and you know, what we’ve seen for the last 75 years is that this is not a war between two parties. It’s a war of Israel against the Palestinians. And of course, that is an important distinction, because it highlights that there’s asymmetry. I mean, there’s no comparison, right? When we talk about what violence is being inflicted on the other, there is simply just no comparison, no matter how many times the Israeli narrative or the American narrative wants to propagate this idea that there is some sort of comparison in the levels of suffering and violence, there just isn’t. And so when you’re continuously using the war, and not just you know, it’s not Israel’s war against Hamas, right? It’s not even that right, it’s to imply that there is a symmetry and that there are two equally strong military forces fighting each other. And obviously, Hamas is not even a military, right? It doesn’t have a military in the sense that we understand Israel to have an extremely robust military, and it has one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, right, militaries in the world.

So when you use the term war, it’s as if those two things are equal. And it’s also just another way of excusing and justifying the violence that Israel is inflicting on Gaza and the Palestinians because it is saying, you know, we’re inflicting this much violence, but because it’s a “war,” they’re somehow inflicting that much violence back. And again, it’s not a war, right? It’s just not.

And if I could just digress for a second because there’s this really powerful quote that I always come back to from a young Pakistani boy, who was 13 and gave testimony at a congressional hearing in 2013. And he said, I no longer like the blue skies, because basically, when the blue skies are, when the skies are blue, the drones are out. Now I prefer gray skies. And when we talk about what it means for a war to be over, the US always says or keeps saying the war is over. But to me, the war is not over. And one of the ways we can measure this is by the fact that young children all over the world, in Muslim-majority countries are looking up to the sky to gauge the propensity and the possibility and probability of violence. And that to me, is not the end of a war.

Maha Hilal

Nima: Yeah, I mean, the use of the term “war” just masks so much. I mean, it obviously makes completely irrelevant that over the past 15 years, not including recent events, although I’m sure we’ll eventually hold fast to this as well, that upwards of 95% of casualties, both deaths and injuries, stemming from the so-called Israel-Palestine “conflict” — I put “conflict” in huge quotation marks — had been Palestinian. Those are numbers according to the UN and even that description betrays reality, the false symmetry of power and resources were two equal sides “clash” in a, again, cycle of violence.”

In fact, of course, violence against Palestinians never stops, whether in the form of a decade and a half plus long siege of Gaza where over 2 million people, nearly half of whom are children live under Israeli blockade, most of them desperately trying to survive extreme poverty and are subject to periodic carpet bombing campaigns like the one going on now described in Israeli military circles as a policy in the most grotesque term “mowing the grass,” right? Palestinians are also living in occupied and ghettoized West Bank, navigating a maze of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks and watchtowers at the mercy of martial law, indefinite detention, and Israeli prisons for years without charge, night raids. So yeah, I mean, to your point, Maha, there is no parity of power here. One is an apartheid state, then you have the people living under the threat and constant violence of that apartheid state under settler colonialism.

You know, Israel has a nuclear-armed military backed by the single most powerful nuclear-armed military in the history of the world, the United States. You know, before the recent escalation of violence here, Israeli forces had already killed on average one Palestinian person, every day this year, 2023. So the idea that then a war broke out, or then there were clashes, or then the conflict has you know, been reignited masks so much history, whether it is 56 years of occupation, whether it’s 75 years of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, whether it’s over 100 years of settler colonialism, the word “war” does so much work to present this as some sort of equal combat equal fight.

Adam: Yeah, it’s like the War of Austrian Succession. It’s just two battles, two armies going on the battlefield, right?

[Nima chuckles]

Nima: The war between apartheid South Africa and the ANC, right?

Maha Hilal: And then the current context, right, as if there wasn’t a war as if being in an open-air prison for the last, you know, decade plus years isn’t a war, like that is warfare, that is a country waging war on a people.

Adam: Right? It reminds me a lot of the sort of famous headline one sees, which is ‘Violence breaks out’ in Baltimore or Ferguson after police shoots, you know, unarmed black man and it’s like, the violence begins after the guy shoots someone. It’s like, I think the violence began when he shot the guy.

