When It Comes to War, Words Matter

Words matter. It’s an important lesson learned by children in the play yard and PR firm executives alike. That is why the recent unheralded word changeto the U.S. Department of Defense’s Mission Statement is unsettling,to say the least. In January of this year, the Trump administration disturbingly changed the Department of Defense’s mission from “deter war” to “provide a lethalJoint Force to defend the security of our country and sustain American influence abroad(my italics).”

The United States government knows all too well the importance of words. Post-World War II, the cabinet-level “Department of War”was whitewashed and re-named the Department of “Defense.” This retitling from “War” to “Defense” in no way changed the ideology of a department that sports a long history of warmongering, rather than defending a mainland that has not been invaded by “foreign” forces since Pancho Villa in 1910.

We need not discuss the obvious difference between deterring war and Trump’s linguistic pick to provide “lethal force,” although this war-like attitude has never been in the background as far as our military “leaders” are concerned. The spreading of “American influence abroad,” although new to the DoD’s stated mission, is actually a more honest depiction of American actions. This idea is seen at least as early as the beginning of the 19thcentury, and harks back to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which codified U.S. expansionism, while hypocritically opposing European colonialism in the Americas. The American “sphere” of course grew, beginning with the 1898 Spanish American War to obtain Cuba and the Philippines, the annexation of Hawaii and Puerto Rico the same year and on and on. Hiding behind the mantra of “spreading democracy,” it has always been mostly economic in nature. For example, Secretary of State John Hay’s “Open Door” 1899 policy decried Europe’s relationship with China as unwanted territorial encroachment, so that the U.S. could become part of the lucrative trade from Chinese markets instead.  

Rather than defending the U.S. from external threats, the Department of “Defense” has instigated multitudes of invasions of other sovereign nations, beginning with troops in Korea (1951-1953), and on to Lebanon and Panama in 1958, Vietnam in 1960, and Laos in 1962. Then the U.S. war machine invaded Panama again in 1964 and the Dominican Republic in 1965. These are only a small representation of “troops on the ground” in other nations. The U.S. also has blockaded nations with military personnel and machinery as a warning, such as Cuba in 1962; it has threatened the use of nuclear weapons to force another nation to bend to its will many, many times, such as Iraq and China in 1958.

History is also replete with examples of the U.S. military and militarized police turning on its own citizens and massacring or brutalizing peaceful protesters, such as at Kent State in 1970, L.A. in 1992, and most recently, at the Standing Rock Reservation in 2016-2017. Likewise, the Black Lives Matter movement draws attention to domestic police brutality, often targeted at black and brown people. Loaded with surplus weapons of war, the highly militarized U.S. police force is outfitted with equipment far beyond what is needed to defend communities from crime.

If you accept the definition of warmongering as the “encouragement or the advocacy of aggression toward other countries or groups,” defense seems a much less likely description of the U.S.’s actions than war. What are we to make of this not-so-subtle difference in the stated mission of a government department with the power to direct the military of the United States in any conflict, defensive or otherwise? A government department that is headed by a powerful ex-Marine Corps general?

Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis has a long, sometimes less than honorable, military career. He is thought of as an intellectual and he certainly knows, or at least believes in, the power of words to motivate. This is a commander who, before deploying his Marines in Iraq, sent a mandatory reading list of 72 selections of articles for the troops, and a copy of T. E. Lawrence’s “27 Articles” to his officers. He is also the first retired General in seven decades to serve at this post.

His motivational speech to the troops glorified violence and elevated murder to heroism: “The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event… That said, there are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot. There are hunters and there are victims. By your discipline, cunning, obedience and alertness, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim. It’s really a hell of a lot of fun. You’re gonna have a blast out here…I feel sorry for every son of a bitch that doesn’t get to serve with you.”  

When the new Secretary offered guidance to the employees of the Department of “Defense,” his description of the department came immediately and easily, “We are a department of war.”

Not to be left out of the military madness, Trump himself has personally requested a massive, multi-million dollar military parade, this November 10 through the streets of Washington, D.C. At taxpayers’ expense, the extravaganza will showcase the U.S.’s might, parading armored vehicles, weaponry, and aircraft through the U.S. capital. Numerous elected officials have spoken out against this pro-war extravaganza, with the District of Columbia Council sarcastically tweeting “Tanks but no tanks.” In fact, a recentinformal poll by Military Times of their readers, with 51,000 responses, found 89% opposition to the parade.

Stop Trump’s Military Parade, a broad coalition of social justice and anti-war organizations, has formed in opposition to the parade, critiquing it as a glorification of militarization and a waste of money that could be better spent on social and environmental imperatives. Members include World BEYOND War, Popular Resistance, CODEPINK, Veterans for Peace, Black Alliance for Peace, and ANSWER.

The coalition likewise knows that words do matter. In 1954, the U.S. Congress changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day in an attempt to glorify war and paint its aggressors as heroes. Stop Trump’s Military Parade is calling for the return of Veterans Day to Armistice Day, a day to celebrate peace. This historical November 11 marks the 100thanniversary of the armistice that ended WWI. Join thousands of peace protesters converging en masse in Washington, D.C. this November 9-11 to counter the Trumparade and celebrate Armistice Day #100.