Action-as-propaganda can reinforce an oddly reassuring feeling of certainty, helping to bend reality into line with a distorted and propagandistic image of the world. It also distorts our perceptions of this reality so that the gap between public perception and official propaganda is further diminished. Hannah Arendt’s concept helps us to understand how the wagers of the ‘war on terror’ have in effect taken something irrational (a magical solution to the problem of terror) and through their actions made it appear to many people (and, crucially, large sections of the American electorate) to be both rational and plausible.

In their daily lives people are buffeted around by chance, and the massive economic and social disruption in the US has fuelled a sense of insecurity and uncertainty which 9/11 compounded. Arendt understood how our desire for certainty and predictability could feed into abusive ideologies. “What the masses refuse to recognize”, she wrote, “is the fortuitousness that pervades reality”. Consistency, however constructed, was deeply alluring:

Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices–and this not because they are strong or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape gains them a minimum of self-respect.

Arendt saw how this respect could come from denigrating–or even attacking–others, and how this aggression could, in addition, generate (spurious) legitimacy for itself. Part of the source of this ‘legitimacy’ was what has been called ‘just world thinking’, where people in effect assume that punishment implies a crime, and where this assumption serves to protect them from the fear of a totally arbitrary world. Significantly, ‘just world thinking’ may be more tempting as the world–and accusations–become more arbitrary: thus, the more irrational the actions of the Bush administration, for example, the greater may be the felt need to reassure oneself that ‘there must be a reason’ for the selection of victims (and therefore that ‘we’ are safe).

Arendt suggested that another means by which violence could generate its own legitimacy was by allowing leaders to make their own predictions come true–first, when people came to resemble a distorted and propagandistic image of them (as sub-human or disease-ridden, for example); second, when alleged historical laws about the triumph of a particular group or idea were ‘revealed’ as accurate; and third, when humanitarian ideals were similarly ‘revealed’ as an unrealistic irrelevance. Again, these ideas will prove relevant in relation to the ‘war on terror’.


Part of the ‘proof’ that legitimises a witch-hunt is typically generated by the witch-hunt itself. Confession-under-duress helps to make the persecution more plausible, as we have seen. But punishment can itself be used to imply guilt. As Arendt observed in the context of the Nazi holocaust: “Common sense reacted to the horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz with the plausible argument: ‘What crime must these people have committed that such things were done to them!'” Taking one’s moral cues from a regime of punishment may seem a very subservient attitude, but it is also part of how any human being grows up and learns about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’–by noticing what is being punished and what is not.

How, in the spring of 2003, did Americans and the British know that Iraq was the enemy? Why, because they were now at war with it! In a sense, the guilt of Iraq was ‘proven’ by the fact that it was earmarked for punishment. More generally, the very extremity of a ‘counter-terror’ response (ignoring the UN, invading Iraq, abusing human rights at Guantanamo and other US military bases, and so on) may be taken, at some level, as evidence of the extremity of the targets’ guilt.
Sociologist Stanley Cohen noted in 2001 that according to ‘just world thinking’, victims “deserve to suffer because of what they did, must have done, support doing, (or will do one day if we don’t act now)” –a formulation that uncannily anticipates the justifications made for attacking Iraq in 2003. The common inclination to infer guilt from punishment seems to have helped the Bush administration to set aside not only international law but a central tenet of law in general–that guilt should be established before punishment is meted out.

High levels of deference to government judgments have been important here, particularly in the US–a sense that ‘our administration must know what it is doing’. Americans were repeatedly told about links between Iraq and 9/11. None of the evidence was good, but the sales-pitch worked anyway. In an October 2002 opinion poll, 66 percent of Americans said that they believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and 79 percent believed that Iraq already possessed, or was close to possessing, nuclear weapons. A poll in February 2003 suggested that 72 per cent of Americans believed it was likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.

The dubious virtues of action-as-propaganda seem to have been well understood by the Bush administration, with key officials holding that a demonstration of power could be potent propaganda in itself and that ‘might’ would soon, in effect, be seen to be ‘right’. Thus, Bush’s close adviser Karl Rove said of the war on terrorism: “Everything will be measured by results. The victor is always right. History ascribes to the victor qualities that may not actually have been there. And similarly to the defeated.” (Hitler expressed a similar sentiment: “I shall give a propagandist reason for starting the war, no matter whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterwards whether he told the truth or not. When starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory.” ) In relation to the attack on Iraq in 2003, one senior White House adviser commented, “The way to win international acceptance is to win. That’s diplomacy: winning.” Bush himself said:

I believe in results I know the world is watching carefully, would be impressed and will be impressed with results achieved we’re never going to get people all in agreement about force and the use of force but action–confident action that will yield positive results provides kind of a slipstream into which reluctant nations and leaders can get behind.

Remember also the Bush adviser’s chilling suggestion to journalist Ron Suskind that, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too.” This is a path to madness–but a perversely persuasive one.

In the run-up to war, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi was worried about Italian public opinion. But Bush told him in January 2003: “You watch, public opinion will change. We lead our publics.” Among international actors, the willingness to follow Bush’s lead was not confined to Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar. For example, British journalist Paul Johnson wrote in the Spectator that the world “needs hero states, to look up to, to appeal to, to encourage and to follow.”

Hesitant officials and publics were confronted by the message that war with Iraq was ‘inevitable’. MSNBC cancelled a liberal program featuring Phil Donahue just before the war with Iraq, replacing it with a show called ‘Countdown: Iraq’. Phillip Knightley, an expert on war and the distortion of information, observed that “Politicians, while calling for diplomacy, warn of military retaliation. The [Western] media reports this as ‘We’re on the brink of war’, or ‘War is inevitable’.” Powell’s reservations seem to have been eroded by the momentum of events. In February 2001, Powell had declared of sanctions against Iraq: “frankly they have worked. He [Saddam] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction”; but by mid-2002, Rice was telling him that opposing a decision to attack Iraq would be a waste of breath, and the rush to war eventually saw Powell marshalling dubious evidence before the UN about the supposed threat posed by these weapons.

The logic behind the general sense of ‘inevitability’ appears to have been this: the war is happening; are you going to be part of it, or are you going to stand on the sidelines of history? This is by no means the first time that this technique has been brought to bear. For example, in the (very different) context of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, official Rwandan propaganda proclaimed, “The graves are already half full. Who will help us to fill them?” , and the invitation to complete what had been started was embellished with the strong hint that those who declined might not simply be bystanders but also, potentially, victims. Bush made his own variation of this threat with his famous insistence that, “You are either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

Whilst the then UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson had avoided committing British troops to Vietnam, Tony Blair seemed ready to fall without resistance into the ‘slipstream’ that Bush referred to. In line with Colin Powell’s analysis at the time, Blair told the House of Commons in November 2000: “We believe that the sanctions regime has effectively contained Saddam Hussein.” But Blair, too, seems to have been persuaded, in part, by the ‘inevitability’ of the war. A key moment came in Blair’s meeting with Bush in Texas in April 2002, which helped convince the British Prime Minister that Bush was set on war with Iraq. Blair came back committed to supporting military action for regime change in Iraq (reportedly on the understanding that efforts would be made, first, to eliminate WMD through weapons inspections and, second, to form a coalition to shape public opinion). Blair’s preparations on returning to the UK included telling Chancellor Gordon Brown to redesign budget calculations to pay for a war. However, ‘inevitability’ had a Janus-face for Blair: John Kampfner comments in his book Blair’s Wars, “Blair set about his immediate task of preparing the public for military action, while maintaining the front that it was ‘not inevitable’.” At an early stage in the preparations for war, a public proclamation that war was unavoidable would no doubt have smacked too much of subservience to Washington. But significantly, once US troops were headed for Iraq, Blair was ready to change tack and to use the idea of inevitability and the momentum of events as a tool to persuade his own public and party. Blair’s March 2003 speech to the House of Commons included the passage: “This is a tough choice. But it is also a stark one: to stand British troops down and turn back; or to hold firm to the course we have set.” Tony Blair worried about the damage that would be done in the world by a unilateral American victory; on this logic, Britain would have to go to war to avoid America going to war alone. Meanwhile, Blair subscribed to some of the confidence of Bush and Karl Rove that victory would generate its own support: Robin Cook recalled of Blair, “In the many conversations we had in the run-up to the war, he always assumed that the [Iraq] war would end in victory, and that military triumph would silence the critics.”