David Vine: Yeah, I just want to underline the power of the quotation that Maha read from the Pakistani child because I think it’s really important for us in this very important conversation about the language of war to remember what war does and keep our minds clearly focused on the lives it ends, it destroys, it ruins and how it shapes and causes so much profound suffering. Of course, our language guide, the Words About War Matter language guide is trying to encourage us to look plainly and directly at the human damage, destruction, catastrophe that war represents. But there is, of course, a danger that even our discussion of the language of war would, in a way, do something similar and distance us from the realities of war. And I think we really need to sit with what war does from Gaza to Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq. And the ways in which of course, that damage as Maha explained doesn’t end even after someone declares a war over. Wars are never over.

And I think we just really want to emphasize that this guide isn’t just about linguistic precision or some kind of academic matter. It’s about making us look plainly, directly, honestly, at what war does, in the hopes that our government, especially the US government, but other governments around the world will firmly and finally abandon war as a policy choice. It should have been discredited, decades, centuries, millennia ago as a policy choice. But we hope that the guide itself is a contribution and a much larger, much broader struggle to end war and violence of all kinds.

Adam: Yeah, yeah. One hopes, especially given the sort of casual nature of everything it seems. Because again, I think a lot of things you’re talking about in terms of threatening hostility, menacing, arming up in most contexts, we understand them to be menacing, like, if I just like, load up to the teeth with a bunch of guns and point them at your house, like people would sort of say, that’s like a weird thing, antisocial thing to do. But when countries do it, it’s kind of oh, that’s just “projecting power.” I want to talk about the next word, which is “national security” or “national security threats.” These are used to kind of convey an urgency in something. Everything from TikTok to fentanyl to Chinese students who are studying in the United States have been said to be a national security threat.

Nima: And too, of course, as we’ve discussed that on climate change.

Adam: Right, climate change, but for all the wrong reasons, right? Not as something we actually need to solve by reining in fossil fuels and large corporations but just as a way of getting more money to secure military bases. Talk to people about the idea of turning things into national security threats, this idea that like, something gets charged as like a potential threat, just by virtue of some like think tank guy being funded by Lockheed Martin says so.

Maha Hilal: I mean, first of all, when you think of the way that national security has been deployed in, you know, whether it’s the United States or Israel, they’re obviously taking sort of this, like victim posture, which is like the starting point to say that when there is a threat or a constructed threat, you know, it’s never something we could have known would be happening, or never something that we might have contributed to or caused. And if that piece of the puzzle is absent, then it always looks like, these countries are responding, right? They’re responding in a way that is really sort of entrenching the idea that they’re innocent. And so when you respond in that way, then it makes every intervention that you’re utilizing seem more acceptable because there’s nothing you could have done differently because you were sort of like attacked first. So, I think that’s one thing. And again, I’m most familiar with the US context of the deployment of national security.

And obviously, national security is used to basically deny people their rights, whether it’s, you know, torture survivors who tried to sue the US government and who basically can’t get anywhere with their cases because the US claims national security, whether it’s protesters and a Black Lives Matter protest, challenging the state, challenging police brutality, it’s a national security threat. So everything is a national security threat. And it’s interesting that again, it positions the state as the victim, and it positions the state as being this ignorant body that doesn’t, that simply doesn’t understand why people are resisting and revolting. It just can’t understand. And obviously, it’s a sort of catch-all term that justifies all of the behaviors that then are, you know, uses interventions, and we know this, right? So everything that the United States has done, post-9/11 is national security. We had to wage war in Iraq — national security. We had to detain and torture people in Guantanamo Bay because that was a matter of our national security. Everything is national security.

