“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength”: Chomsky on Words That Have Lost All Meaning

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” – George Orwell, 1984

In a totalitarian society, it doesn’t matter much what people think. If they get out of hand, they can be violently coerced into submission.

However, in democratic societies, or societies that maintain democratic forms, those in power cannot always use force to reach their objectives; this is a result of long and hard-fought popular struggles and civil disobedience, and so on, and the struggle continues to this day.

Unlike an overtly totalitarian society, it does matter what the population thinks in a democratic society, because there is a possibility (however slight) that they can influence policy if they “lend their weight” in a particular direction.

So forms of thought control must be implemented in formally democratic societies to keep the population in line with power.

The phrase “thought control” sounds conspiratorial, but that the media would use their immense power to influence and shape the opinions of the masses is pretty close to common sense.

Today, the major media sources are owned by huge corporations, and airwaves are concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. This has a serious effect. Those who attempt to bring an independent view of the world — one not dictated by the needs of owners and advertisers — are few and far between, as they often lack the resources to compete.

As a result, we are left with a media that is owned by and that relentlessly pushes the interests of the elite sectors of society, leaving the middle and working class atomized, confused, and hopeless.

What are some of the tactics used by the media to influence the minds of the masses?

There are many, of course, but one of the most important is the creation of alternate definitions for words that are important to a functioning society, and the effect is to make them completely devoid of meaning.

Noam Chomsky, in a collection of interviews titled What Uncle Sam Really Wants, describes how this process works.

The terms of political discourse typically have two meanings. One is the dictionary meaning, and the other is the meaning that is useful for serving power — the doctrinal meaning.


According to the common sense meaning, a society is democratic to the extent that people can participate in a meaningful way in managing their affairs. But the doctrinal meaning of democracy is different – it refers to a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elites. The public are to be only ‘spectators of action,’ not ‘participants,’ as leading democratic theorists (in this case, Walter Lippmann) have explained. They are permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support to one or another of them, but not to interfere with what matters – like public policy – that are none of their business.

If segments of the public depart from their apathy and begin to organize and enter the public arena, that’s not democracy. Rather, it’s a crisis of democracy in proper technical usage, a threat that has to be overcome in one or another way: in El Salvador, by death squads – at home, by more subtle and indirect means.

Free enterprise:

…a term that refers, in practice, to a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive government intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich. In fact, in acceptable usage, just about any phrase containing the word “free” is likely to mean something like the opposite of its actual meaning.

Job creation, free trade, the free market, market forces, and so on all fall into a similar category, and are used in similar ways, depending upon what big business is attempting to do to screw the public. Whether it is passing a “trade” deal that will “create jobs,” or promoting the values of the “free market” overseas, it is all the same: business pursuing its interests, and working to convince the public that it is all for the best.

Defense against aggression:

…a phrase that’s used — predictably — to refer to aggression. When the US attacked South Vietnam in the early 1960s, the liberal hero Adlai Stevenson (among others) explained that we were defending South Vietnam against ‘internal aggression’ — that is, the aggression of South Vietnamese peasants against the US air force and a US-run mercenary army, which were driving them out of their homes and into concentration camps where they could be ‘protected’ from the southern guerrillas. In fact, these peasants willingly support the guerrillas, while the US client regime was an empty shell, as was agreed on all sides.

So magnificently has the doctrinal system risen to its task that to this day, 30 years later, the idea that the US attacked South Vietnam is unmentionable, even unthinkable, in the mainstream…The guardians of political correctness can be quite proud of an achievement that would be hard to duplicate in a well-run totalitarian state.

It is almost never the case that the United States is committing an act of aggression, by definition. “Defense against aggression” means whatever the United States happens to be doing at the moment, so for anyone to say that the United States is committing an act of aggression would be a logical contradiction, based on “doctrinal” language.

Peace process:

The naive might think that it refers to efforts to seek peace. Under this meaning, we would say that the peace process in the Middle East includes, for example, the offer of a full peace treaty to Israel by President Sadat of Egypt in 1971, along lines advocated by virtually the entire world, including official US policy…But the sophisticated understand that these efforts do not form part of the peace process. The reason is that in the PC [politically correct] meaning, the term peace process refers to what the US government is doing – in the cases mentioned, this is to block international efforts to seek peace.