In the domestic sphere, ‘winning’ had already proved a useful tool of persuasion and intimidation. Dissent within the Labour Party had been stifled – first in the interests of winning power from the Tories and then in the context of the legitimacy that winning bestowed. John Kampfner observed that Blair “had dominated his party for a decade, his authority allowing him to push through foreign and domestic policies even when they were at odds with his MPs and activists–even members of his own Cabinet.” As British writer Beatrix Campbell put it, “The party gave itself up to alchemists who proclaimed that they, alone, possessed winning powers.” Of course, the free market ideology that Bush–and to a large extent Blair–have espoused itself constitutes a kind of veneration of ‘winners’: only the fittest are meant to survive, and success implicitly proves your vigour and virtue. For George Soros, the ‘social Darwinism’ of market fundamentalism was a natural ally for religious fundamentalism and both had been dangerously boosted in confidence by the collapse of the Soviet system and the advance of globalisation.

International law itself was increasingly sometimes expected to fall into line with the ‘confident action’ that Bush felt would bring compliance. David Frum and Richard Perle observed, ” if the UN cannot or will not revise its rules in ways that establish beyond question the legality of the measures the United States must take to protect the American people, then we should unashamedly and explicitly reject the jurisdiction of these rules.” This is a very odd conception of international law, to put it mildly. Just after the start of the attack on Iraq, Perle eagerly anticipated: “As we sift the debris of the war to liberate Iraq, it will be important to preserve, the better to understand, the intellectual wreckage of the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions.” While Bush administration officials labelled the UN as weak and potentially ‘irrelevant’, US policy had itself been critical in weakening the UN – not just over Iraq but also earlier. During the Cold War, the US had persistently used its veto to stymie the UN Security Council. The US government had also repeatedly reneged on funding commitments, and infamously denied and ignored the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Undermining the UN through confident action may have borne some fruit: public confidence in the UN fell sharply in the wake of the attack on Iraq–not only in the US but also in the UK, France and Germany; we do not know how lasting this effect will be, but in may ways the effect of near-unilateral action (and possibly part of the intention) is that belief in ‘human rights’ and ‘international law’ comes to look like the height of naivety. Again, it was Arendt who had earlier seen this most clearly, arguing that factual propaganda worked partly because:

the incredible plight of an ever-growing group of innocent people was like a practical demonstration of the totalitarian movements’ cynical claims that no such thing as inalienable human rights existed and that the affirmations of democracies to the contrary were mere prejudice, hypocrisy, and cowardice in the face of the cruel majesty of a new world. The very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned–victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike–the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.

Once the occupation of Iraq was underway, the hope that ‘might would be seen to be right’ was also expressed in relation to the insurgency. One US officer involved in attacks on Fallujah stressed the role of aggression followed by ‘psy-ops’, “always coming back to the theme of the inevitability of the superior tribe”. Journalist Robert Kaplan commented from Iraq, “People in all cultures gravitate toward power The chieftain mentality is particularly prevalent in Iraq.”


Arendt saw the desire for predictability and consistency as creating opportunities for totalitarian regimes to underline and bolster their own power by making their own predictions come true. This would seem to be an alluring option for some democratic countries too; and with civil liberties increasingly infringed and a mass media largely compliant, the distinction between totalitarian and democratic is not always as clear as one might hope: Norman Mailer has said of the US, “I think we have a pre-totalitarian situation here now.”


