so patently dishonest


Clever public relations officers working somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon have decided that henceforth the Guantanamo hunger strike will be termed a “long term non-religious fasting.”  What’s more, rather than being subjected to forced-feeding the “non-religious fasters” are now being treated to “enteral feedings.” What are we to make of such obvious lexical fig leaves?

We have read and heard as bad before.  Early in the Cold War the Atomic Energy Commission decided that exposure to radioactive fallout would be measured in “Sunshine Units.”  While our nuclear weapons are a “nuclear deterrent” their nuclear weapons are a “nuclear threat.”  During the War in Vietnam bombing became “air support,” destroyed villages were “pacified” and refugees were “ambient non-combat personnel.”   With the War on Terror prisoners of war denied their rights under the Geneva Conventions became “unlawful combatants,” torture became “enhanced interrogation,” and kidnapping by secret agents became “extraordinary rendition.”

So who are the targets for the Pentagon’s new euphemisms for the hunger strike at Guantanamo?  They aren’t needed to reinforce the political obedience of the core Fox News television audience.  The Pentagon’s news blackout about the hunger strike at Guantanamo last December shields those viewers from awareness of the nightmare.  Appeals to fear are more than sufficient to stop them from asking the wrong sort of questions.

That the euphemisms are patently unconvincing makes their deployment even more of a puzzle.  Unlike the Republican Party’s “tort reform” and “entitlement reform” slogans they hide nothing.  By comparison with Big Energy’s slick messages “clean coal” and “safe, proven fracking technology” they are so clumsy they almost announce themselves as official lies.

One possibility is that distorted language is intended not for the general news audience but for military personnel.  Perhaps they serve the same purpose as the nonsense claimed when dictatorships construct cults of personality.  For example, Turkmen are asked to believe that Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s landslide election as president ushered in an “era of supreme happiness.”  Equatoguineans are asked to believe that Teodoro Obiang has a direct connection to God and was once forced to pocket the national treasury to keep it out of the hands of corrupt bureaucrats.  Gambians are asked to believe that Yahya Jammeh has invented a cure for AIDS made of herbs and bananas.  Expressed disbelief in such utterly preposterous claims can be used to identify dissidents.

Perhaps the Guantanamo hunger strike euphemisms function as loyalty tests in a bureaucracy so reliant on command and secrecy that some preference falsification is second nature.  What better way to assess intellectual subordination in a military waging a global war without end than the demonstrated willingness to use terminology as absurd as “long term non-religious fasting?”

Makes you wonder whether the public relations officers who devised the new terms have read, or more importantly have understood, George Orwell’s classic 1984.  Why are Americans who serve in the military, people routinely referred to as heroes by elected officials and journalists, demeaned by having to use language so patently dishonest?   They deserve better.  So does the rest of America.

Image: "Hunger strike in Guantánamo by Patrick Chappatte - licensed by at Daryl Cagle’s Store.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.