And one interesting example that might seem a little tangential is like, because I’ve worked on and studied Guantanamo Bay for a long time when prisoners at Guantanamo are transferred out of the prison, they’re never actually vindicated, despite not being convicted or charged. There are six US institutions that get together, agencies and basically decide that this person can be transferred and it says that, basically they’re no longer a significant threat to the United States. So keep in mind that they were never a threat to begin with because they weren’t captured on the basis of being a threat. But now they have to live the rest of their lives as a “national security threat” because the United States has demonized and stigmatized them as such. So it’s this really powerful term that not only, you know, allows for the targeting of groups and populations, it’s also used to evade the total possibility of any accountability, and any rights and any reparations and any acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

Adam: The next word is “defense,” a word you say is probably better replaced by things like military or even Pentagon, or the Pentagon maybe itself doesn’t quite convey what we’re doing. But defense is this idea that we have I know, recently, presidential candidate Nikki Haley was giving some speech and her whole thing is being like the most neoconservative of the bunch. I’m not sure there’s a huge market for that. But I guess there’s, I don’t know, maybe a handful of donors like it. She said, I’m going to rename the Department of Defense, the Department of Offense, and it’s like, yeah, it used to be called the Department of War, they changed it because it’s a euphemism like, agreeing with modern sensibilities because of course, we can only do defense. We, of course, have defense experts, defense analysts, a defense strategy.

Nikki Haley speaks during a November Republican presidential debate. (Jon Raedle / Getty)

Nima: Because when everything is a national security threat, you need to defend.

Adam: You must be constantly defending. And then there was, of course, this idea that the US selling surface-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia, and helping “secure its border” was defensive, purely defensive weapons. Of course, this is another one of these glaring asymmetries because they said, okay, Saudi Arabia is committing mass killings in Yemen, and bombing school buses, but we’re just going to sell them. And the same thing they said, they sell the Iron Dome in Israel, right? It’s purely defensive, right? But of course, if someone said, okay, well, if that’s the case, we should sell defensive weapons to Hamas, and to Iran.

Nima: Doesn’t everyone have the right to defend themselves?

Adam: Yeah, if selling defensive weapons is not a per se endorsement of the offensive capacity of a country, then why not sell them to Russia? Of course, nobody would do that. So this idea that somehow, everyone’s super small beans, and we’re just being defensive, and we don’t have any aggressive or threatening or menacing history, again, set aside the US military involvement in countries like in places like Iraq, etc. Talk about this idea of defense and how the US, I think, you know, there’s the old cliche that the Roman Empire was expanded purely on defensive wars. The US is sort of always on the defensive and to what extent is this framing of the US as constantly, as never drawing first blood does seem a little bit at odds with the fact that they do have the 700+ military bases?

Maha Hilal: I mean, it’s also just at odds with the entire history of this country.

Adam: Well, yeah, that too.

Maha Hilal: Yeah. So the entire history of this country is just like, outright violence and genocide and enslavement. And by positioning itself in this, you know, “defensive posture,” right, it excuses itself from accountability once again. So that is to say that nothing preceded our actions. And we are warranted in taking these actions because of what we anticipate the threat being. And of course, again, the threat is not shaped by what we have done previously, or prior to that. So you know, it’s a very strategic use of the word “defense,” right? Because then it doesn’t sound like the United States is going out of its way, or is harming anyone, or is marginalizing or targeting anyone. And obviously, we know that that’s a misnomer because the United States is a very generous contributor to violence across the globe and domestically. That’s obviously very problematic.

And I think, in terms of tying it to the narratives that have been propagated in, you know, the earliest days of the War on Terror, you know, something I think about is the speech that President Bush gave on September 20th of 2001. And he talks about how the US has only been attacked once on its soil being Pearl Harbor and that Americans haven’t seen an attack like this, like the 9/11 attacks before. And the implication of what he was saying is that Americans haven’t seen that because the United States is such an innocent country. How could it have possibly happened to us? This is such a unique event because we just don’t deserve this. And no one deserves violence against their civilians and citizens. But the way it was worded is as if, right, again, the United States is just this innocent country, and other people just come to its shores to menace it, and then it just has to respond. And so there’s this sort of consistent narrative that is in the backdrop of the US’s innocence and victimhood, that allows it to claim this defensive posture.

