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Dulce et decorum: the marketing of war

By Ken Macnab - posted Monday, 27 February 2012

Weasel words have invaded the world, with pernicious consequences. The purpose of weasel words (from the belief that weasels suck the yolk from bird's eggs, leaving an empty shell) is to deprive a word or phrase of meaning and load it with deliberately misleading implications. Their use is well illustrated in Don Watson's masterly Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language(2003), his Dictionary of Weasel Words: Contemporary Clichés, Cant and Management Jargon (2004) and the website.

For daily samples, try the daily media; the strong of stomach might look up the 'Mission Statement' of their employer. Not even universities are immune from re-branding, hyper-marketing, managerialism, bureaucratese and other such forms of gobbledygook. It is hardly surprising that weasel words are proliferating in the marketing of war.

War and propaganda have always had a symbiotic relationship. A good slogan was itself a powerful weapon. One of the oldest is the Latin saying taken from an Ode by Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, usually translated as: ' It is sweet and proper to die for one's country.' Used widely by the Roman Legions, and on standards during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), it was refurbished and heavily used in Britain during the First World War (1914-1918).


It had been inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1913. So widely was it preached and propagated that Wilfred Owen, in his powerful ant-war poem, Dulce et Decorum Est,written just months before he was killed (one week before the war ended) in 1918, referred to it bitterly as 'The Old Lie'.

A constant and striking component of war propaganda was 'atrocity stories', alleging abominable behaviour by opponents. During the First World War (also called the Great War), Britain excelled not only at patriotic and religious propaganda, but at the invention of atrocity stories, the most infamous being the story of the German Corpse Factory.

This war highlighted the truism: 'In war, truth is the first casualty'. Often attributed to Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist who fought at the Battle of Marathon, and to various other sources, its first recorded use was by Arthur Ponsonby, in his Falsehood in Wartime: Propaganda Lies of the First World War (1928). In reality, truth about war is rare, before, during and after.

In the twentieth century, the marketing of war expanded well beyond wars themselves to the political campaigns justifying the deliberate use of military violence against chosen enemies. The Nazis and Fascists made war central to their identity. The Cold War saw plenty of violent interventions, both overt and covert, around the world, invariably justified as defending core values.

Probably the most sophisticated and systematic recent war marketing campaign was that leading up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, well analysed by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, in their Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq(2003). Similarly, the role of war reporting, by correspondents specifically and the media in general, has been co-opted into the marketing strategy.

The Gulf War of 1991, as well as being the first war in history televised in real time from start to finish, also reached new heights for electronic deception and audience manipulation. With the Iraq War came the 'embedding' of journalists and photographers with active units. As Lt. Col. Rick Long of the U.S. Marine Corps commented, 'Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.'


A growing part of this 'information warfare', often waged primarily against domestic targets, is the careful naming of military operations. Towards the end of the First War, offensives on both sides were named from religious, medieval, and mythical sources. Occasional Second World War campaigns were given evocative names, such as Germany's Operation Barbarossa and the Allied Operation Overlord, for publicity purposes. These contrasted with the code names meant to be kept secret or mislead, such as 'Little Boy' and 'Fat Man', the two atomic bombs dropped in Japan.

After the war, according to Lieutenant Colonel Gregory C. Sieminski, in a short piece on The Art of Naming Operations (1995), the US War Department created a new category of unclassified operation names, known as 'nicknames', for 'administrative, morale, and public information purposes', in relation to atomic bomb testing. During both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, some American commanders invented aggressive and inspirational operation names, primarily for the purposes of boosting morale among their own troops.

Somewhere along this path, the decision was made that single-word names were code, meant to be kept secret, while double-barrelled adjective/noun combinations were for propaganda purposes. Starting in the 1970s, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) implemented naming guidelines and a computer software system called the 'Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise System', shortened to NICKA. In Sieminski's view, calling the US invasion of Panama in 1989 'Operation Just Cause' was 'the first US combat operation since the Korean War whose nickname was designed to shape domestic and international perceptions about the mission it designated.'

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

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