Is it a War or an Occupation?

Is it a War or an Occupation?


Yesterday, NPR ran a segment that discussed how, in the lead up to this year’s elections, politicians will use language to influence popular opinion on the Iraq War. Interviewed was linguist and sometimes Democratic advisor George Lakoff, the patron saint of spin doctors whose ability to manipulate language is matched only by his inability to understand the average American. So it was interesting to hear his take on the Iraq war.

Except, according the Lakoff, it’s not a war. It’s an occupation. This, he believes, is not linguistic trickery but raw fact and has been imploring Democrats to use the word as often as possible so that all of America will understand the true nature of what we’re doing in Iraq.

But even if our involvement in Iraq isn’t a war in the traditional nation-state versus nation-state definition, is occupation the right word? Or is “occupation� just Lakoff’s attempt to manipulate the American people into believing the task is complete and the stakes of retreat are low. After all, an occupation implies we have won and our continued presence is just a matter of choice, rather than a moral and strategic necessity.

I don’t buy that Iraq is an occupation. It’s still a war, albeit a new variety of war�a more complex war where surrender and victory will not happen in a general’s tent or on a warship’s deck. But it is very much a war in the sense that the enemies we fight will not stop their attempts to kill us or our allies (the Iraqi people in particular) just because our troops leave.

Japan and Germany after World War II were occupations. Iraq is something quite different. So while Lakoff claims the word will open the eyes of the American people to the truth, it really only clouds the debate more. In the same way some Republicans use “cut-and-run� to silence even reasonable criticism of our strategies, Lakoff wants Democrats to use “occupation� to silence even reasonable arguments that the conflict is no longer one of choice but one of necessity.

The conflict in Iraq and the greater radical Islamist threat will not be solved through clever words choices. No matter how much someone repeats them.

  • Justin Gardner

    I have little use for Lakoff or his “framing” talk.

    In fact, recently he’s suggested that Democrats don’t call Bush incompetent because that doesn’t put enough blame on conservatism. Dems should instead by attacking conservatism as the cause of our problems. Well, that’s intellectually dishonest, and I think Lakoff knows it. Prominent conservatives have spoken out against Bush and have even written full books about how he’s discarding basic conservative principles.

  • Vicky

    I think “occupation” is an appropriate descriptive word for the situation; using the presence of our troops in Japan and Germany after WWII as the only examples of “occupation” is a little narrow. Consider the occupation of Palestine by the Roman Empire and you will see a number of similarities.


  • Alan Stewart Carl

    Rome had no interest in leaving any of their conquered lands. They were an empire and they governed over their holdings allowing very little local rule.

    America does not govern Iraq (although we clearly have influence). And even the most staunch defenders of our Iraq policy agree our goal is to get out. I don’t think comparing the current situation to what transpired under the Roman Empire is accurate.

    But my point isn’t to debate the specific definition of “occupation.” Instead I’m just looking at the way Lakoff wants to use that word to manipulate people’s perceptions.

  • Chris

    I wasn’t aware that the definition of “occupation” required that the occupier plans to never leave the occupied territory. And I must disagree that it’s clear that everyone’s plan is for us to leave. Bush has already stated that he expects his successor to deal with the issue, we’re building military bases there, and Iraqi oil will have a great deal of strategic importance into the near future. There’s a difference between declaring an intent to reduce troop levels, and intending to leave completely.

    I think it’s telling that Iraq supposedly has a duly elected leader, yet our President can drop in on him with no advance notice. Who does it sound like is running the show?

  • Rock

    Alan, thank goodness there are bright people like you who get it. Occupation means you’re going to stay, without permission from the people. When Iraqi’s want us to go, we’ll go.

    We did occupy Japan after WWII. We controlled just about everything. In Iraq, we are there at the pleasure of the government.

    By the way, Bush dropped in for security reasons, not to show who’s the boss.


  • Meredith

    When it comes to our “situation” in Iraq, I don’t appreciate either party trying to coin phrases or terms in order to mainpulate. This is a SERIOUS problem, and what I would like best is for a government that possesses some honesty and integrity, so that we might be more confidant that we are doing the best that we can under the circumstances. I am torn about whether we should still be there, mostly because I don’t really know for sure what is going on. Almost everything I read, I feel I cannot trust, no matter what side it’s coming from because everyone has an agenda. I think all of us want to do the right thing, but reasonable minds can differ on what the right thing is. Partisan bickering on this issue only puts us further from the best solution.

  • Big Rex

    During a WH Press Briefing on June 15 2006, Helen Thomas asked the following question:

    Q Would you like to reaffirm what you said earlier today, that the U.S. wants no permanent bases in Iraq?

    MR. SNOW: Well, I think — let me — because — can you define what a permanent base is?

    Now last time I checked, the term “permanent” was self-explanatory and needed little in the way of parsing. Or is this the Bush Admins version of “is”?

    Now having said that, and following the tact that Mr Snow tried to employ the definition of a military occupation is as follows:

    “A military occupation occurs when one nation’s military garrisons a foreign nation; this often occurs after a war. ”

    So for all those that don’t believe that this is an occupation, please provide us with a definition that truly quantifies what it is we are doing in Iraq?

  • john

    On the point Rex. Occupation at the liberty of a government that we control. When ever the administration does not feel that something is going right or on their time schedule or for what would be politically necessary in the US, the administrations sends someone over there to “help” the Iraqi’s out. This can be seen with the Iraqi’s recent comments and back peddling on statements regarding amnesty to insurgents who killed americans. Guests to a country for security reasons do not dictate to their host. We are not there at their inivitation, and we are certianly not that there at their pleasure. I’m sure the Russians in Afghanistan thought they were there for the good of the Afghan people as well.

  • Chris

    It is unfortunate that both parties feel the need to manipulate the public by using words – instead of actions – to try to score their points. My concern at this time is that in order to make any real changes to the course we’re on (in Iraq, and many other issues), we need a different Congress. And, if the republicans are going to use words (since their actions the past 4 or 5 years have given them little to run on) to try to take this election, I feel the dems need to counter those words to some extent. “Occupation” is (somewhat) accurate… and provides the public with a different view of Iraq than what they have been shown to date. As Rex notes, if the republicans don’t like the term, tell us what we really are doing in Iraq.