The peace process is restricted to US initiatives…That’s the way it works. Those who cannot master these skills must seek another profession.

Special interest:

The well-oiled Republican PR systems of the 1980s regularly accused the Democrats of being the party of the special interests: women, labor, the elderly, the young, farmers – in short, the general population. There was only one sector of the population never listed as a special interest: corporations and business generally. That makes sense. In PC discourse, their (special) interests are the national interest, to which all must bow.


…which has come to refer to advocates of a powerful state, which interferes massively in the economy an in social life. They advocate huge state expenditures and a postwar peak of protectionist measures and insurance against market risk, narrowing individual liberties through legislation and court-packing, protecting the Holy State from unwarranted inspection by the irrelevant citizenry – in short, those programs that are the precise opposite of traditional conservatism. Their allegiance is to ‘the people who own the country’ and therefore ‘ought to govern it,’ in the words of Founding Father John Jay.

The result?

To make sense of political discourse, it’s necessary to give a running translation into English, decoding the doublespeak of the media, academic social scientists and the secular priesthood generally. Its function is not obscure: the effect is to make it impossible to find words to talk about matters of human significance in a coherent way. We can then be sure that little will be understood about how our society works and what is happening in the world.

The War Prayer: Mark Twain on the Realities of War That are Left Unspoken

“I don’t think The War Prayer will be published in my time. Only the dead are permitted to speak the truth.”

Mark Twain is known for his satirical writings on the topics of race, religion, and various aspects of culture; but one topic that he was particularly passionate about, and one of the areas of his work that I think is under-appreciated, are his anti-war writings.

His staunch anti-imperialism, his knowledge of the true impact that war has on the human race, was a significant driving force in the latter portions of his life.

He was greatly opposed to the Philippine-American War, for example, and it is a little known fact that he was the vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist League from 1901 until the year of his death, 1910.

This is largely ignored, however, even by biographers who are well aware of these facts.

‘Why?’ writes Noam Chomsky, ‘The question answers itself. You don’t want people to explode the aura of benevolence in which we clothe ourselves.’

Twain did not identify as a pacifist, but he hated jingoism, or, what we self-righteously call patriotism today. He hated the blind support of war by those willfully blind to its true consequences.

…we have invited clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit’s work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear, not to follow; we have debauched America’s honor and blackened her face before the world.

In his short story The War Prayer, Twain contends that there is one prayer that is uttered aloud by those enthusiastic and supportive of war, and another that is left unspoken.

The half that is uttered aloud is, of course, the call for victory, the call for a glorious and clean-cut defeat of evil by our young patriots.

The War Prayer takes place at a church service, shortly before soldiers are being sent to fight for their country.

The scene is set by a preacher praying for victory.

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language.

The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory…

‘Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!’

As the prayer is spoken, an “aged stranger” enters the church and silently makes his way to the podium, walking with his eyes unwaveringly set on the minister. The stranger proceeds to notify the preacher of his presence, and to motion him to step aside.

The stranger takes the preacher’s place in the center of the stage. The stranger begins to speak.

‘I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!’

The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention.

‘He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.’

The stranger represents the half of war that isn’t told, the half that is most significant: the effects that war has both on those who face devastating defeat, and on those who return home as the victor.

‘God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer?

No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not.

Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind.

If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time.

If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.’

The media utterly fails to show us this dark side of war, the side that all prayers for victory leave unspoken, and much of the population on the side of the “winning team” fails to acknowledge the dark side, as well.

They grasp for heroism while they ignore the everyday struggles of soldiers who have sacrificed their lives to fight when they’re told to fight. They talk vacuously about freedom while ignoring the fact that bombing a densely-populated civilian area doesn’t free anyone.

The stranger goes on to relay the unspoken half of the war prayer:

When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it.

‘Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.

O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it…’

This is the side we don’t hear. The call for victory is met with applause; but no one dares to point out what “victory” means in the context of war.

And further, we (we being the hawks, the media, and sadly, much of our intellectual culture) ignore those who call for us to pay attention to our victims, to recognize the suffering inflicted upon the weak and defenseless by the strong.

