War, Silence and the Politics of Language

War on Silence (I)

When they came for the Irish, Blacks and Jews I
remained silent.  You see, I was yet to be born.
And when it happened again I was too young
and -  waiting to go into college. Later when they
jailed anti-war protestors, waiting to become a doctor I
still could not speak out.  And when the Twin Towers
fell and they pulled Muslim, Sikh and Turkish students
from my classroom, without tenure and vulnerable I
remained silent.  And when they came for my colleagues

tenured but waiting to become dean or provost, I
would not speak out.  And when they again started to shut
down universities, steal elections, assassinate, detain
torture and make wars without cause it was too late. I
could not speak. I did not know how. I had lost my
tongue.  So when they finally came for me, I

 could not scream, there was no one left to hear me. “You
see” they said as they pulled out my eyes, “You! So mute
and silent, how can you be trusted to keep your eyes closed?


The war to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis by the Bush administration was first fought on U.S. soil to move Americans from feeling wounded, vulnerable and angry to desiring revenge in place of justice.  It was the success of this war that made possible the fabrication of evidence against the dictator of Iraq, the sidelining of the United Nations, the arm twisting into supporting the war of third world nations opposed to the war but in dire need of American dollars, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the sanctioning of torture, military tribunals and domestic spying programs, and other undemocratic and plainly criminal acts. 

In spite of Bush’s hunger for war being so transparent, a huge section of the American population supported him into a war that has now cost 39,942(II) Iraqi civilian lives.  2,000 American soldiers have died with another 20,000 wounded.  No one is really speaking of the physically and psychologically maimed.  Of the wounded Iraqis and Americans, it is not clear how many have lost limbs or suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.  But given the nature of war, it is safe to assume that it leaves no one unscarred – soldier or civilian.   Only the elite, corporations and politicians up for elections and re-elections in Iraq and the United States are thriving.  For each American life lost on 9-11, Bush II has exacted the high price of approximately 12 Iraqi lives.  These numbers simply cannot add up to justice. 

To pull this feat which with all things being equal would have been met with indignation by the U.S. citizen, Bush II in addition to fanning the flames of nationalism and holding up the bible to the Christian Right also adopted the image of the every day blue-collar worker.  Bush II, a child of privilege if there ever was one has carried himself as an everyday man; one who isn’t academic in approach to things and therefore doesn’t unnecessarily intellectualize.  He is a man who acts, who cuts to the chase, a straight shooter.  With a Texan drawl and the confident strut of ‘missions accomplished’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and New Orleans, he tries to give the image of a man in charge. 

Standing next to Bush II, Al Gore face slightly pudgy with baby boomer fat and John Kerry tall and gaunt both appeared over-burdened by intellectualism as they tried to reason through their vision of American Foreign Policy.  With Kerry, Bush II used his anti-academe approach to argue that the “smoking gun” could very well be a “mushroom cloud” and hence the need for pre-emptive strikes.  Besides, Bush couldn’t understand why one should wait for evidence that can be easily fabricated.  Better to err on the side of caution and torture and kill a few Iraqis rather than take the risk of losing thousands, if not millions of American lives.  Prevention is better than cure the saying goes.

Arguing against this logic, Kerry appeared to be putting other nations ahead of the American people.  To argue that the United Nations exists for a reason and that pre-emptive strikes create a global mistrust of the United States that in the long run will create more terrorism became an apology for terrorism.  Compared to Bush’s approach of “either with us or against us”, Kerry appeared to be “flip-flopping” and indecisive. Overwhelmed by Bush’s unwavering and absolute simplicity, the Democrats moved their center further to the right of where Clinton had already pushed it.  They began to sound and act more Republican in their commitment to fight terrorism. 

War on Political Language

As the Democrats moved to the Right both in political language and action, the Republicans were conducting a search and seizure operation in the political vacuum the Democrats were leaving behind.  So that in addition to shifting the terms of the debate to favor the neo-conservative agenda, the Bush administration was also adopting the political language of liberals but without adopting the content.  For years it was liberals who argued that freedom was a universal principle, that democracy was desirable for everyone and that there were no cultures which were intrinsically unjust and naturally despotic.   Now it is Bush II singing the refrain that everyone deserves to be free(III).   For Condoleezza Rice those who oppose the war in Iraq also deny the universality of freedom.  Three years ago she said:

And let us never indulge the condescending voices who allege that some people are not interested in freedom or aren’t ready for freedom’s responsibilities. That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad. The desire for freedom transcends race, religion and culture — as countries as diverse as Germany, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey have proved. The people of the Middle East are not exempt from this desire. We have an opportunity — and an obligation — to help them turn desire into reality. That is the security challenge — and moral mission — of our time(IV).

