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Talking up a war: Bush's rhetoric exposed

By Anabelle Lukin - posted Monday, 24 January 2005

The final declaration by the US that they have not been able to find the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that provided the rationale for the invasion of Iraq, is a reminder of just how much of the work of waging war is done through talk. While we often think of war in its physical manifestation - the rolling out of troops, tanks, aircraft carriers, and so on - war is made possible through language. To wage war, one must define an enemy and justify the human and economic costs of going to war. These kinds of actions are not physical but “semiotic”, that is, they are acts of meaning.

On the absence of WMDs, Bush recently told Barbara Walters of the American Broadcasting Corporation’s 20/20 program, “I felt like we'd find weapons of mass destruction - like many here in the United States, many around the world. The United Nations thought he had weapons of mass destruction”.

This statement expresses a degree of uncertainty we didn’t hear from Bush, Blair or Howard on this topic before the war. Before the war, Bush wasn’t saying “I feel that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction”, but rather “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction”. Without “I feel that”, Bush’s statement is presented as fact rather than a matter of opinion.


The “I feel” component is, in this example, a grammatical feature called “modality”. It keeps company with words like “perhaps”, “probably”, “maybe”, “might”, and “could”, words that allow us to construct our linguistic shades of grey. When we say something “is” or “isn’t” the case, we present that thing as a statement of fact, about which there is no doubt. Modality allows us, amongst other things, to express degrees of probability or likelihood.

In discussions of Iraq and WMDs before the invasion, it seemed like the grammar of modality was on holidays. For instance, in a document assessing the state of WMD programs in Iraq prepared by the CIA in October 2002, we find the following claims:

We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions.

We judge that all key aspects - R&D, production, and weaponization - of Iraq’s offensive BW program are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf war.

When this document was declassified, and made available for public consumption in July 2003, the phrase “We judge that” was removed. The effect? To represent as undisputable fact what has been presented as an opinion, and therefore, as open to debate and contestation.

Would Congress have supported the Whitehouse’s push for war if words like “might”, “maybe”, or even “probably” were used? Or if phrases like “I feel” and “we think” prefaced the claims about WMDs? We’ll never know, but it seems fair to say that to put the case for war, you need to present it as a necessity. That is likely to involve stating at least some of your “facts” in black and white terms, as a case of either “is” or “isn”t”. The complexities of “perhaps”, “might”, “maybe”, “possibly” or “probably” are, strategically, best left in the background.


In Bush’s first speech to Congress after September 11, he said “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. The comment makes explicit Bush’s black and white orientation to all matters related to his “war on terror”. George Soros, the American billionaire philanthropist said of this statement that the President was “undermining the civilised discourse that is the foundation of our democracy”. But there are deeper, less visible, grammatical patterns which undermine civilised discourse. An analysis of the grammatical system of modality in Bush’s speech overall revealed that only in 1 per cent of the roughly 350 clauses is there a word or phrase that suggests any hint of uncertainty in the view of the world which Bush constructs.

In his second term, Bush has promised to be “more disciplined” with his rhetoric. He told Barbara Walters, “‘Bring it on’ was a little blunt. I was really speaking to our troops, but it came out and had a different connotation, different meanings for others”.

While Bush can admit that “bring it on” is open to interpretation, he is unlikely to pursue the full implications of his admission: that language is an active partner in constructing the realities we live by. If “bring it on” can mean different things to different people, so too can words like “terrorism”, “freedom”, “democracy”, and “justice”.

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About the Author

Dr Annabelle Lukin is postdoctoral research fellow in the Centre for Language in Social Life, at Macquarie University. She is writing a book on the ABC reporting of the invasion of Iraq.

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