Pirates and Peacemakers

A Study of Propaganda

Nirmalangshu Mukherji

Department of Philosophy

Delhi University


The twentieth Century was no doubt a century of wars, but it was also a century of massive resistance by people leading to the rise and consolidation of democracies across the globe. The theme of “Literature and War” thus includes the theme of resistance.

The simultaneous widening of global wars and people’s democracies forces a change of discourse on both sides. It is well-known that democratic institutions, such as free speech and franchise, create obvious problems for authoritarian powers, especially within their own nations. People can no longer be just driven by force to submit to power. The powers have to somehow give the impression that global war is in fact a campaign for universal peace and good: ‘war is peace’, as Arundhati Roy characterizes the ploy. This requires the strategy of ‘manufacturing consent’, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman put it. A central move in this strategy is to lend propagandastic meanings to commonly acceptable words: freedom, democracy, reform, opportunity, globalization. The political literature of the resistance thus needs to develop a counter-discourse to expose this play on words.

The task becomes more difficult and sophisticated as the strategy is employed beyond a handful of words to fill entire texts. This increasing sophistication is paralleled by wider imperialist strategies to control the minds of diverse populations across the world as new global wars unfold. More diverse and critical the population, the more remote they are from direct exercise of power. The more there is a need therefore to widen the scope of manufacturing consent. The increasing complexity of the strategy thus needs to be resisted by relentless analysis.

The task of resistance becomes even more complex when the authors of these texts cannot be directly linked to the exercise of imperialist aggression. It is a part of the strategy not only to spread believable words, but to harness the services of believable authors to express them. It is one thing when the double meanings are sought to be enforced by a Bush or a Blair or a Bin Laden; it is quite another when they come out of the disarming mouth of Bill Clinton, a current peacemaker. In this paper, an attempt has been made to analyze a celebrated speech by Bill Clinton to show how the strategy of double meanings works through an entire text. Since Clinton’s speech relates to the war in Afghanistan, we will restrict the scope of analysis to this war. Needless to say, the words of Bill Clinton are relatively easy to decipher; more difficult texts await response from the resistance as distinguished authors, even from the left, que up to join the war on the rest of the world.

A Simple Device

During his journey towards India in a ship to take over as the Viceroy, Lord Curzon wrote that the Indian ocean had so far seen only pirates and marauders; it was his duty, he observed, to bring order and rule of law to these waters.1

Curzon's thinking illustrates what Noam Chomsky calls 'a simple device': 'most terms of political discourse (have) two meanings, a literal one and a propagandistic one'. As Chomsky points out for the term 'terrorism', 'The literal meaning can be found in official U.S. documents, which instruct us that terrorism is "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature [carried out] through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear." But the literal definition cannot be used, for one reason, because it is a close paraphrase of official government policy'. 'Accordingly’, Chomsky continues, ‘the propagandistic version is preferred: terrorism is terrorism that is directed against the U.S. and its friends and allies'.2 The shift enables the US to lead the world against terrorism and for universal peace.

When the world is under control and the audience is willing to conform, uses of the simple device extend far beyond isolated words and phrases to cover entire discourses. Further, this device gets supplemented with other devices such as concealment of information, biased selection of examples, selective highlighting of side issues to take attention away from more prominent issues and facts, and straight lies.

The general phenomena is well-known, but careful analysis is needed to see these devices in operation. The need becomes urgent when the devices are repeatedly used by a very eminent individual to deliver a high-profile lecture before a distinguished audience. Without the benefit of analysis, the individual may well look like a genuine peacemaker. In fact, with the background knowledge that he had been frequently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, his use of the devices may remain totally unnoticed.

Offensive Action: 'Conventional Military Strategy'

A suitable world recently enabled Bill Clinton, the former President of the United States, to deliberate on 'the wisdom and the will' that is needed to 'define the shape and the soul of this century'. Asked to deliver BBC's prestigious Richard Dimbleby Lecture, Clinton chose the title 'The Struggle for the Soul of the 21st Century'.3 The lecture was delivered in December, 2001. Thus, as Clinton was enumerating the steps for making 'the twenty first century the most peaceful, prosperous, interesting time in human history', carpet bombing of Afghanistan continued.

In fact, Clinton found no contradiction between the bombing and his poignant goal. The first step for reaching that goal, Clinton declared, is ‘to win the fight we're in, in Afghanistan and against these terrorist networks that threaten us today'. This fight needs to be won because it is directed against people who advocate a 'violent rejection of the economic and social order on which our future depends'. Much later in the lecture, Clinton mentions some of the features of this economic and social order: 'And the UK and America have benefitted richly – look at how our economies have performed, look at how our societies have diversified, look at the advances we have made in technology and science'. 'It's been great for Europe and the United States', Clinton continues, 'It led to huge declines in poverty even as more people were getting rich'.