Arendt observed that the broad mass of people “are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident” Further, in conditions of uncertainty people are likely to be attracted to an ideology that claims to be actively shaping history in line with some long-term historical laws, thereby re-establishing some sense of control. In the case of the Nazis, the long-term historical law was a kind of racial Darwinism; for Soviet governments, it was the inevitable and scientifically-predicted triumph of the proletarian class. Arendt pointed out that the Nazis spoke of soon-to-be-extinct races and the Soviet regime of dying classes, and that the murderous actions of these totalitarian regimes helped underline their power and omniscience by making these predictions come true. Bush has not matched these earlier abominations; however, he is certainly keen to emphasise that he and the United States form part of a grand design that conforms with God’s wishes and laws. In his January 2005 inauguration speech, Bush referred to freedom as a “force of history”, adding “We can go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.” Or again, liberty is “the plan of heaven for humanity and the best hope for progress here on Earth.” This is rather more than saying ‘God is on our side’; it is an insistence that the direction of history is on our side and that we, through the ‘confident action’ Bush had earlier advocated, can prove this to be the case. Though purporting to be veneration of God, this stance is ultimately a veneration of the self–a self whose confidence and violence will ultimately gain the victory that secures approval from other nations and simultaneously reaffirms God’s approval for the longer-term transformative project. This capacity of ‘revealing God’s approval’ suggests that ‘successful’ violence can serve a function rather like wealth for Max Weber’s Protestants.

A comparable sense of confidence has sometimes been expressed by Islamic fundamentalists, for whom the triumph of Islam is held to be ‘inevitable’, as was the triumph of socialism. To the extent that various fundamentalist belief systems see God as actively intervening in the world, there will always be a temptation to see whatever action is taken as having received his blessing or as being his work. It is not simply a question of who had God on his side but of who can demonstrate this through victory. Thus, violent counter-terror has been seen by its authors not only as blessed by God but also as countering the terrorists’ belief that they have God and history with them. In September 2003, Bush noted that prior to 9/11 the terrorists had become “convinced that the free nations were decadent and weak. And they grew bolder, believing history was on their side.” He added that the war on terror had reversed this pattern.

Mixed in with the idea of a grand design is the idea – most commonly expressed by America’s evangelical right – that war might bring closer a predicted apocalypse and the second coming of the Messiah. Even Blair has flirted with this imagery: “September 11 was for me a revelation. What had seemed inchoate came together Here were terrorists prepared to bring about Armageddon.” A more secular version of the ‘coming apocalypse’ thesis was expressed in Samuel Huntington’s prediction of an inevitable ‘clash of civilisations’ (on this thesis, see chapter 10). Bush and Blair have been careful to state that the ‘war on terror’ is specifically not a clash of cultures or a clash of religions. Yet through their aggressive actions they have helped give plausibility to Huntington’s prediction.

Once war had been declared, criticism of the Bush and Blair administrations became much more difficult. The imperative of ‘supporting our troops’ became dominant. Criticism of the military was particularly taboo, and the deaths of US soldiers in some ways reinforced the difficulty of opposing the war. As Michael Mann put it, “Any criticism of the [Iraq] war was widely regarded, not just as unpatriotic, but also as disrespect for our dead.” After the killing of 21-year-old Jonathan Kephart in Iraq, local Baptist pastor David Food said: “If I hear anything negative [about the Iraq war], I take it personally. I feel that they are saying it about John. It invalidates the sacrifice he made.” In June 2005, with violence escalating in Iraq and the total of US troops killed rising relentlessly, Michael Ignatieff observed in the New York Times magazine, “Thomas Jefferson’s dream [of freedom for all nations] must work. Its ultimate task in American life is to redeem loss, to rescue sacrifice from oblivion and futility and to give it shining purpose.” In other words, the sacrifice of US troops – which Ignatieff had supported–must be made to be meaningful. There are uncomfortable echoes here of the way an earlier violence helped to feed propaganda for more violence. Noting the common argument that US soldiers in Vietnam were betrayed by a liberal elite, Thomas Frank observed in 2004:

This may be conservatism’s most striking cultural victory of all: the fifties-style patriotism that was once thought to have victimized the Vietnam generation is today thought to be a cause that is sanctified by their death and suffering. What their blood calls out for is not skepticism but even blinder patriotism.

