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The Wars in the Closet, or Ghosts of Wars Present and Yet to Come

March 25, 2011

Now that the U.S. is involved in a conflict in Libya, the other wars going on in the region are seemingly on the forefront of everyone’s mind. As Hilary pointed out on Wednesday, comparisons to Iraq are coming from people of all political stripes, and President Obama missed a few chances to emphasize what’s different about this go-round and put some fears to rest. But even if he had pleaded his case on bended knee, comparisons to Iraq and Afghanistan would be really hard not to make.

In part because the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan still seem to be on the mind of everyone who talks about this—including administration spokespeople—even when they don’t directly mention our little collection of wars in the vicinity. Consider these two quotes taken from a recent New York Times article:


“From the start President Obama has stated that the role of the U.S. military would be limited in time and scope.”—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

“We didn’t want to get sucked into an operation with uncertainty at the end”—an unnamed senior administration official

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that every single one of these people is thinking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly about how they’ve, um, gone on a bit longer than expected. But notice how neither of them mentions Iraq or Afghanistan. Also, the context of these quotes is in a discussion about conflicting views among the international community about how the current military action in Libya should proceed—again, nothing to do with Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, it seems like comparisons to our other wars in the region are deliberately being made—in no small part because of what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clinton and the official are trying to assure us that the current administration is wary of repeating the last administration’s mistakes, but it still seems to remind us that even the current administration sees itself as at risk of doing exactly that.

So why is it that Iraq and Afghanistan almost can’t help but be the elephant in the room here? At least in part, it’s because when people say things, they say things in particular contexts, and at particular times where a lot of other things have been said. Some of these other things that were said previously can’t help but be called to mind if things about that context make them seem relevant. In this situation, we’ve got a lot of contextual similarities just begging to be noticed: the geographic region, the stated goal of fighting tyranny and saving the world for democracy, and outspoken opposition from parts of the global community. On top of that, similar words are being used. I mean, read that quote from the unnamed official again. It sounds so familiar because it could be straight out of 2002; he stops just short of saying, “We didn’t want a quagmire on our hands.”

Language like this is obviously risky business—as I said, even though it looks like they’re being pretty careful to not mention Iraq and Afghanistan, they could be more careful about using language that calls to mind our ongoing conflicts there anyway. But, given the nature of the situation and the nature of language, that might be all but impossible.

If you want to know more:

  • What I mean by “the nature of language,” as well as what I said in my next to last paragraph about contextual similarities, is that language is intertextual and contextually situated. At the risk of gross oversimplification, intertextuality means that texts (or samples of language) are necessarily interpreted through the influence of other bits of language, and that therefore their meaning is in part shaped and informed by prior discourse. You can read about intertextuality in the work of scholars like Julia Kristeva, Norman Fairclough, and Charles Briggs, to name but a few of the many scholars who have used this concept in fascinating ways.
  • Although in the article these quotes are divorced from their own context, it’s possible that the speakers are deliberately not mentioning Iraq and Afghanistan in an attempt to avoid, as George Lakoff would say, using their opponents’ frames. Doug has an in-depth discussion of what I’m talking about here. Obviously, if it’s the case that they’re trying to avoid making us think too much about Iraq and Afghanistan, their attempts have backfired a bit—probably due to the overwhelming similarities in contexts.

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