Book Review: Writing the War on Terrorism, Richard Jackson

Book Review: Writing the War on Terrorism. Richard Jackson. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, March 2005. 240 pp. £15.99

Richard Jackson’s Writing the War on Terrorism is a useful study into American political discourse surrounding terrorism and counter-terrorism but ultimately self-defeating in simply trying to argue against the dominant narrative with its own idea of the truth, and ineffective in its proposed alternatives. In mapping the power relations between the dominant and non-dominant discourses, Jackson argues that “the ‘war on terrorism’ is now the dominant political narrative in America,” and is thus “highly successful” in both generating consent for U.S. military campaigns and normalizing militaristic counter-terrorism practices (pp. 2). However, Jackson’s critique of the “war on terrorism” fails to address the underlying power structure he himself cites, and which marginalizes alternative discourses. Furthermore, Jackson’s broader thesis—that such a discourse was not inevitable, but rather strategically deployed—and corresponding alternatives do not necessarily imply greater protection for human rights.

Jackson solves two important puzzles for post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy debate. First, he identifies the specific language of the “war on terrorism.” The “war on terrorism,” according to Jackson, consists of a multi-layered discourse which constructs the attacks on 9/11 as an act of war which victimized America; the “enemy” terrorists as an intrinsically inferior, barbarian “other;” the threat of attack as all-encompassing across time and space; and military aggression as a “just war” (pp. 31, 61, 96, 122). Jackson suggests these attacks were deliberate—although sometimes hyperbolic—constructed elements of the discourse, aimed to generate an artificial political consensus for both domestic policies, like the PATRIOT Act, and military operations abroad, such as the Iraq Invasion (pp. 181). He further suggests these linguistic instances are part of “a dialectical relationship between” language and policy, which thus explains the explicit and implicit worldviews embedded in U.S. policymaking (pp. 24). In fact, labelling the debate itself as pertaining to terrorism, not “a long-running cycle of violence and counter-violence between the American government and al Qaeda” decontextualizes the 9/11 attacks in favor of a political narrative that enables the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (pp. 43). The utility in Jackson’s work here lies in its locating U.S. political discourse. In other words, citizens understandably want to know and understand their national leaders’ positions. Therefore, Jackson usefully holds contemporary U.S. policymakers accountable for the conscious and unconscious, explicit and implicit meanings they fix to the 9/11 attacks, terror actors, the threat of terror, and military warfare through their use of language.

The second achievement in Jackson’s work lies in his mapping the relations between discourses, therefore explaining the characteristics of the “war on terrorism,” as well as its dominance over alternative foreign policy discourses. To that end, Jackson relates the dominant discourse—“the war on terrorism”—to alternative discourses, “such as pacifist, human rights based, feminist, environmentalist, or anti-globalization discourses,” of which he provides several examples (pp. 19). For example, Jackson argues that, whereas the war on terrorism created “a myth of exceptional grievance,” an alternative discourse could have “emphasized solidarity with victims of violence in other countries” (pp. 37-38). However, to the extent that “the public debate uses mainly the language, terms, ideas, and ‘knowledge’” of the war on terrorism, it dominates the proposed alternative solidarist discourse (pp. 19). If citizens deserve to know what their national leaders believe, then they also deserve to know how much weight those beliefs hold in the current U.S. political discourse. Clearly, because the language a discourse (re)produces leads to specific policy outcomes, identifying the elements of the discourse of the “war on terrorism” and its relation to other discourses indeed represents a useful achievement in Jackson’s work.

However useful Jackson’s mapping of the discursive landscape may be, though, his central critique of the dominant discourse and his proposed alternatives ultimately fail to interrogate the underlying power structure of U.S. policy discourse itself. He further fails to propose clearly effectual alternative discourses that could potentially lead to less emphasis on security, that problematically curtails civil liberties and problematically constructs those responsible for the 9/11 attacks as irrational, hateful, and fundamentally opposed to “our way of life.” Jackson critiques the “war on terrorism” in suggesting that U.S. policymakers deliberately exploited the fear caused by the attacks on 9/11 to represent terrorists as irrational, hateful savages, and the U.S. as alternatively victimized and justified in violating human rights both domestically and abroad (pp. 181). But this relates only to the “war on terrorism” discourse itself, not the system of unequal power relations that oppresses and marginalizes alternative discourses. Jackson proposes a clear “normative commitment to positive social change” in his book, as did Bush and other top leaders in proposing to protect “our way of life” from a perceived terrorist threat (pp. 25, 47). The Bush Administration might have had dubious intentions, but then Jackson’s intentions seem similarly untrustworthy, given the lack of credible external sources to validate them. After all, his alternatives explicitly seek to supplant “the war on terrorism” as the hegemonic discourse without seeking to eradicate or fundamentally alter the discursive power structure that allows hegemonic discourses to marginalize subaltern discourses in the first place.

Jackson’s proposed alternatives read more as self-defeating writings of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy than ones that could radically alter the U.S. political landscape. This is further evidenced by the ineffectiveness of Jackson’s alternatives in protecting human rights. For example, Jackson proposes constructing the 9/11 attacks as criminal acts, not acts of war (pp. 40). However, to the extent that, for example, the War on Drugs and the systematic police brutality against black Americans rely exclusively on discursive constructions of criminality, Jackson’s alternative does not necessarily imply greater protection for human rights in their resultant policies. Jackson’s claim that the “war on terrorism” was not inevitable, moreover, ignores the specific institutional contexts and modalities through which the discourse was constructed (pp. 107). For instance, the near religious-like zeal with which Republican policymakers vindicated the U.S. defense budget for years before the attacks likely played a role in the intentional framing of the 9/11 attacks as an act of war, yet the alternatives Jackson suggests downplay the ways in which these institutional thought processes manifest themselves in discourse by claiming that such discourses were not inevitable (pp. 38). Essentially, in both his critique of the dominant discourse and his alternatives, Jackson contradicts its own premise that dominant discourses result in negative outcomes by marginalizing subaltern discourses.

On the one hand, Jackson’s work locates the dominant discourse’s place within U.S. political climate and its relations to other discourses. This serves an important and useful explanatory function in holding national leaders responsible and informing the public on their positions. On the other hand, however, Jackson ultimately defeats his work’s central tenet, as his alternatives seek to supplant the “war on terrorism” as the hegemonic discourse without addressing the underlying structure of discursive power relations itself.


Jackson, Richard. 2005. Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics, and Counter-Terrorism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


About Bill Kakenmaster

Contributing Editor, Human Rights, Peace, and Conflict Resolution. | Editor-in-Chief, Clocks and Clouds. | Student, pacifist, and researcher. Email: Twitter: @billkakenmaster