So, the literal meaning of 'our future' concerns, not surprisingly, the future of Europe and America. This meaning leads to another literal truth that the 'fight we're in' is directed against the rest of the world to protect this future. But this truth does not mesh with the picture of 'peaceful, prosperous, interesting time in all human history' Clinton wants to paint. The solution is to give the word 'our' another meaning. Thus, he proceeds to explain that 'our' means 'common humanity' that 'represent(s) the world' that he, Clinton, 'worked very hard for eight years to build'. Having thus obtained the consent of the common humanity, Clinton is compelled to defend the economic and social order for all.

The bombing of Afghanistan and the decimation of entire populations now becomes necessary since 'the terrorists', who violently reject the economic and social order Clinton wants to uphold, 'thought that they had the truth and because they had the whole truth, anyone who didn't share it was a legitimate target'. Since Clinton views himself as representing the common humanity, it stands to reason that the terrorists, and those who harbour them, cannot have any share of the truth. The same reason enables Clinton to profess the truth and identify anyone as a legitimate target if he doesn't share it: you are either with us or against us. Further, the device makes it clear how to determine the legitimate target. The target is no longer the rest of the world, but some isolated, rogue elements who indulge in 'occasional act of brutality or even death because of someone's race or religion or orientation'. Recall the official definition of ‘terrorism’: the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. Chomsky pointed out, as noted, that the propagandistic use of this definition focuses on terrorism that is directed against the U.S. and its friends and allies. But notice that Clinton is able to avoid this unconcealed bias by first drawing in the entire ‘common humanity’ -- not just the friends and allies of US -- to his fold and then identifying terrorists as isolated rogue elements.

Once the target is identified, something decisive needs to be done about it, since 'they thought that the differences they have with us ... served to make all their targets less than human'. To settle the differences, therefore, the US is forced to adopt methods that kill thousands of civilians4, turn fertile agricultural land into desert5, demolish hospitals, schools and power stations with high-tech gravity and cluster bombs6, prevent food-aid from reaching millions of starving people, arm mercenaries and warlords to teeth, and fill an entire country permanently with mines, spies and special forces.

When the targets were finally reached, say, in Mazhar-e-Sharif, Kandahar, and Kunduz, the US and its allies killed and maimed thousands of young zealots, barely out of their teens. It did not matter that these 'legitimate targets' turned out to be dressed in ragged blankets and armed with old rifles. When they fell dead after fiercely defending their belief, they were kicked around in the dust. Those who were found alive were put on chains, and herded into trucks to be carted to cages in an inhospitable island. None of this of course finds a mention in Clinton’s speech since it is the terrorist who treats his targets 'as less than human'.

However, Clinton is able to explain all this with a scholarly glance at human history. According to Clinton, 'the deliberate killing of non-combatants has a very long history', though he attributes these killings to 'terror'. To be fair, he does trace some of this history of terror to aspects of the Western civilization itself. He cites the burning of synagogues and killing of Jews by Christian soldiers way back in 1095. Next, he mentions in passing 'the days when African slaves and native Americans could be terrorised or killed with impunity'; but he hastens to add that 'we've come a very, very long way' since those days. Not surprisingly, therefore, he fails to mention a single recent example of terroristic acts of Western states -- no Hitler, no Hiroshima, no Vietnam -- even though 'innocents continued to die, more in the twentieth century than in any previous period'. The implication clearly is that all the killings since those days can only be attributed to terrorists who violently reject the economic and social order. History, thus, teaches us that 'offensive action prevails'.

Clinton is able to reach this selective reading of history because he distinguishes between 'terrorist campaign' and 'conventional military strategy'. In other words, no offensive action counts as terrorism as long as the action follows conventional military strategy. The literal meaning of 'conventional military strategy' involves two or more well-oiled armies preparing for possible combat in such a way that the deliberate killing of non-combatants is excluded. However, Clinton can not use this meaning for various reasons. First, it would imply that the US never took any offensive action since the end of the second world war. It is too stark a fact to hide that the US has been engaged in massive military action almost continuously since that war, but these actions were directed without fail against hopelessly unequal opposition, not against well-oiled armies. Second, Clinton himself uses the phrase 'the deliberate killing of non-combatants' to characterize 'terror'. The characterization immediately applies to the organization of contras in Nicaragua, sponsoring of death squads in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Indonesia, Guetemala and elsewhere in the world, dropping of nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, napalming of entire villages in Vietnam etc.7

The problem is easily overcome once the device is switched on. 'Conventional military strategy' now means whatever offensive action the US and its allies deem suitable for maintaining the economic and social order on which the future depends; the rest is terrorism. In one stroke thus Clinton is able to explain the actions of the US during his eight years of hard work: continuation of bombing of Iraq, missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan, massive bombing of Kosovo, to name a few. Deliberate killing of non-combatants by the US, officials of the Pentagon will clarify, is to be viewed as collateral damage in a conventional military strategy designed to secure the most peaceful time in all human history.