By such mechanisms does endless war renew itself. Significantly, John Kerry chose not to make the Abu Ghraib scandal a part of his campaign for the Presidency in 2004. Criticisms of the Iraq war could be presented as ‘demoralising’ the troops. Even Kerry’s tentative criticisms of the Iraq war prompted Bush to comment (in the first pre-election debate): “What kind of message does it say to our troops in harm’s way: wrong war, wrong place, wrong time? That’s not a message a commander-in-chief gives.”

Colin Powell went to far as to import some of this logic into the pre-war period. On learning in mid-January 2003 from Bush that the President was committed to war, Powell said walking away would have been disloyal to the President, the military and mostly to the several thousand who would be going to war. Again, we see the bizarre logic engendered by ‘inevitability’: out of loyalty to our troops, we must back the policy that (for no good reason) puts them in harm’s way for no good reason. This kind of upside-down reasoning must have helped to confirm Bush’s belief that opposition would wilt in the face of ‘confident action’.

If war could stifle dissent, holy war might do so in spades. Political commentator George Monbiot pointed out that the US government’s religiously-tinged sense of ‘mission’ meant that disagreement was not simply dissent; it was heresy. Of course, war may also reinforce religious feelings. When battle is underway, it is clearly reassuring (and gives courage) to believe that God is on your side. This in turn can bolster the legitimacy of war.

Here is another example of action-as-propaganda from Hannah Arendt:

The official SS newspaper, the Schwarze Korps, stated explicitly in 1938 that if the world was not yet convinced that the Jews were the scum of the earth, it soon would be when unidentifiable beggars, without nationality, without money, and without passports crossed their frontiers… A circular letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to all German authorities abroad shortly after the November pogroms of 1938, stated: ‘The emigration movement of only about 100,000 Jews has already sufficed to awaken the interest of many countries in the Jewish danger Germany is very interested in maintaining the dispersal of Jewry the influx of Jews in all parts of the world invokes the opposition of the native population and thereby forms the best propaganda for the German Jewish policy’

How this worked out in practice is another issue, but the SS intention here was clear. More than this, the persecution of the Jews–confining them to disease-ridden ghettoes, numbering them, herding them behind walls and fences in concentration camps, starving them, and slaughtering them en masse–was a process that tended to take away most of the manifestations of a normal human life and in the process helped to create a dehumanised image that matched the Nazis’ dehumanising language.

It is, of course, easy to see differences between the events Arendt is discussing and the current debacle. Even so, the ‘war on terror’ is a classic example of turning ‘the other’ into a preconceived and negative image that has been entertained (and propagated) by the perpetrators of violence. This applies to both sides of the conflict, since both sides seem to share an interest in ‘proving’ their enemy to be just as brutal as they had always insisted. In civil wars and global wars, violence tends to create the enemies it claims to weaken or eliminate (chapter 2), and so generates its own (spurious) legitimacy. Frantz Fanon (and after him, bin Laden) understood how terrorists themselves could take advantage of the phenomenon of ‘action-as-propaganda’–notably by using violence to bring out the underlying and previously part-hidden brutality of their opponent/oppressor. The Arabic word for ‘martyr’ translates also as ‘witness’–in other words, someone who by their actions or speech makes a hidden truth clear to an audience. Mark Juergensmeyer has said of international terrorism:

What the perpetrators of such acts of terror expect–and indeed welcome–is a response as vicious as the acts themselves. By goading secular authorities into responding to terror with terror, they hope to accomplish two things. First, they want tangible evidence for their claim that the secular enemy is a monster. Second, they hope to bring to the surface the great war–a war that they have told their potential supporters was hidden, but real.

