Weapons of Mass Media

Russ Barclay is chairman of the department of media studies and public relations at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

The language of warfare has always been provocative. Chairman Mao, for instance, urged his followers to “civilize the mind, but make savage the body.”

In the age of media war, when the battlefield’s most valuable real estate is occupied by the TV screen, media spin and what public relations grand master Edward L. Bernays called “linguistic tyranny” can prove more powerful than the smartest bomb. This is a speechwriter’s special op. Slogan combat. A punch-line war.

We are a storytelling species. You don’t need armies to win the storytelling game. After all, Saddam Hussein claimed that he won the 1991 Persian Gulf War that drove his forces from Kuwait. That so many in his part of the world believe him is testament to the power of image over substance.

Being able to dictate certain vocabulary becomes vital to any nation that hopes to write its own history. The United States, for instance, promised “shock and awe” and “violent precision and eye-watering speed.” We talk of “regime change.” We mispronounce Hussein’s first name so that, in Arabic, we seem to call him a shoeshine boy.


Language shapes perceptions: During the Cold War, the West had “allies” and the Soviets had “satellites.” The “war on terror” and the “axis of evil” become powerful images that we can transfer from enemy to enemy as circumstances arise.

Before setting out to destroy Iraq’s war-making abilities, we staged a photo op by dropping the MOAB (“Mother of All Bombs”) at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

Our Air Force promised a spectacular and photogenic air war. Our generals bragged about how visual this war would be for the viewers in the cheap seats. We blur the boundaries between war, news and entertainment. Our politicians become bad performers, and our actors horrible politicians.

It seems that we have built showmanship and grandiloquent language into our war-fighting strategy. If “doing Iraq” gets good ratings, perhaps we’ll think series.

The novelist John Gardner once wrote that we would never write anything better than what we read. I now fear that, as a civilization, we will devolve into nothing better than what we watch.