The phrase “War on Terror” was first used by former president George W Bush to refer to an ideological struggle against organizations that are considered terrorist, and regimes that have ties to them. In the past ten years, “War on Terror” was applied in the military campaign led by the United States against al-Qaeda in the War in Afghanistan (2001-present) as a reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Almost simultaneously, the War on Terror was continued in the Iraq War (2003-2011) in response to the threat of Iraq possibly possessing weapons of mass destruction. During the coarse of the War on Terror, a range of discourses situating the “West” in opposition to the “East”- for example, civilized vs. barbaric, progressive vs. backward, and us vs. them -have been induced. Edward Said ‘s Orientalism deals with the relationship between Western depictions of non-Western subjects, and the consequent power relations that arise as a result. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror, Orientalism, as a form of critical analysis, is essential in understanding related discourses and a segway into understanding, at some level, what communication research can tell us about war. The following analysis will not only allow further understanding of war, but may also allow for a method to understand how to counter ‘Islamafobic’ discourses.
The War on Terror was waged against Afghanistan and Iraq due to their perceived threat to the US and their allies. But, the justification of the war remains a point of inquiry. In order to understand how the ambiguous, and often questioned, War on Terror was justified, it is important to ask: how has ‘Orientalist’ logics in ‘War on Terror’ discourses been used to shape collective memory and justify military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq? The War on Terror has significant parallels to past wars, which will assist in informing this question.
Similar to the War on Terror, the Vietnam War came into question over several aspects, including the US’s interventionist role. But, as illuminated by Richard Cherwitz’s article, “Lyndon Johnson and the “Crisis of the Tonkin Gulf”: President’s Justification of War,” there are several steps that those in power take to justify a war to the public and create an “us” vs. “them” dynamic as discussed by Said’s Orientalism. Cherwitz examines president Lyndon B. Johnson’s rhetorical strategies in justifying the war. He begins with an overview of the accounts of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and concludes that the incident was “used as a dramatic pretext for the implementation of earlier designed policies of the Johnson Administration”(p.96). Cherwitz first identifies that the Tonkin Gulf incident was the opportunity that Johnson needed to justify his military plan in Vietnam. Cherwitz’s overall analysis of rhetorical theory is the guiding element of his study in that he looks at Johnson’s rhetorical strategies and how he was able to justify the Vietnam War through those strategies. Through these rhetorical strategies, Cherwitz proves that situations are not intrinsically meaningful, but that rhetorical tactics create a situation. In this case, language was used to create an international crisis- the Tonkin Gulf incident- that was used as a justification for US involvement in Vietnam. Cherwitz’s use of rhetorical theory has allowed me to question the War on Terror and how language- Orientalist ‘us vs. them‘ language- may have been used to justify the war.
Along with rhetorical theory used by Cherwitz, “Shaping Memory of the Past: Discourse in Travel Guidebooks for Vietnam” by Scott Laderman uses the theory of collective memory throughout his article. Laderman analyzes how major Western travel guidebooks use historical narrative to portray the Vietnam War. He sites Kamman (1997) in defining collective historical memory as “the publicly presented past in speeches and sermons, editorials and school textbooks…(p.xii),” and Laderman further stresses that these historical narratives greatly determine how the past is “remembered” (Laderman, p. 89). If the formation of collective memory can be found in travel guidebooks, as discovered by Laderman, than the potential for a contemporary collective memory of who the “Other” represents may have also been shaped through rhetorical strategies. Laderman’s study therefore informs my question of how ‘Orientalist’ logics in War on Terror discourses have been used to shape collective memory and justify military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Laderman sought to uncover how travel guidebooks use historical narrative to shape collective memory of the Vietnam War, I also seek to discover if ‘Orientalist’ logics have turned into a “collective memory”.
In order to discern how ‘Orientalist’ logics in War on Terror discourses are used to justify military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, I propose a method of analyzing the rhetorical affects of visual images through a theoretical lens- both esthetically and rhetorically- and how these affects were ascertained. This method is a reproduction of Lisa Skow and George Dionisopoulos’s article, “A Struggle to Contextualize Photographic Images: American Print Media and the ‘Burning Monk.’” Skow and Dionisopoulos analyze the effects the image of Thich Quang Duc, an elderly monk, sitting in a lotus position in the middle of a bustling intersection in Saigon setting himself on fire. The capturing of this self-immolation came to be known as the “Burning Monk” photographs and became such a powerful image that it focused the American public on a region of the world that had gone unnoticed until then, and thus, the photographs became a frame through which many Americans associated events in South Vietnam.