Not only does the media take great pains to ignore anti-war voices, it is largely responsible for the vehement condemnation of those who are opposed to their cherished war efforts.

Twain made clear that he recognized this fact, with the final sentence of The War Prayer:

It was believed afterward that the man [the stranger] was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Protestors and the vocal opposition are labeled anti-American, unpatriotic, soft, weak, and they are told to shut up and step aside.

The media and those who call for war as the first and only option don’t tolerate anyone who attempts to rain on their frenzied parade. They will fabricate, lie, and oversimplify; anything to engender support for the devastation that is to come.

…the whole nation – pulpit and all – will take up the war-cry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open.

Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.


We glorify war, without full awareness of its consequences. We tell ourselves comforting lies and sweet justifications, pushing aside the truth. That is Twain’s message for us all.

There’s a war you see, and a war you don’t.

There’s a war that you hear about on the radio and on the news, and then there’s the real war, the war taking place behind the curtains, the war that no one wants to acknowledge, because to do so would be to shed light on the inconceivable facts.

Our attention is diverted from the misery directly resulting from war, to glorious and self-righteous thoughts about victory and liberation, to vague notions of freedom and democracy. But the real consequences of war are unspeakable.

No one wants war, in its brutal reality. And the media knows this, those who wage war know this. So they package war in a glorified, easy-to-swallow capsule.

People can’t be shown the slaughter of innocents, the destroyed homes and schools, the tortured prisoners, the soldiers dying in the name of American imperialism.

They can’t hear that our brave soldiers are never the same after they return home, or that they rarely get the medical attention they truly deserve.

We are beckoned to see the world through a one-way mirror, as if we are threatened and innocent and the rest of humanity is threatening, or wretched, or expendable. Our memory is struggling to rescue the truth that human rights were not handed down as privileges from a parliament, or a boardroom, or an institution, but that peace is only possible with justice and with information that gives us the power to act justly. – John Pilger

Twain’s message is an important one today, and one that will undoubtedly be important in the future. We have to fight to see the full story, and we have to look beyond what we are told to believe. The picture is so often left incomplete.

War is a Racket: General Smedley Butler on Those Profiting from Death and Destruction

“All of them are looking ahead to war. Not the people – not those who fight and pay and die – only those who foment wars and remain safely at home to profit.”

Smedley D. Butler was a decorated Major General who participated in military action around the world, including France in World War I. proffiting

General Butler twice received the Medal of Honor; just two out of 16 total medals he received throughout his service.

Along with being on of the most colored generals in U.S. history, he was also went on to become one of the fiercest critics of war and wartime policy.

Now hailed as an “anti-war classic,” General Butler’s sole book War is a Racket is a timeless condemnation of war, a concise summary of its devastating effects, and an indictment of those who dole out death and destruction for their own interests.

Of course, Smedley wasn’t always an opponent of war. He candidly describes the experience of being a member of the military during a war effort and the mindset that develops:

“Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service.

My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.”

Obviously, it is difficult to take a detached look at U.S. foreign policy when you are in the middle of the action, and when you are the instrument being used to carry it out.

After his illustrious career was over, Smedley develops feelings toward war quite contrary to what he had been told by his higher-ups, and indeed quite contrary to the message often spelled out to the people about the purpose of war.

“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

What exactly is a racket?

“A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

During World War I, Smedley points out, “a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.”

Smedley’s message is even more relevant today, having experienced the “rackets” that were the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, two wars which were privatized on a mass scale; in other words, for the few, they were for-profit wars.

Contractors are offered piles of money to coordinate “reconstruction” efforts, among many other (often useless) activities, while the American taxpayer “shoulders the bill.”

“This bill renders horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.”

Other countries are seen as investment opportunities, chances for corporations to extract profit at forcefully-imposed low tax rates. Profit over people.

And, the obvious point: The U.S. wants to control (by force if necessary) the world’s greatest supplies of natural resources and strategically advantageous geopolitical regions.

But the picture painted for the public is quite different.

We are told that the fight is for freedom and democracy, to liberate a people, to topple a dictator, or some other noble mission.

Noam Chomsky once commented that we are supposed to believe that we would have invaded Iraq “if it was an island in the Indian Ocean and its main exports were pickles and lettuce.”