Nima: Incidentally, just to note that Hawaii, actually at the time of Pearl Harbor, not a US state didn’t become a US state till ’59. So even that line, really masks a legacy of this imperial takeover of islands in the South Pacific, of, you know, destroying indigenous rights, indigenous leadership, claiming territories as military bases, and then eventually deeming them to be states, although not always as we see with Puerto Rico.

Adam: No, it’s just really impressive that they’ve managed to expand to Appalachia, the Great Plains, the American West, past the Rockies, all of them were defensive battles, what are the odds that of all the gin joints, and all the towns and all the world, they were like 600 for 600. And every one of those wars battles they didn’t start? No, they were just minding their own fucking business.

David Vine: At least of course, they were a little more honest in describing the agency involved as the Department of War, the War Department, which I think, you know, I would prefer going back to that name for the agency responsible for the US military, or, you know, Department of Defense is fairly honest as well. And, you know, in many ways, in our Words About War Matter language guide, if there’s one word that I would encourage people to ditch and one suggestion that I would encourage people to follow, this is probably the most important, certainly one of the top suggestions that I would beg people to adopt because it has such, again, deadly and hugely, costly consequences. Just think about the term defense spending or defense budget, who would be opposed to spending money on defense automatically, and you see people who are critical of the amount of taxpayer dollars poured into the military budget, into the war budget, again, upwards of a trillion dollars, if you count all the money poured into the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration, which, properly speaking, you should be part of the Pentagon spending because it is of course, spending on past wars that allows future wars to be waged as well.

People who are critical of that kind of spending all too frequently talk about defense spending, or the defense budget, and thus, cede the rhetorical ground to those who would seek to perpetually increase the size of our war budget and war and military spending. So we call on people to ditch the language of defense and defense budget, defense spending, defense analysts, etc. As you said, almost always, you can replace those words with either the word “war” or “military” or “Pentagon.” “Pentagon” is just a good replacement for the totality of the military and so-called intelligence apparatus, which includes nuclear weapons, which of course, are shoved into another budget, which is another way to disguise and hide how much we’re spending. Again, I would just encourage people, if there was one suggestion to adopt, it would be to stop using the word defense, which of course just becomes a way to shut off debate and turn people’s brains off. You know, there’s nothing more Orwellian than the Department of Defense.

Adam: Yeah, when you talked about nukes, you reminded me of an honorable mention we won’t get into for time purposes, but “modernization.” I love modernization. I like the idea — we need to modernize our nuclear fleet and modernize our submarines, modernize our ice cutters. And it’s like, we’re always lagging, there’s always a missile gap and a submarine gap. And it’s like, “modernize” is so good, because it’s like, oh, our submarines are like 30 years old so we should buy a new one.

David Vine: This is all marketing. That’s exactly right. And we have to cut through the marketing, cut through the propaganda. And that ultimately, is what our guide is trying to help people do. Because again, of the extraordinarily deadly, catastrophic, costly effects of this kind of marketing that we need to remember, of course, benefits a small number of people residing in the military industrial-complex, beginning with the weapons manufacturers, not defense contractors, the weapons manufacturers, the arms makers, who are quite literally making a killing on wars to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars every year taken from us the taxpayers.

Adam: It’s such a weird alien way of talking too, like if I had you know, even like a small TV, if I said to my wife like we need to modernize our TV, she’d look at me like I was crazy. It’s an alien way to talk — “modernize” — this sort of sounds so slick, and it’s like, no, obviously you’re just bullshitting me. You want a bigger, shinier TV.

Nima: We must not allow a mineshaft gap, Adam.

Adam: I can look through my window and see the Jones’ apartment and they have a bigger TV — we need to modernize. Anyway.

David Vine: Orwell said this is all language that’s designed to defend the indefensible, to do things that elites could not otherwise do.

Nima: Well, this has been such an incredible conversation and we cannot thank you both enough. But before we let you go, we’d love to hear what you all are up to beyond say, the recent release of the Words About War Matter guide and the amazing and vital companion piece that you have added about Gaza in particular. But what else is on the horizon? What else are you working on?

Maha Hilal: Given, you know, my background and focusing specifically on the narrative infrastructure of the War on Terror, I’m at present looking at the overlaps with the current narrative that Israel has been deploying, that echoes much of the same language. And I’m working on writing a piece about that, that looks at the similarities, the overlaps, and the way that it is being weaponized to sanction the same level of state violence.

Nima: And as the executive director and founder of Muslim Counterpublics Lab, tell us a little bit about the work that you all do because this is all about this kind of public narrative, and how narrative influences our perceptions of reality, our perceptions of the past, the present, and the future.

Maha Hilal: So, our work is really about disrupting the ideological status quo that has been embedded in the narratives of the War on Terror that are deployed to dehumanize Muslims and to justify state violence. And obviously, we can see that this is a critical time for this work. And when we talk about counter-narratives, it’s important to really explain what that means. And I know we don’t have a lot of time, but typically, when Muslims have been given a space in the narrative, it’s to refute things like Muslims are terrorists, and we say, no, we pay our taxes. You know, we’re good citizens, etc. That’s different from abandoning the imposition of this terrorist narrative in the first place, right, and deconstructing what actually is a terrorist. Why is state violence, for example, considered superior or more morally legitimate than non-state actor violence and really critiquing those pieces and creating a space where Muslims don’t always have to respond to this destructive, dehumanizing, demonizing narrative that’s been imposed upon us?

Nima: Well, thank you so much for that work. It is critical we talk about narratives, you know, those kinds of deep-seated systems of stories in our culture. And we’ve been now trying to unpack those into our seventh season here on Citations Needed. David, let me turn to you. What are you up to these days? What can folks look out for?

David Vine: I guess I’d start with a word that we haven’t talked about yet, which is “ceasefire.” And that is trying to work with as many other people as possible to call for and ensure that there is a ceasefire and an end to the genocidal violence we’re seeing now in Gaza and Palestine. Hopefully, by the time listeners are listening to this, there will be a ceasefire and further work toward ending occupation and the apartheid state in Israel-Palestine. More broadly, clearly, we need to be struggling to end the war in Ukraine, and the horrific violence we’re seeing there among other wars that are getting far less attention, for example, in Sudan. And, you know, more broadly, I’ve been working with people, a broad group of people, activists, advocates, people in think tanks, academics, veterans groups, and many more, to urgently prevent the United States entering into what could be even more catastrophic wars than the absolutely horrifically catastrophic last 22+ years of war, since the US invasion of Afghanistan, and that is to say, urgently working with others to prevent a war with China or Russia that could all too easily become a nuclear war that could, oh, I don’t know, claim something like 5 to 6 billion lives, murder and kill 5 to 6 billion people on earth, and endanger all human existence on earth if a full-scale nuclear war were to break out.

Underlying that is some work that I’m working on with a group of people to dismantle the military-complex, modest goal. But I think at the core of the war system that we’ve been describing and that we are struggling against, is a military-industrial complex that is allowing people to again, quite literally make a killing off war, and that economic infrastructure is part of what is keeping the United States and has kept the United States involved in one war after another war after another war after another war with catastrophically horrific consequences, all while a small group of people are getting rich and laughing their way to the bank.


Nima: Well, we cannot thank you both. It is critical work what you are both doing. We’ve been joined on these two episodes by Drs. Maha Hilal and David Vine. Dr. Hilal is a researcher, writer, and organizer. Founder and Executive Director of the Muslim Counterpublics Lab, Maha is also the author of the book, Innocent until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, The War on Terror and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11, published by Broadleaf Books. And Dr. Vine is a Professor of Political Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of a number of books about war and peace, including Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World and Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia. His latest book is The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State​, published by University of California Press. Maha and David, thank you so much again for joining us on this episode and the last one on Citations Needed.

Maha Hilal: Thank you so much, Adam and Nima, for having us. It was a great show.

David Vine: Yeah, thank you. Nima and Adam. It was terrific to talk to you, not once but twice.