Besides the irony of using a non-violent civil rights struggle to justify occupying a foreign country, or using the example of the Philippines where a non-violent people power movement toppled a US maintained Dictator in 1986, or of South Africa where the African National Congress adopted an armed struggle to bring down an Apartheid government that for years enjoyed American support, or of her invoking the struggle that made it possible for her become the black face of Bush II to justify the occupation of Iraq, she usurped and twisted the kind of liberation language that a Martin Luther King Jr. would have used to oppose the Vietnam War.  Or the kind of language that a Mandela would have used to speak back to an apartheid government that believed the majority blacks to be inferior and incapable of governing South Africa.  She was using the political language of the liberal or the progressive against a liberal or progressive agenda. 

The liberal who then engages her in a debate does not have a political language with which to confront her.   The liberal who engages her has to attempt to reclaim the meaning of universal freedom as Rice accuses him or her of being a cultural supremacist or relativist prone to racist double standards.  In mucky Republican political playing fields, I find this move of usurping liberal and progressive language to serve a neo-conservative agenda to be the most ingenious.

The result of the Bush II attack on the shape and direction of American politics has been so drastic a move by the Democratic Party to the Right that one can no longer tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican using the usual litmus tests of political language and stated (and usually misleading) agenda.  Take Howard Dean who together with several democrats have accused the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of anti-Semitism(V) because he expressed disapproval over Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers – a response which has left 96 Israelis dead and close to 1,000 dead and one quarter of the population displaced on the Lebanese side(VII).  Here again, the ratio of 1 Israeli life for about 10 Lebanese civilians does not reflect justice.  And the numbers are climbing. 

To Dean’s statement, the Republican Convention Committee responded by stating that “it is incredibly troubling that Howard Dean would seek to score cheap political points by attacking the democratically elected prime minister of Iraq”.  Here then is the political farce:  Howard Dean tries to discredit the Iraqi PM and the Bush Administration by using political language normally reserved for Republicans who accuse anyone critical of Israel’s foreign policy of being anti-Semitic.  The Republican Convention Committee responds by accusing Dean of attacking a democratically elected President.  It is of course the republicans who of late have been subverting democratically elected governments – Aristide of Haiti is gone, Chavez is under attack and the Hamas led government, democratically elected by the Palestinian people is under economic and military siege.  In this exchange the roles have been reversed – the Democrat latches onto anti-Semitism and the Republican on, well… democracy. 

But the point is that democracy in Iraq exists at the mercy of the United States and will exist as long the U.S. wills it.  This is to say there is no democracy in Iraq.  What in fact exists is the kind of indirect rule that the British favored in their colonies – a Self -Rule that had the outward appearance of independence but in real terms depended on Britain for the benefit of England.  Democrats and Republicans, even as they disagree do not see the Prime Minister as a puppet in charge of a proxy government.  They are united by a common desire for an Iraq that is remains a U.S. satellite state in the Middle East.

War on the Intellectual

The neo-conservatives having taken care of the liberal voice in the public arena are now attacking the university.  Lists like the “100 most dangerous professors” attack intellectuals who have publicly taken a stand against the excesses of American domestic and foreign policy.  They have the sole of creating an atmosphere of fear.  This fear in turn will put the employment of such professors in jeopardy.  The Conservatives and Liberals opposed to the public intellectual are not worried about what is getting taught to students.  They are afraid that their monopoly over what gets called the truth is under threat.  The public intellectual is providing an alternate arena of “truth telling” outside of corporate media, White House Press Briefings, and election political debates etc.  The public intellectual is giving voice to the hidden.