But, despite the inevitable series of conclusions that Americans created in response to these images, Skow and Dionisopoulos aimed to discern how the media provided the ‘correct’ interpretations of the images due to the dialectical struggle of American print media (Skow and Dionisopoulos, p.394). They did this by examining the rhetorical and aesthetic responses to the ”Burning Monk” images found in three newspapers, two religious periodicals, four magazines, and one political paper.
The aesthetic response is typically the “direct perceptual encounter with the sensory aspects of the object,” (Skow & Dionisopooulos, p. 396) or the first impression of an image. The rhetorical response is the processing of the aesthetic impression, which in turn, allows one to attribute meaning to an image or object. This process of contextualizing an image through analysis of first, an aesthetic response, and second, a rhetorical response, may allow for some clarity in ascertaining the dialectical struggle of American media, and in my case, allow me to answer how ‘Orientalist’ logics were used to shape collective memory and justify military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Similar to Skow and Dionisopoulos, I propose that in order to answer my overarching question, there should be an examination of three specific images and the rhetorical and aesthetic responses to them in official and unofficial discourses. The three prominent images from the War on Terror that I have chosen for analysis are: the image of the ‘veiled oppressed Muslim woman,’ images of US soldier Jessica Lynch’s ‘rescue; from Iraqi forces, and photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. These images were highly visible, and similar to the ‘Burning Monk’ photograph, allowed the American public to gain exposure to a part of the world that was given marginal attention. Rather than choosing one image to focus on, I believe that by selecting three, a broader range of discourses can be analyzed for more accuracy.
Next, I suggest that these images be highlighted and evaluated in both official and unofficial discourses. Again in an attempt to create as much accuracy as possible, I believe that in order to evaluate these images fairly, it must be taken into consideration how different groups of people respond to the images. I put forward that discourses from the Bush administration, the media, and a liberal US based feminist group be evaluated. By looking at the responses from these three groups in particular, one will be able to discern what pretexts may be brought into a response to an image, and therefore, gather a better sense on how ‘Orientalist’ logics have been used in the War on Terror.
With the three images selected for evaluation, and the three groups of discourses that will be analyzed, I then believe that, as Skow and Dionisopoulos did, these discourses on the images should be examined for rhetorical and aesthetic responses. Images are unique in that they allow for both responses to occur, and these responses taken separately do not allow for a holistic evaluation of images. By examining the two concurrently, it may be revealed how ‘Orientalist’ logics in ‘War on Terror’ discourses have been used to shape collective memory and justify military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Edward Said’s “Orientalism” was published in 1978, and its concepts are still prevalent today. Said’s concept of the Western “us” vs. Middle-Eastern “them” relationship did not diminish in the decades sense his redefining the term “Orientalism,” but the way that the concept of Orientalism has been depicted through communication venues has emerged as a major variable in War on Terror discourses. By analyzing three significant images of the War on Terror, I believe that the question of how ‘Orientalist’ logics in ‘War on Terror’ discourses are used to shape collective memory and justify military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq can be answered. Cherwitz’s use of rhetorical theory and the idea of language as being constituative inspired my question in that it allowed me to ask about how the War on Terror was justified. Laderman examines how travel guidebooks use historical narrative to shape a collective memory. His discovery allowed me to also question if ‘Orientalist’ logics have shaped today’s collective memory. Skow and Dionisopoulos’s study showed how important visual imagery can be in shaping perceptions of War as well as how different interpretations of images can be from one person to the next. I emulated their method in hopes of gaining the most well-rounded and accurate answer to my question because of the power and popularity that surrounded the three images that I have chosen.
Taking images, gossip, news, and speeches for face value is a widespread reaction that is hard to resist. Communication research can tell us many things about war; that public speeches can shape our perceptions of war, that films can create an ‘ideal’ image of a soldier, or that the way we speak of the past, or the future, can shape our thoughts on a war. In this paper, I propose that visual images are a variable in communication studies that can expose elements of war that are crucial in understanding how, in this case, Orientalist logics in ‘War on Terror’ discourses are used to shape collective memory and justify military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. By perusing this study, I believe that one would find a way to counter ‘Islamafobic’ discourses that have spread like wildfire post 9/11.