Defensive Action: 'Shields'

Turning his attention from history to anthropology, Clinton observes that offensive action prevailed 'ever since the first person walked out of a cave millenia ago with a club in his hand, and began beating people into submission'.8 Yet, the reason 'why civilisation has survived ... even in the nuclear age' is because the 'history of combat' shows two things: 'first the club, then the shield; first the offence, then defence'. And he traces this history back to the caveman who 'figured out' that he could put two sticks together and stretch an animal skin over it so that the 'club wouldn't work on me anymore'.

Thus, the 'victory for our point of view' depends not only on construction and use of clubs, but on developing proper shields. However, recalling that by 'our' Clinton means 'common humanity', Clinton wants his use of clubs and shields to be viewed in altruistic terms since he 'worked very hard' to 'close the gap' between them so that civilization can continue to survive. I am not repeating Clinton's earlier utterance. He used this phrase 'worked very hard' repeatedly in the lecture in varying contexts. It is a problem for many in the world now that George Bush Jr. is stealing the entire show. Recall that soon after the hunt for Osama bin Laden began, Clinton went on air to claim that he had authorized the clandestine assassination of bin Laden during his presidency; the plan didn't work due to 'lack of information'. It is another matter that the US media and judicial system totally ignored the disclosure of a plot to murder someone in a foreign soil without congressional approval; by then, Bush had already taken that plot over with approval.

Returning to Clinton’s appeal for humanitarian construction of clubs, Clinton urges that, in fact, we should be grateful that 'good people had been working on this a long time' ever since Clinton 'dramatically increased our terrorist budgets'. What was the goal of those budgets? In answer, Clinton produces a list which includes innocuous items such as bringing some terrorists to justice, thwarting terrorist attacks, training response teams, strengthening defences in chemical and biological areas, and protecting the nuclear stocks in the former Soviet Union etc. The metaphor of the shield then is to be understood as the actions of a David merely protecting himself from an unspecified Goliath.

The real answer appears in vivid terms when we go beyond the disarming text. In the lecture mentioned above, Noam Chomsky cites Clinton-era publications of the US Space Command, Vision 2020: the primary goal is "dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment." 'This is presented', Chomsky observes, 'as the next phase of the historic task of military forces'. 'The need for total dominance will increase as a result of the "globalization of the economy," the Space Command explains'. 'The reason is that', Chomsky continues to cite, '"globalization" is expected to bring about "a widening between 'haves' and 'have-nots'," an assessment shared by US intelligence'. Therefore, 'the US must be ready to control' any possible unrest 'by "using space systems and planning for precision strike from space" '.9

Elsewhere, Chomsky notes that there 'are the plans to extend the "arms race" into space a "race" with one competitor only undermining the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and other international obligations'. Ballistic Missile Defense, which is only a small component of these systems, 'is understood to be an offensive weapon: "not simply a shield but an enabler of action," (as) the RAND corporation explained'. Even before Sept. 11, Chomsky suggests, the US outspent the next 15 countries for 'defense' – which, as usual, means 'offense'.10 When the development of these shields is combined with the existing massive stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, 'It is no exaggeration to say', Chomsky concludes, 'that the survival of the species is at risk’. Yet, we are asked to believe that Clinton iniated all these actions in the interest of common humanity.

When in power, this is what Clinton meant by 'shield' – a meaning that explains the dramatic increases in 'terrorist budgets'. Out of power, he assumes the role of an elder statesman who is anxious to outline the course for the most peaceful time in history. He wants to be seen contemplating the beauty of the Tasj Mahal and consoling the victims of earthquake in Gujrat. He travels around the world raising money for prevention of Aids. As the division of topics in the Dimbleby lecture shows, he wants to spend more lecture-time on poverty, lack of education, absence of basic health care, degradation of the environment, and explain the virtues of nano-technology to his uninformed audience. He wants to work for his unfinished agenda of peace.11 There are indications that the ploy may already be working as he is offered the job of a disarming television host with a multimillion dollar salary. The problem is that the propagandistic meaning of 'shield' that covers much of his hard work during his presidency does not mesh with the current vision of peace; no one in the right mind will view the Space Command document as a manifesto for peace. Hence, the peacemaker is compelled to fall back on its literal meaning of preventing hostile action, rather than enabling one. The only way it can be done is to suppress vital information.