As we now know, this is not the case. The vehemently touted pretexts for the war have been destroyed (not that they were ever adequately defended), and we are left with another racket.

Another point from Smedley, which we are all well aware of: Those who benefit most from war rarely, if ever, take part in the action.

Most fanatical war-mongers (members of so-called ‘think-tanks,’ particularly within the neoconservative movement) have never been to war themselves. They have never seen the devastating results of their policy ideas firsthand, but they pursue them with zeal nonetheless.

“How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle?

How many of them dug a trench?

How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets?

How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?”

Perhaps if they or their children had served, the story would be quite different.

But the insidious fact is that many of those who have profited greatly from recent wars, and those who have relentlessly pushed for pro-war policies, deferred when drafted during the Vietnam; and not because of a moral objection to the war itself, I might add.

One would think that military experience should be a requirement if you are to be making decisions which send others to experience the horrors of war. But, instead, we have chickenhawks, eager to send others into unnecessary and illegal wars, while having no desire to be anywhere near the battle themselves.

A racket, indeed.

“…what does it profit the masses? What does it profit the men who are killed? What does it profit the men who are maimed? What does it profit their mothers and sisters, their wives and their sweethearts? What does it profit their children?

What does it profit anyone except the very few to whom war means huge profits?

It would have been far cheaper (not to say safer) for the average American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements. For a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always transferred to the people – who do not profit.”

What is the solution?

George Orwell on How Political Language Deceives and Corrupts, and What We Can Do About It

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Language, spoken or written, can be used for a wide array of purposes. It can be used to rally the troops, to spark a revolution, to righteously insult an asshole, to evoke laughter, or, most egregious of all, to deceive the masses.

George Orwell, in his classic essay Politics and the English Language, explores the different ways in which language can be mangled and manipulated to serve any end.

Excessive verbosity, for example, or the use of what he calls “dying metaphors,” “pretentious diction,” and “meaningless words” are all tactics used to hide the real purpose behind a message.

Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. 

“This is certainly the case,” for example, is a phrase which can be used by politicians to comfort their citizens, but in reality, those making this kind of statement are far from certain about anything.

The media often manipulates language to make us fear something that is not a true threat, or to make us ignore something that is.

We are attracted to the eloquent and the loud without paying attention to the meaning which lurks behind their words.

Politicians with their backs against the wall can save themselves with a few patriotic-sounding phrases and fiery speeches, even if their words are vacuous.

It’s all for show.

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

On the Purpose of “Political Language”

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Orwell’s view was that political language had to become detached from ordinary English because if it didn’t, its stupidity and malevolence would become painfully obvious.

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air,the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and set trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements

Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Language turns to abstractions rather than simple, vivid images of what the speaker is really saying when he or she is trying to deceive others.

This reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s point that, “The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

If we can be made to forget that we are talking about war and slaughter, and instead be made to think in purely metaphorical and numerical games, anything can be justified.

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared claims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

What, if anything, can be done about this? Can we improve our ability to clearly relay our own messages, and can we ensure that we aren’t deceived by the language games of others, particularly those in power?

Orwell’s Solution

This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

The message of Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is to be careful about what you write and say, and to be conscious of what you read and hear.

This is particularly important during election time and war time (which is to say, always): Politicians will spout as much nonsense as they have to in order to scavenge as many votes as possible, and to ensure that the public is blind to their real motivations.

The ability to recognize when someone is trying to slip something by you is essential.

Unfortunately, most don’t take the time to critically analyze what is said in the media. The masses are stuck in their echo-chamber, thoughtlessly shoveling down so-called “facts” delivered by their favorite “news” provider.

And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

We may laugh at those who were deceived by outrageous propaganda strategies of the past, but we fail to realize that propaganda has not died out, it has changed form: “Preservation through transformation” (Reva Siegel).

Orwell believed that instinct can help us with this problem to some extent, if we would just pay a bit of attention, but he laid out six rules “one can rely on when instinct fails,” just in case.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(iv) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. 

These rules sound elementary, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.

If language can indeed corrupt thought, both our own and others’, we should be intensely careful about how we use it, and how it is used on us.

One cannot change this all in a moment but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.