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Modern Wordfare – The semantics of Obama’s war against ISIL

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It is now fourteen months since President Barack Obama revealed his plans for dealing with ISIL: a “search and destroy” policy with no US troops on the ground, reliant on air power and allied ground forces. Since then, the war against ISIL has dragged on and after fourteen months of air strikes there seems to be no real end in sight. After this time, questions could be asked about the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s policy to eradicate ISIL. However, equally intriguing is the language used by the Obama administration to push this agenda.

Considering the Islamic State, Obama has found himself in a position in which he did not want to end up in, in the first place, namely, fighting another protracted war in the Middle East. His objection towards the wars in the Middle East was one of the reasons for him winning the elections in 2008. The American people, now weary of war, after having endured two in the last decade, would have little support for a new one. Consequently in 2014, a CBS/New York Times poll found that 77% of the respondents were opposed to sending ground troops into Iraq. Furthermore 56% favored the use of drone strikes. Given this initial situation; was clever rhetoric Obama’s ticket out of a difficult situation?

The strong opposition from the American people towards a conventional war in the Middle East could have made Obama unwilling to label the efforts of combating ISIL as a war. Instead he has opted to call the fight against ISIL for a military intervention or operation. His unwillingness to call it a war is presumably due to the fact that Obama does not want to be associated with his predecessor, George W. Bush, and the rhetoric he used in the War on Terror. In Obama’s speech on September the 10th the , President stated: “…I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground”

"2014 military intervention against ISIS collage" by ZiaLater - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons -
A rebranding may change public opinion, but not the nature of military action. Picture: “2014 military intervention against ISIS collage” by ZiaLater – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons

Despite commencing military actions against ISIS in August 2014, it was only on the 15th of October, that the Pentagon finally gave its military operation a name: ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’. Leaving the operation nameless for such a long time goes against traditional military procedure, which implies that there is reasoning behind it; leading experts to speculate that it was deliberate, and is possibly another rhetorical tactic from the Obama administration.

Military, the naming practices have long been associated with attempts to shape public opinion, and a catchy sounding name draws more attention to a conflict, which could explain Obama’s reluctance to assign the campaign a name, given the lack of public support for any intervention. By calling it an operation rather than war, the legitimacy of the intervention might not be questioned to the same extent as it otherwise would have been, since the perceived US involvement is more limited. The public, as aforementioned, favored drone strikes but not ground troop involvement. By distancing the character of the U.S. involvement from with the violent connotations that the word ‘war’ would evoke, and using a more neutral descriptor – an ‘more towards limited involvement operation’ – with little or none casualties, the support for Obama’s decision to intervene was likely to be higher.

During the American presence in Iraq the world saw another rhetorical change: the 1500 additional troops that were sent to Iraq are now called “advisers” rather than military combatants. This very narrow definition of war by the White House causes some complications. Although the American advisors are there to assist the Kurdish and Iraqi forces, they can still be sent into combat zones side by side with the national forces. The advisers are armed and permitted to return fire if fired upon but they are not supposed to engage with the enemy directly, which enables the change of the title of the soldiers. Unsurprisingly many military experts have rejected this definition.

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The recent US military involvement has seen a move towards more airstrikes

Even though the definition of a military campaign may not matter in a legal sense, there are often practical ramifications that come into play. For example, before the U.S. officially designated the Iraqi campaign in 2014 as a ‘military campaign’, the troops stationed in Iraq as ‘advisors’ were not entitled to medals such as the Iraq Campaign Medal or the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal.

We now have a complicated situation with a war that is called an operation and soldiers who are called advisers. The linguistic games that are played into the military definitions are confusing to say the least, but Obama’s actions still have an important effect on the region. Why he acted the way he did might not be so difficult to understand. Given the saturation of media coverage that occurs today, the power that language, and thus semantics, exerts over public opinion is very strong. It affects the way we perceive things and the wars in the Middle East are, judging by all this, not an acceptance. However in reality, the threat of ISIL is still the no less real that it was fourteen months ago. There is no foreseeable end in the horizon for American involvement in Operation Inherent Resolve. Obama’s semantic wordplay, no matter how thought-out, does not appear to change this fact.

Felix Borrebaeck and Staffan Fjellander

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