One logic of terrorism is this: if America is not quite the evil imperialist of our propaganda and our imagination, let us help to make it so. It works on the other side too: in circumstances where the terrorist has been portrayed as all around us and bent on our destruction, counterproductive actions that lead to a proliferation of angry enemies, whilst leading us all towards lives of fear, at least bring the perverse cognitive satisfaction (particularly for the leaders who chose this path) of knowing: ‘Yes we are right, the enemy is indeed as powerful, pervasive and dangerous as we portrayed it; we must redouble our efforts.’ It is hard to imagine that Bush and Blair consciously wish to making thing worse; even so, they inhabit a world in which mad solutions generate (spurious) legitimacy for themselves. Indeed, it seems ‘both sides’ in the ‘war on terror’ are busy nurturing their favourite nightmares. At the level of civil wars, we have seen how accusations that rebels were ‘Muslim fundamentalists’ can, over time, acquire an increasing degree of truth, as in Chechnya and the Philippines. Anti-American feeling in much of the world is often taken as a ‘given’; but this sentiment, as noted, is not a natural or even a long-standing one.

Billed erroneously as a key source of terrorism prior to the war, Iraq has become so–a development that lends spurious credibility to the initial accusation. The propaganda was made to become true–at the cost of much distortion and many lives. As John Kerry said when debating with Bush: “The President just talked about Iraq as a centre of the war on terror. Iraq was not even close to the centre of the war on terror before the President invaded it.” Even attacks on occupying forces have been quickly labeled as ‘terrorist’, and a common charge by the US command in Iraq has been that Iraqi fighters have been using terrorist tactics. However, attacks on occupying soldiers are not terrorism: even the US State Department’s definition of terrorism centres on the use of violence against civilians. How do you justify the devastation of an entire city–like Fallujah in November 2004? First, you announce that it harbours ‘terrorists’; then when most people flee in fear, you declare the city a free-fire zone on the grounds that the only people left behind must be the terrorists.

As well as creating enemies by deepening anger, violence can cause displacement–thereby ‘contaminating’ new ‘targets’ with enemy groups. A paranoid state of mind interprets even the displacement resulting from its own violence as a conspiracy by evil governments intent on ‘harbouring’ terrorists. For example, one of the main alleged links between Saddam and bin Laden, the Jordanian Abu Masab al-Zargawi (whom Bush called the “best evidence” for a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida) appears to have sheltered in Baghdad after fleeing the US-led attack on Afghanistan. Thus, one attack helped justify the next. After Badghdad fell, al-Zargawi was then said to be sheltering in Fallujah, something that was used to justify the devastation of that city in November 2004. Earlier, in May 2003, US officials had turned up the heat on Iran, saying it was harbouring al-Qaida leaders and Saddam loyalists. Syria too was accused of harbouring Iraqi Ba’athists.

But it was quite natural that the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would displace into surrounding countries many of those who were being explicitly targeted. Sir Andrew Green, UK ambassador to Syria in 1991-94, commented: “The Syrian authorities cannot prevent Iraqis getting across a 400-mile desert border.” Syria has indeed become a source of jihadis for the Iraqi insurgency, but again this ‘rogue’ status is a predictable consequence of the attack on Iraq, rather than confirmation that Syria is inherently anti-American or is part of an expanded ‘axis of evil’. In 2005, US military officials were predicting that the “vast ungoverned spaces” of the Horn of Africa would play host to al-Qaida fighters retreating from Iraq – a trend (or perception) that could bring more trouble for that region. Quite apart from the effects of displacement, insurgency in one occupied country creates opportunities for accusing neighbours of complicity, and the desire to dissociate insurgency from ‘ordinary Iraqis’ itself creates an incentive to highlight foreign interference. Accusations that Syria has been facilitating the flow of fighters into Iraq have certainly been persistent.

