Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Militarization of the American Language

Once was a time when we used to joke that military justice is to justice as military music is to music. You musicians get the point. Trouble is, military justice is no longer a joking matter. And we have moved a pace in other regards. Now we must add: military language is to language as…well…Orwellian “newspeak” is to reality. And unfortunately for those in the “reality-based community,” military newspeak has replaced standard American English as the lingua franca of the United States thanks to the spinmeisters in the White House and a pusillanimous press corps eager to lap up whatever Karl Rove, Tony Snow, and Ken Mehlman feed them.

What is military newspeak? It is a mumbling, numbing speech by an Al Haig or a George W. Bush. More subtly, it is a TV ad by Boeing – soft music and soothing voices over images of bombers gliding noiselessly through the clouds. Their mission? To defend our freedoms. How? We don’t need to ask. We know. They will soon be dropping bunker busters on un-shown apartment blocks, producing…well…“collateral damage” – all off screen of course. Military newspeak is, in short, a mélange of obfuscating euphemisms designed to hide the truth, desensitize our sense of morality, and re-image reality. Like that Boeing ad, it can manifest itself in non-verbal, sometimes subliminal, forms such as that little American flag that keeps flapping in the upper left hand corner of the Fox News screen or the steady drum beat (literally) that opens each CNN newscast, virtually shouting “War, War, War! Terror, Terror, Terror! Fear! Fear! Fear!” It’s all designed to jangle your nerves, disorient you, instill fear…and conflate fear with patriotism.

One danger of military newspeak is that it conditions the mental muscles in much the same way that video games do – to react instinctively, violently to perceived threats. Enemies are not to be understood or reasoned with. They are to be bombed – killed – as quickly as possible. No questions, no regrets. The worst danger of all, however, is how it creates obstacles to clear thinking. For clear thinking – critical thinking – is necessary to a well-functioning democracy. And, in the current circumstance, our democracy is crumbling under the weight of military newspeak just as surely as Lebanese democracy has been battered by American-made bombs. Our capacity to resist has been dangerously eroded by the rapidity and thoroughness with which the militarization of the American language has proceeded and there is no Edward R. Morrow or Walter Cronkite out there to shout “Wake up, America! Before, it’s too late, wake up!”

None of this is to say that, to one degree or another, we haven’t experienced such things in the past. Remember that Strangelovian Cold War doctrine Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD? Funny thing, it was so mad, it was sane, allowing us to traverse a nearly half-century long nuclear standoff. Closest we came to losing it was Cuba 1962, when we called a blockade – an act of war - a quarantine and, doing so, averted war. Then there was Vietnam where we used to throw about terms like “vertical envelopment,” “pacification,” and “free fire zone,” the latter being an enemy-controlled area where anything was a “legitimate” target. You could kill anything that moved – a water buffalo, the farmer directing a plow behind it, or a child playing in the nearby village. It was a misuse of language that clouded our thinking and numbed our morals to the point of producing a My Lai…and countless other My Lai’s from the air.

In the current circumstance, however, the abuse of the American language has reached pandemic proportions. If we are to resist, we must recover some sense of what’s happening. Let me give just a few examples to encourage you to look more closely at – and behind – the now steady diet of obfuscating euphemisms we are being fed. It’s called the hermeneutic of suspicion.

Where to start? How about a simple word like “war?” We used to know in our bones what that meant. You know opposing armies – in uniform, carrying flags, representing countries, taking territory, attacks and retreats marked by shifting lines on a map. To be sure, there were always fuzzy exceptions to the rule. There were, for example, civil wars, brother fighting brother to be king of the hill within a country. And there were always guerrilla wars – literally little or demi-wars – in which oppressed local inhabitants – often lacking uniforms – fought more powerful outside armies. In many ways, the American Revolution was a guerrilla war. Much later, after a conventional war with Spain, we became the powerful outside army pitted against Filipino guerrillas fighting for their independence. And, throughout the Cold War, there were any number of limited wars – as opposed to total, hot, or world war – and, lest we forget, a “police action” in Korea.