Being currently in power, George Bush Jr. has no such compulsions. Within the first year of his presidency, the US has not only ignored the UN resolutions on terrorism and the clauses of the Geneva convention on prisoners of war, it has actually walked out of the Kyoto protocol on the environment, the ABM treaty, and the biological warfare convention.12

'If we're going to fight for freedom', Bush has declared, 'we have to pay the cost to fight for freedom'. Hence, the 'defense' budget he has submitted 'is the largest single increase in military spending in a generation. And it's worth it'. For many analysts, not necessarily the peaceniks and the Left, it seems that the 'War on Terrorism' is being used to give a blank check to anything related to the military or 'defense'. The $45 billion increase in 2002 is more than three times the combined defense budgets of all of the 'rogue' states that are seen as a threat to America. At the same time, Social Security and other programs that focus on improving the quality of life for ordinary American citizens are being plundered or cut. Many of the proposed increases come in areas which have little or nothing to do with fighting terrorism. The military budget is being described as 'leaving no defense contractor behind'.

Some Republican groups, including Project for a New American Century, are not satisfied with Bush's spending and want to see more money put toward the military. Project for a New American Century's Board of Directors includes Bruce Jackson, who is the Vice President of the world's largest defense corporation, several powerful Republicans, and advocates of the NMD. With groups such as these helping set American fiscal priorities, it is no wonder that more moderate budget scenarios are being ignored. According to one analyst, this means 'stealing from the Social Security surplus, permanent tax cuts for the rich and further fattening an already bloated Pentagon'.13 This is what the New Century means for America; what it means for the rest of the world, especially for Asia and its have-nots, is exemplified in the ruins of Afghanistan and Iraq.

By now most people on this planet understand the meaning of Bush’s brazen acts of aggression on ordinary Americans and the rest of the world, even if these acts are laced with proclamations of freedom and opportunity. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s scholarly survey of human history could well be viewed as a refreshing departure from, if not a dissent to, the current American war-mongering. Once the contrast is projected, it becomes possible for the Democrats, and may be even for some Republicans, to disassociate themselves from the Bush-led neo-cons and paint a picture of the other benevolent US. On analysis, however, as we saw, the real meaning of Clinton’s words is indistinguishable from those of Bush, Rumsfeld or Cheney. In fact, the current actions of the US post-9/11 are a direct continuation of the acts of war initiated by Clinton himself, after he took over the baton from senior Bush. Yet, by repeated use of ‘simple devices’ Clinton is able to convince millions of television viewers across the globe to believe that the basic goals of US foreign policy, especially during his two terms and with some exceptions as the present one, is to usher in ‘the most peaceful, prosperous, interesting time in human history'.


1 Reported By Prof. Sugata Bose in his I. H. Qureshi Memorial Lecture 'Space and Time on the Indian Ocean Rim: Theory and History', St. Stephens College, New Delhi, January 2002.

2 See Noam Chomsky, 'Peering into the abyss of the future', D. T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture, New Delhi, November 2001; also, Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2003. See also Edward S. Herman and David Petersen, 'Who Terrorizes Whom?', Zmag.org, October 2001.

3 See http.//www.bbc.co.uk/arts/news_comment/dimbleby for the full text of the lecture.

4 See William Blum, 'Civilian Casualties: Theirs and Ours', Counterpunch, December 17, 2001 (text at http.//www.counterpunch.org/blumcasualties.html), for figures of civilian casualties in the Afghan war.

5 See A. C. Thomson, 'War Without End', The Nation (USA), December 2, 2001, for environmental destruction of Afghanistan.

6 See http.//www.hrw.org/backgrounder/arms/cluster-bck1031.html for a Human Rights Watch report on the types of bombs used in the Afghan war.

7 See Vaskar Nandy, 'War against terrorism: Perspective on Protests', Economic and Political Weekly, October 27, 2001, for an alternative perspective from the point of view of the victims of US aggression. I do not fully share Nandy's perspective since he underplays the criminal nature of the events of 9/11.

8 Clinton fails to observe though that, in this, the US and Europe haven't really come 'a very, very long way'.

9 The text of the document is at http://www.spacecom.mil/visbook.pdf. See http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.04/sdi.html for an analysis of the strategic importance of the space command document.

10 Noam Chomsky, 'The World After Sept. 11', Quaker Conference, Dec. 8, 2001.

11 For example, he discloses that, before he left office, he recommended 'the most dramatic peace proposal for a comprehensive fair peace in the Middle East to give the Palestinians a state'. His regret is that, though Israel accepted it, the PLO rejected it. Small details, such as it is the PLO, not Israel, who have been fighting for a Palestinian state for decades, escape his overview of history.

12 See Richard Du Boff, “Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Who's The Biggest Rogue Of All?”, Znet, August 07, 2003, for a comprehensive list of recent violations of international treatise by US.

13 The last two paragraphs consist of excerpts from 'War at all costs: The American military budget' at http://www.9-11peace.org/bulletin.php3. See this site for a series of in-depth analysis of the recent budget for the Pentagon.