Another way in which violence can make people resemble your propaganda is by creating a climate in which dehumanising images of the enemy are seen as legitimate or even necessary. On the cusp of the 2003 attack on Iraq, MSNBC (Microsoft-NBC) added Michael Savage to its line-up. In their informative overview of media distortions, Rampton and Stauber comment that Savage:

routinely refers to non-white countries as ‘turd world nations’ and charges that the US ‘is being taken over by the freaks, the cripples, the perverts and the mental defectives.’ In one broadcast, Savage justified ethnic slurs as a national security tool: ‘We need racist stereotypes right now of our enemy in order to encourage our warriors to kill the enemy’.

In other words, it is war itself that helps to create the sense of an implacable and inhuman enemy. Meanwhile, abuses by coalition forces within Iraq have dehumanised the enemy not only by fuelling anger and violence but also by stripping people of their dignity. A report by the US’s Major General George Fay noted that general practices such as the extensive use of nudity “likely contributed to an escalating ‘de-humanization’ of the detainees and set the stage for additional and more severe abuses to occur.” Violence is often a process, in which initial abuses create spurious legitimacy for worse atrocities. Part of the function of extreme violence, moreover, is to convince the victims themselves that they are not worthy of rights: for if they did have rights, why then are they being so systematically attacked or dehumanised? General Janis Karpinski, suspended as head of a unit running prisons because of the Abu Ghraib scandal, said she was told by Major General Geoffrey Miller, former commander of Guantanamo Bay camp, “This place [Abu Ghraib] must be Gitmo-ised they are like dogs. If you allow them to believe they are more than dogs, then you will have lost control.”

Relying on ‘victory’ to generate legitimacy is of course a double-edged sword. There may be limits to the plausibility of something that is manifestly not working, and criticism of US government choices tended to surface and then intensify as the Iraq occupation ran into increasing difficulties. Arendt herself noted that Nazism as an ideology collapsed very suddenly when defeat meant it could no longer back its propaganda with imposing and successful actions. Moreover, those who claim that God is on their side may be particularly vulnerable to a loss of popularity and prestige when defeat or stalemate implies that God is more ambivalent. As war in Iraq drags on, popular American enthusiasm is turning to disillusion. Taking the extremity and direction of response as evidence of both the severity and source of the problem is a mechanism that may not work for ever.

All this can be compensated for in two ways, however. First, the appearance of victory may be sustainable for a significant period even when the reality is pretty desperate. Presentation counts (something discussed in more detail in Chapter 10). Short-term and conspicuous victories may be more important to the interveners than actually making a positive impact on the problem. The benefits of action-as-propaganda derive not so much from winning as from appearing to win. For example, elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, for a time at least, perhaps pulled some credible veneer of success from the general debacle–helping temporarily to disguise the deeper counter-productive effects of the attacks and the long-term security and governance problems in these countries.

Second, even a lack of success may lend legitimacy to the insistence that America and its allies must devote ever-greater energy to defeating terrorism. Indeed, those waging war on terror seem to have an interest in insisting that they are simultaneously both winning and losing. This is a confusing message, to be sure; but a mixed message has the significant advantage that it can never be disproved. Any form of evidence, any positive or negative turn of events, can be harnessed to the (ambiguous) official line. Each victory brings some new atrocity and some new struggle in its wake: the toppling of the Taliban is followed by the bombing of Bali; the ousting of Saddam is followed by the bombing of Madrid; elections in Iraq, but bombings in London. It would seem the task is never done: as Mark Duffield pithily puts it, “It is always a case of one more massacre, of winning this endless war, and we will be free.” Just as we breathe a sigh of relief, we find some new anxiety catching in out throats. The war on terror is drawing to an end; long live the war on terror!

This essay is excerpted from DAVID KEEN’s new book, Endless War? Hidden Functions of the ‘War on Terror’

DAVID KEEN teaches at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Endless War? Hidden Functions of the ‘War on Terror’ (Pluto, 2006).