The Drum (ABC online)

By Will Turner  

George Orwell's ability to speak clearly about the interaction of politics, violence and war earned him the reputation as one of the finest writers of the 20th century. What wisdom might he offer us as we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks?

In a sense history was repeating when the hijacked airliners crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in Al Qaeda's version of the grand aerial experiment. On a clear day in April of 1937 a squadron of German planes torpedoed Guernica, a town of 10,000 people in northern Spain without warning. Using the ferocious new weapon of incendiary bombs, 3,000 were killed and the entire locality demolished.

News of the air-raid sent political tremors around the world. It was an event of particular significance to George Orwell who at the time was in Catalonia, Eastern Spain. Along with thousands of other internationals he had travelled there to defend the Spanish Republic in its civil war against a military insurgency led by the fascist General Francisco Franco. Guernica revealed the nasty secret of Franco's alliance with Hitler, and provided the first clear evidence to the world that Nazi Germany was not the benign force it made itself out to be.

Writing about the Guernica attack, Orwell said: "The horror we feel of these things has led to this conclusion: if someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother. The only apparent alternatives are to smash dwelling houses to powder, blow out human entrails and burn holes in children with lumps of thermite, or to be enslaved by people who are more ready to do these things than you are yourself; as yet no-one has suggested a practicable way out."

He was not in any respect exaggerating.

Thermite was the active ingredient in the incendiary bombs, which literally consumed dwelling houses and their occupants. More importantly, Orwell was announcing a new dilemma facing the West: was there any other option than to respond in kind to this type of warfare? Orwell could not think of one, hence the "horror" he refers to when contemplating what the Guernica attack meant for the future. His statement also foretold with haunting accuracy the use of nuclear weapons to end the Second World War.

On September 11, 2001 – just like in 1937 – the enemies of democracy were communicating a very clear message: civilians are part of our game, are they going to be a part of yours too?

Hiroshima was the West's answer in 1945 but it didn't end there. Orwell's Animal Farm may have been a parody about the Soviets and Stalinism, but its central dictum that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" could be appropriated to the Cold War era where America was willing to compromise American values in the name of national security. Whether it be manufacturing phony wars in Indochina, installing US-friendly dictators in Latin America or propping up corrupt regimes in the Middle East, foreign civilians have long been considered expendable from the air-conditioned offices of Washington during times of real or imagined American crises.

The post-9/11 period was no different.

The Bush administration entered two Middle Eastern wars with next to no regard for how the conflicts would affect civilians. It seems all men are created equal, but some are more equal than others. The manner in which the Bush administration used language in its War On Terror also fits with Orwell's assessment in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946) where he notes that political speech and writing had become "the defence of the indefensible".

He put it this way: "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink".

Donald Rumsfeld seems to have been following the cuttlefish script when he told a press conference during the Iraq War that "there are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

Orwell's examples of double-speak are a near fit with Rumsfeld and Co. For instance, Orwell writes "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". Want to torture prisoners of war? Call it "enhanced interrogation techniques" and do it some place other than on American soil. What about the Geneva Convention? Answer: it doesn't apply to "enemy combatants".

Switching justifications was another Animal Farm technique the Bush administration used well. The best example is also the most obvious: the rationale for invading Iraq. First it was about WMDs, then imorphed into "at the end of the day the world is a better place with Saddam gone", as if that made it a just war. A second example is the abovementioned treatment of Muslim prisoners. Once the idea of holding someone indefinitely without charge or representation became commonplace (along with torture at places such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay), the explanation for dodging international law centred over the character of those being detained. This excuse played well against the highly emotive backdrop of the 9/11 attacks and the implied linkage with the captured detainees.

Still, if he were alive today Orwell might hold some hope for American foreign policy in the 21st century even though the debacle of Iraq and setbacks in Afghanistan got it off to a shaky start. Barack Obama has indicated American actions abroad need to align themselves with the values America claims as its great strength. Obama's approach to the Middle East is categorically different to the Bush administration's pre-emptive and aggressive unilateralism. To be fair, the killing of Osama Bin Laden does call into question how serious Obama is about the ethics guiding his approach to the War On Terror, but he probably deserves the benefit of our doubts for the time being.

Probably the most important indication of Obama's moral stance on matters of war has been him sending the first ever US representative in August 2010 to the Hiroshima memorial on the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb there. Britain and France did likewise. This gesture, subtle and done without fanfare might be one of the most important political statements of our time. And in a fashion even the brilliantly cynical Orwell might have approved, the president communicated it without having to say anything at all.

Will Turner works in video and online media at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.