“History is always written by the winners. When two culture’s clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books- books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, what is history but a fable agreed upon?” – Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code
This idea is intriguing when considering the various ways conflict narratives though out history have been influenced and manipulated by language, visual representations, and media. Consider the conflict narrative of the United States decision to invade Iraq after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. We witnessed first hand the use of language, visual representations, and media to heavily influence public opinion to rally around supporting our government’s choice to go to war.
If we think back to the months and even couple of years after the 2001 terror attacks, think about what kind of language was used to draw emotion from the general public. Terrorism. Oppression. Evil. Tyrant. Senseless. Cruel. Jihadist. Extremism. Radical Islamist. Middle East. When we read these words, or hear these words, what comes to mind? What emotions are evoked? Fear, anger? Remorse, vengeance? Language is both metaphorical and cultural. By utilizing words that drawing strong emotions, it appeared politicians and media helped create an epic narrative of good vs. evil.
It was like a romance novel. A tale of the tragic hero, the United States — rallying against the UnGodly forces of evil — Saddam Hussein. We were going to invade the oppressed country of Iraq to free to oppressed people under the tyrannical dictatorship and slay the dragon, bringing democracy, freedom, and justice. The moment this narrative began we began to see the various silences come to play in its four critical moments. The United States was attacked by terrorists. The terrorists were radical Islamic extremists hell bent on causing fear, threatening our freedom, and attempting to rock the foundations of democracy. Radical extremists were identified in the media as members of terrorist group called “Al Qaeda” and supported by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s alliance with the terrorist cell as well as his inhumane treatment of the Iraqi people could not be allowed to exist. The United States must take swift, authoritative actions to rid the world of evil powerful alliances like Saddam and Al Qaeda and promote our founding values: freedom, democracy, and justice. And with that, we invaded the country of Iraq, overthrew Saddam, and restored justice. Or at least that is how the narrative writes it.
Let’s not forget about the equally important visual representations that had a strong influence on the conflict narrative of the Iraqi invasion. After 9/11, and honestly rightfully so every media outlet has thousands of pictures of both survivors and those lost. American flags. People rallying together, praying at candle light vigils. God Bless American was a frequent radio favorite, and songs like “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” were played on repeat. The images and songs promoted unity, pride, perseverance, and love. When the tides began to shift towards talks of war we saw a new regime of images emerge on our TV screens, magazines, and even radio. Coverage of atrocities going on in Iraq began to make headlines news. Support our Troops flags were everywhere. There was constant news coverage of seemingly thousands of new military recruits ready to proudly serve and protect their country. Famous country singer Toby Keith’s infamous song ” Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” practically became our new anthem with lyrics:
“Justice will be served, and the battle will rage, this big dog will fight when you rattle his cage, and you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U S of A, cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”
The great question of visual representations is does it shape or reflect the reality in which we live? According to Sturken, she argues that it shapes rather than reflects. I strongly concur with her position. Influence of language and visual representations heavily influenced the American public in terms of supporting the invasion of Iraq. Utilizing images of both powerful and moderate effect, this constant exposure to highly emotional imagery like Ground Zero, the thousands of flyers of the missing in NYC, Al Qaeda enthusiasts carrying AKs, and patriotic songs heavily shaped public opinion.
Trouillet once said “the ultimate mark of power is its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots”. I would argue that identifying persuasive language and visual representations will expose the puppeteers of power.
Trouillot, M. 1995. Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Zengotita, T. D. 2005. Mediated: How the media shapes your world and the way you live in it. New York: Bloomsbury.
Sturken, M. Visual Representation. MSU: Anthropology 236
Brown, D. 1998 The Da Vinci Code.
Keith, T. 2003 Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)