In many ways, the Cold War over-lapped and merged with the anti-colonial wars of the fifties and sixties – usually against our British and French allies. Vietnam was one such war. There were others – in China, Malaya, Algeria, Kenya, the Philippines, Indonesia, Angola, the Congo, to name a few. As a class, they became known as wars of national liberation. The Cold War being what it was, we normally sided with our colonial allies in seeking to thwart these local struggles for self-determination, while the Soviets usually provided support to the home-grown “freedom fighters.”

Lacking the resources of the occupying colonial armies, many of the “freedom fighters” adopted terror – the “poor man’s bomb” - as a weapon and a tactic in increasingly unconventional, always “asymmetrical” wars. Thus, in the eyes of the “civilized world” – i.e., the colonial metropoles of Europe – “freedom fighters” became “terrorists.” But, as we saw in Algeria and Central America, the colonial armies learned well how to be terrorists themselves – witness, the “Contras” in both Nicaragua and Algeria and the death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador. And it was in Algeria that the French elevated the use of terror and torture to an art form, transforming their vaunted “civilizing mission” into a grotesque caricature. In this regard, I highly recommend General Paul Aussaresses’ memoir, The Battle of the Casbah. And, too bad our leaders watched “Patton” rather than Pontecorvo’s masterful “Battle of Algers” before invading Iraq. Had they learned their French lessons, they might have learned how much such warfare can corrupt the would-be overlords…and we would not have to learn how to pronounce such words as Abu Ghraib and Haditha.

So what is the nature of this new “asymmetrical war” we’re involved in. No, I don’t mean Iraq, which began as a conventional limited war and has now deteriorated into an equally conventional guerrilla or civil war. No, Iraq is an unfortunate sideshow to what the President and his Secretary of Defense (Hard to believe Rumsfeld’s still there!) insist is a “Global War on Terrorism” or GWOT. Oh, it’s real enough. Too many people have died already. But, in the minds and mouths of our leaders, it takes on an other-worldly air of fantasy. As we try to wrap our minds around the concept, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of newspeak, on shifting ground, increasingly unsure of what is real and what is unreal, our fear approaching panic. And our leaders are no help, as they rush to feed the fantasy and the fear.

How is it a war? Where is “terrorism?” What is its capital? How is it “global?” Have disparate, unrelated grievances merged into what the Newt Gingrich’s of the world see as “World War Three,” into a cataclysmic “clash of civilizations,” or into some millennialist Armageddon. To be sure, there are some on the religious right who pray for Armageddon and are cheered by each new manifestation of death and destruction. Others, on the secular right, have their own Bible - Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.

Huntington’s is a truly dangerous book, a sort of Mein Kampf for the GWOT. Written in the mid-nineties, when the military-industrial complex was searching for a new “enemy” to replace the collapsed Soviet Union, it depicts the by-definition culturally superior West in a “civilizational war” with Islam and, to a lesser degree, China. All is black and white, life and death, kill or be killed…good and evil. No need for nuance. No need for understanding beyond “they” are bad, we are good. Simple minds latched on to such simplicity as an explanation for all the bad happenings in the world, missing even Huntington’s recognition of the causative tension between modernization and fundamentalism.

In the hands of our leaders, Huntington’s thesis was fashioned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the wake of September 11 – the work of a fanatic spawned by the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia – we faced, we were told, an “axis of evil” comprised of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, none of whom (save perhaps Iran) had anything to with the attack on the World Trade Center. A nice pre-election catch phrase, it bore, however, no relationship to the real nature of the threat we faced from the Middle East. Arabs – and Iranians – don’t “hate our freedom” or our “way of life” (save perhaps the coarseness of our materialism). They hate a century of deception, colonialism, occupation, exploitation, and humiliation visited upon them by the West.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, we properly attacked Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda (which had attacked the World Trade Center and other American targets around the world such as the USS Cole and the American Embassy in Nairobi) and to take down the Taliban who harbored al Qaeda. An irony – lost on the American public – was that the Taliban had - a bare two decades ago - comprised the mujaheddin or “freedom fighters” that we had armed and trained to resist the Soviet invaders of the time. Fighting us, they became terrorists.

Unfortunately, we quickly lost interest in Afghanistan, never deploying enough boots on the ground, allowing Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership to slip through our fingers at Tora Bora, and allowing the Taliban to reconstitute itself as a credible fighting force in what has become a forgotten war and a side show in the GWOT. Equally unfortunately, the deaths of American soldiers there continue – four last week, three the week before…forgotten – worse yet – never noticed – except by their families.