The climate of fear that continues to be created becomes all the more real for intellectuals who are not American born and do not have permanent residency or citizenship.  There is the threat of being ‘disappeared’ into Guantanamo.  And if not Guantanamo, losing a teaching position and getting their work visa revoked – a recipe that concocts deportation.  This is of course a tragedy.  Coming to the US as exiles of one thing or another, they understand how the erosion of rights happens, how dangerous the logic of exchanging freedom for security is, and how a foreign policy that oppresses abroad has to silence dissent at home.  These voices need to be heard because they have a lot to teach.  Equally tragic are the young intellectuals who are being molded by a culture of increasing fear and silence.

In a country where the Official Opposition Party has mutated into the party it opposes, and the Supreme Court has been methodically rigged to steer each vote to the Right, and the Executive Branch is undermining the constitution, and the people have been unbalanced with fear, who will keep the government in check and balanced?  If the musicians, the poets and writers and intellectuals are silent, what happens to the conscience of the nation?

Silence cannot be the answer.  The irony of anti-democratic regimes is that even the silent ones get eaten up soon after those who are vocal.  They want parrots who will sing back the day’s chorus.  But more alarming is that when given the gift of silence and acquiescence, a regime like this one of Bush II cannot stop even when it is satiated. It doesn’t know how to stop and does not want to.  Anyone keeping an eye on the maneuverings of Bush II on the world stage can tell that given the opportunity, he will destabilize the Middle East, Latin America and keep Africa as is.

The ingenious global capitalist knows that there is money to be made in times of peace and war.  If peace threatens profit, war is the next best answer.  Wars in the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Apartheid in South Africa never stopped the money making machinery – blood diamonds are just as beautiful and desirable as those produced by sweat.  A destabilized Middle East that feeds the military –industrial complex and oils the wheels of global capitalism is infinitely more preferable than a peaceful Middle East that speaks in one voice through OPEC.  According to ABC News war spending is nearly at half a trillion dollars(VII).  Oil companies recorded all time high profits in 2005(VIII).  This is profit at the cost of human lives- a drop of oil for a drop of blood. 

To reclaim both language and democracy from Bush II requires that intellectuals do their work in the public arena.  What is at stake is not just an independent thinker-student but freedom in both the United States and the Middle East.  The future of the U.N. as a moral authority which also has teeth, that can stop wars or bring relief to civilians is also at stake.  It is not an overstatement to say that the future of the world is in the balance.  Bush II has shown the kind of world he prefers.  It is the duty of intellectuals to provide an alternate dream that makes possible economic and political arrangement that meet the needs of the world majority poor – a dream that makes a democracy with the content of equality and justice possible.

Finally, George Mangakis as quoted by Wole Soyinka in The Man Died, a book Soyinka wrote while in detention for demanding peace during the Biafra War states that: 

When a dictatorship is imposed on your country, the very first thing you feel, the very first day- and it’s a feeling that has a totally spontaneous immediacy, free from all mental elaboration – the first feeling is humiliation.  You are deprived of the right to consider yourself worthy of responsibility for your own life and destiny…And then comes the attempt to impose on you by fear acceptance of various barbarous actions of theirs that you hear about, or that you actually see them commit against your fellow human being.  You begin to live with the daily humiliation of fear, and you begin to loath yourself.  And then deeply wounded in your conscience as a citizen, you begin to feel a solidarity with the people to whom you belong(IX).

We are compelled to resist both little and big terrors by solidarity with the people to whom one belongs and love of our common humanity.  Solidarity cannot thrive in silence.



(i) The poem was adapted from the poem “First they came” by Pastor Martin Niemoller by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, James Magua, and Luciene Loh. 
(ii) http://www.iraqbodycount.net/
(iii) Bush: Better human intelligence needed.
(iv) Dr. Condoleezza Rice Discusses Foreign Policy. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/08/20030807-1.html
(v) Dean calls Iraqi PM an ‘anti-Semite’
(vi) Israeli Air strikes Kill 15 in Lebanon. 
(vii) Bush Administration’s War Spending Nears Half-Trillion Dollars.
(viii) Oil industry awash in record levels of cash. 
(ix) Soyinka, Wole. The  Man Died.  Rex Collings Ltd, London; 1972 (page14-15)


Kenyan poet Mukoma wa Ngugi is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (Africa World Press, 2006) and Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change (Kimaathi Publishing House, 2003).  Also see Mukoma’s columns on Africa and in relation to the rest of the world in the BBC Focus on Africa Quarterly Magazine.  He can be reached at [email protected]



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