Adam: There are obviously limits to like how much of an intervention for want of a better term language policing can do, right? Like, you’re not going to change the world by having exactly precise language. I do think that those in the media is the entire premise of the show, is that how you frame things? You know, it’s the Ludwig Wittgenstein, the limits of my words to the limits of my world where it’s like, I can’t possibly describe something when I’m using this kind of military jargon, which of course, is military jargon for a reason. It doesn’t just sort of come out of nowhere. You know, there’s four guys sitting around saying, yeah, what should we call this? And it’s like, well, the thing that doesn’t make you go eeee, right?

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Nima: Right.

Adam: So they settle on the thing that sort of seems most anodyne as a process. It’s how a lot of media outlets like as a writer, I’ll even write for some editors. And I’ll say, I’ll use a word that, you know, I try not to be lurid or tabloidy, but sometimes I’ll use a word that I feel like it’s actually more precise, that genuinely describes, and you see this a lot around the genocide discourse. And people’s argument is basically, oh, that’s too provocative. And it’s like, well, being provocative cannot, per se, be a reason not to do something. If something’s provocative, but it’s also accurate, then you should say it. And if you’re not saying something because it’s seen as provocative or meant to shock people, well, sometimes the truth is shocking. And sometimes the truth isn’t benign and doesn’t sound anodyne. And I think it becomes this professional obsession among editors, producers to sort of say the thing that seems most neutral. But again, neutrality is an ideological position, especially when it’s watering down something that is accurate.

Nima: Well, right, because you know, who is being provoked by so-called provocative language? And it’s not going to be everyone. It’s not going to be, say, the victims of what you’re trying to describe if that thing is shocking and violent and horrifying.

Adam: If I go to a cafe in Gaza right now and say Israel is doing genocide, they’re not gonna be like I don’t know, genocide?

Nima: They’re gonna be like ooh, woah, tone that down, Adam.

Adam: I’m going to pull up a dictionary. We’re going to look through this and go through the legal statutes like it wouldn’t be something I think people would find particularly controversial. It is very contextual. You’re right. Now again, I don’t think one should run around calling everything genocide just in that you sort of begin to water down the word, but I do think when it is applicable. And this is why when we had Benjamin Madley on, we talked about this in his book, An American Genocide, which is, again, a phenomenal book everyone should read, where he makes a lawyer case — he says, here’s the post-World War II definition, here’s what the US in militias in California did to the Native Americans, here’s why it’s a genocide. And he sort of went through and described it beat by beat. So I think one should always do their work. I don’t think we should just scream a bunch of slogans to people, but when it’s applicable, I think these terms should be used. And we should avoid things that kind of fall on our brains as a kind of numbing agent, you know, when you hear a word, and you’re like, oh, yeah, precision strike. It’s like, ah, it feels good, like a sort of a bomb. You should question why you’re using that word. That seems pretty obvious to me. And hopefully, over time, the ways in which we have more precise language can be done in parallel with other, you know, maybe more concrete political steps.

Nima: That accurate words are important magic words are not going to get us out of this state. Organizing, power building, certainly different policies, or certain steps. But as we discuss on this show all the time, Adam, words are important. They are not everything, but they are important. They frame certain ideas, they build up into the stories that we understand that we share, and those all kind of feed into these different narratives. And that’s kind of the point of the show. And I think that talking about different terminology, as we have been doing with Dr. Hilal and Dr. Vine on these past two episodes has been really illuminating. I mean, we kind of talked about this stuff all the time, but to really kind of break it down and especially in light of what we are seeing right now with Israel’s ongoing onslaught, active ethnic cleansing, and genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

I think it is important because we keep seeing certain headlines, we keep seeing certain paragraphs in news articles, we keep seeing certain broadcasts that use specific language for a reason. And to be able to see through that, to be able to see what that is actively doing to allow these horrifying acts of violence to continue because they are being watered down, because the true costs of what is behind those terms, right, what they serve to mask, what they serve to justify, needs to be exposed. And so I think discussing terminology and how that really does bolster certain ideology is a really important thing for us to do from time to time.

But that will do it for this two-part series on the language of war and that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/citationsneededpodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded and as always, a very special shout-out goes to our critic-level supporters on Patreon. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cardano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 15, 2023.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.