For still unfathomable reasons, our Commander-in-Chief and self-styled Decider (formerly known as the President), who, he allows, doesn’t think much about Osama bin Laden, decided it was time to move on. It was time for a “war of choice.” So he decided to invade Iraq. We opened this pre-emptive war (formerly known - in places like Nuremberg - as aggressive war) with an aerial campaign of “shock and awe.” Despite our best use of smart bombs, this surgical strike produced extensive collateral damage in the form of thousands of civilian dead in a burning city. Stuff happens!

Within two months, however, the Commander-in-Chief could declare the “end of major fighting.” Mission Accomplished! And, over the next three years, we succeeded in transforming Iraq into the Central Front in the Global War on Terror - another singular accomplishment requiring the recruitment and importation of thousands of foreign fighters to bolster the Saddamist dead-enders who have been in the last throes for the last year or so…ever since the Decider issued his “Bring ‘em on!” challenge and pinned those Medals of Freedom on the architects of success – George Tenant, Tommy Franks, and Jerry Bremer. For nearly that same time we have been “on the verge of civil war.” Freedom is on the march! The progress is palapable. Only last month, for example, we posted a new monthly record for Iraqi civilian dead – 3,438! And the total of young American soldiers killed in Iraq now approaches the number of deaths on September 11. All we need do now is stay the course. Now, there’s a winning strategy!

So steady has been our progress into sectarian violence (aka civil war) that, by early summer, a clear majority of Americans had lost interest in the project, many entertaining “cut and run” as an antidote to their boredom. We no longer wanted to hear about IEDs and car bombs and even the diversions of Paris Hilton, Baby Suri, airborne pedophiles, and assorted serial killers proved to be insufficient distractions. Even such Republican patriots as William Buckley, George Will, Pat Buchanan, Chuck Hagel, John Warner, and John McCain started to yearn for something more than “stay the course.” And, despite the stalwart “Democrat Party” support from Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, and others, the need to change the subject became clear to Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman and, through them, the Commander-in-Chief.

Enter a welcome Deus ex Machina in the form of Hamas, Hezbollah, and a neophyte government in Israel intent on proving its collective manhood. Down in Gaza, some Hamas hotheads took hostage a hapless Israeli soldier, while up north Hezbollah kidnapped two other members of the Israeli Defense Force or IDF and started lobbing World War II-era Katyusha rockets into the Galillee. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was still in the midst of his on-the-job training, were faced with several choices: launch commando raids to rescue the captured soldiers, negotiate for their release (as had been done on several occasions in the past), unleash some limited proportionate response such as destroying the offending rocket launchers…or do what they had apparently been itching to do for some time (even, according to Sy Hersh, going so far as to tout their plans at the Pentagon) – impress the world, especially the Arab/Muslim world with the crushing power of “asymmetrical deterrence,” the Israeli version of shock and awe. A strategy designed by Ariel Sharon, asymmetrical deterrence demands a wildly disproportionate response to impress upon an aggressor and future aggressors the ability of the IDF to inflict unacceptable pain at will. As the Israeli Defense Minister put it, he would insure that the Lebanese “will remember the name of Amir Peretz.”

Despite the fact that such disproportionate response is generally viewed as immoral and illegal (cf. Just War theory and the rules of war), the temptation proved too great. Thus, with not only another green light but active support from Washington, the Israeli Air Force was unleashed by IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Halutz on the whole of Lebanon and a hapless Gaza. In Lebanon, within days, whole neighborhoods and towns were turned into rubble, the country’s infrastructure destroyed, more than a thousand civilians killed, and the “Cedar Revolution” left reeling – the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” In Gaza, the entire population was thrown into darkness in the middle of the sweltering summer with the destruction of the main, American-financed power plant and some twenty members of the democratically-elected Palestinian government were arrested to join the 10,000 or so other Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners already in Israeli jails. (Allow me here an aside on the power of words as illustrated by treatment of these captives in the American media. Good guys are “kidnapped” or “taken hostage.” Bad guys are “captured” or “arrested.”)

