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The importance of words in message-making



Words and images are the most powerful weapons in a war of ideas. Used skillfully, they can serve the cause well. Used carelessly, they cause collateral damage and the equivalent of death by friendly fire.


Effective messages require understanding, development and deployment of the proper words – not only as Americans understand them in English, but as the rest of the world understands them in many cultural contexts.


Message-making requires sophisticated understanding of both friend and enemy. It requires confident self-knowledge. It requires instinct about how information works today. Most of all, successful message-making requires personal courage against critics abroad and at home.


Inexpert use of words undermines the mission and inadvertently aids the enemy every bit as much as the careless dropping of bombs or the military indiscipline that made Abu Ghraib a metaphor for America’s presence in Iraq. 

In this white paper:

  • We study how words are used as instruments of conflict and weapons of warfare.

  • We look at how the meanings of words differ among languages and cultures, and often within the same language and culture.

  • We examine how the nation’s adversaries and enemies have used our own understandings of words against us, and how we accepted those hostile definitions as our own.

  • Finally, we discuss how we can take the language back from the enemy and make it work for the wartime and long-term interests of civilized society.

Words as weapons

The human mind is the battlespace of the war of ideas. Words and images create, define and elaborate ideas, and are used to popularize or destroy their appeal. They require relentless repetition. Words are not static objects. The written and spoken word, as George Orwell said, can be used “as an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”


In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell explained the relationship between language and thought: “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” [1]  


Deliberate and unwitting corruption of language and thought applies as much to law, literature, love, marketing and politics as it does to diplomacy and warfare. Men have been using words to fight wars since the beginning of recorded history.  Like iron, words can be forged from plowshares into swords and back again. Thucydides, in his monumental history of the Peloponnesian Wars, noted how the upturning of society during the Corcycrean civil war of 427 B.C. was paralleled by distortion of language on the part of the combatants:

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless