George Orwell and the War on Terror

by Bina Shah    /  October 16, 2012  / No comments

Political language clouds U.S. drone strikes.

MQ-1 Predator Drone

MQ-1 Predator Drone. Photo: Lt Col Leslie Pratt. Public domain

When I taught writing at a Karachi university to 18 year-old Pakistani students we studied several of Orwell’s essays, including “Shooting an Elephant.” The students drew parallels between the colonialism Orwell wrote about in Burma and the American imperialism that powers the occupation of Afghanistan today. But when we analyzed “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell’s seminal work about how language can be used to obfuscate a government’s immoral or illegal acts, the parallels were even stronger.

  1. Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bi-monthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
  2. Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).

Orwell wrote:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless 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.’

Orwell’s words stick with me now when I contemplate that war on terror, still going on today, with the additional horror of the drone attacks that the United States carries out on terrorists holed up in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan. These drone strikes are completely immoral and illegal, yet they have been used by both the Pakistani and American governments not just as tools in the arsenal of war, but as an occasion to shore up support for their own political ideology.

The United States insists that the drone strikes are necessary since Pakistan does not send its army on the ground to fight militants in Waziristan. They insist that drones are accurate and do not kill civilians. Obama recently remarked that the drone strikes target “people who are on a list of active terrorists.” And yet this list has never been released and no mention is made of the people who have been killed but are not on that list. Pakistan, for its part, tacitly condones the drone strikes but makes public statements about “violations of sovereignty” and the need to be “taken into confidence” by the United States. The independent politician Imran Khan makes fiery speeches about drone strikes and wants to hold peace talks with militants as a method of gaining popular support in his attempt to run for public office.

As Orwell wrote in 1946, political language is used to cloud the issues: That both drone strikes and terrorist attacks cause civilian deaths; that the drone strikes are adding to militancy instead of eliminating it; that the Pakistani government is complicit in the strikes while at the same time condemning them for political expediency; and that politicians, in focusing on the evils of drone strikes and not on the evils of militancy, are taking advantage of an emotional, directionless populace. In the Orwellian world of drone politics and the war on terror, black is white, good is evil, war is peace, and language is as much of a terrorist as any drone or human actor on this stage.

About the Author

Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).

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