As the destruction proceeded, the American left went mute, the media, by and large, became cheerleaders for the IDF, and neo-cons like Bill Kristol declared this “our war.” And George W. Bush made it “our war” by air-lifting to Israel re-supplies of bunker busters and the cluster bombs, thousands of which remain scattered around southern Lebanon in what a UN mine removal expert called “an angry and very volatile state. More importantly, he ordered Secretary of State Condi Rice and our interim-appointment UN Ambassador John Bolton to thwart efforts to secure a cease-fire…even a humanitarian 48-hour cease fire to remove refugees and provide medical assistance. The Decider had decided that it was the role of the United States to provide Israel time to “finish the job,” to destroy Hezbollah once and for all.

This time, however, the IDF was not up to the job. In the twenty-four years since its last real war, an ill-trained, poorly equipped, ineptly led IDF – seventy percent of which is composed of reservists – was not up to the job. Occupation duty does not translate easily into combat competence. This came as a surprise to the Israelis and to us. Even now, we are scrambling to cobble together a face-saving cease-fire and wondering aloud who “won” – Hezbollah? Iran? Syria?

More important questions are “Who lost?” and “What did we lose?” The Lebanese lost – not only in their deaths, but in the destruction of their infrastructure and the damage to their “Cedar Revolution.” The Israelis lost – not only in their deaths, but also in the damage done to the IDF’s aura of invincibility. Above the United States has lost. We have lost our preciously guarded role as an “honest broker,” leaving the “peace process” and the “road map” in shambles. We have deepened the hatred – throughout the Middle East – of the United States and increased the numbers of young men willing to act on that hatred. And, by allowing the strengthening of Hezbollah, Syria, and, above all, Iran, we have weakened our ability to defend our interests in the area and to prosecute our vaunted Global War on Terror.

Five years after September 11 – five years full of babble about “Homeland” Security, yellow and orange shades of fear, and the “ideology of terror” – we are far less secure than we were then. Our military is hollowed out, demoralized, just plain broken. It is no longer capable pursuing our most basic – and most worthy – interests much less the grandiose dreams spun of the White House’s overblown rhetoric. And no amount of words – newspeak or otherwise – is going to change that reality.

Words, however, retain meaning, because they reveal a culture’s understanding of the world, attitudes toward it, and sometimes serve as predicates to action. For these reasons we should study how others use them. And we should be far more careful about how we use words, for they are being studied by those “others.” And subtly and over time they work their effect on us. They can incite, in their heat, unwise actions or, in their subversive softening where clarity is needed, can benumb us and weaken our resistance to the same unwise actions.

Take a word like torture that must – for the sake of our souls - remain clear in its meaning. It finds meaning not so much in the eye of the beholder – eyes do not easily lie – as in the mind of the beholder, for the mind always entertains the possibility of rationalization. John McCain knows what torture means. Unfortunately, Alfonso Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld do not, or will not. They stretch the limits of grammatical parsing, declare “quaint” settled standards of morality, and allow the President to append an unworthy signing statement to his signature on the tough anti-torture legislation sponsored by Senator McCain. No wonder we’ve become inured to Rush Limbaugh’s and Bill O’Reilly’s high school humor about “Club Gitmo.” No wonder we fail to protest when General Geoffrey Miller – Miller of Guantanomo and Abu Ghraib - retires “honorably” with a Meritorious Service Medal on his chest.

And take our easy acceptance as “robust” such phrases as regime change and pre-emptive war – un-American phrases that have found their way into the pages of the National Strategy Strategy of the United States of America. Take also the President’s embrace of so offensive a term as Islamo-Fascist, a term popularized by a hate-mongering talk show host and softened only to Islamist-Fascist in the President’s mouth. Does he know how that sounds in the Middle East? Does he care? I doubt it. For in the closed mind of our Decider, there is no need to understand or talk with our growing number of real and potential enemies in the Middle East. Iran? Syria? No need to talk with them. “They know what they have to do.” We’ve told them.

And, if they don’t do what we’ve told them? In our militarized lexicon, they’ll “suffer the consequences.” We’ll bomb them. We’ll kill them. We know how to do that. That’s all we know any more. Trouble is, we can no longer follow through on our threats. It’s time to stow the “newspeak” and to start speaking truth to our friends, our enemies, and, above all, to ourselves.