14 March 2008

"Euphemism & American Violence"

I have written here repeatedly about the need to call things by their proper names; for example we need to call our hirelings at Blackwater and such firms mercenaries [1], we need to call "harsh interrogation techniques" torture [2], and so forth. And I have been especially concerned that we try to keep an eye on the consequences of hiring mercenaries and engaging in torture and so forth - such practices are ineffectual in achieving their stated aims and extremely good at generating long-term, largely foreseeable negative consequences.

This week the NYRB includes a very insightful article by David Bromwich on the ways our language has been debased by those prosecuting our current military and foreign policy fiasco. Here are some of the especially good bits:
"Before launching their response to Islamic jihadists in September 2001, members of the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney gave close consideration to the naming of that response. [. . .] The name must admit the tremendousness of the task and imply its eventual solubility, but also discourage any close inquiry into the means employed. They wanted to call it a war; but what sort of war? The phrase they agreed on, the global war on terrorism, was at once simple-sounding and elusive, and it has served its purpose as nothing more definite could have done.

The "global war on terrorism" promotes a mood of comprehension in the absence of perceived particulars, and that is a mood in which euphemisms may comfortably take shelter. There is (many commentators have pointed out) something nonsensical in the idea of waging war on a technique or method, and terrorism was a method employed by many groups over many centuries before al-Qaeda—the Tamil Tigers, the IRA, the Irgun, to stick to recent times. But the "war on crime" and "war on drugs" probably helped to render the initial absurdity of the name to some degree normal. This was an incidental weakness, in any case. The assurance and the unspecifying grandiosity of the global war on terrorism were the traits most desired in such a slogan."

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"A far more consequential euphemism, in the conduct of the Iraq war— and a usage adopted without demur until recently, by journalists, lawmakers, and army officers—speaks of mercenary soldiers as contractors or security (the last now a singular-plural like the basketball teams called Magic and Jazz). The Blackwater killings in Baghdad's Nissour Square on September 16, 2007, brought this euphemism, and the extraordinary innovation it hides, suddenly to public view. Yet the armed Blackwater guards who did the shooting, though now less often described as mere "contractors," are referred to as employees—a neutral designation that repels further attention. The point about mercenaries is that you employ them when your army is inadequate to the job assigned. This has been the case from the start in Iraq. But the fact that the mercenaries have been continuously augmented until they now outnumber American troops suggests a truth about the war that falls open to inspection only when we use the accurate word. It was always known to the Office of the Vice President and the Department of Defense that the conventional forces they deployed were smaller than would be required to maintain order in Iraq. That is why they hired the extracurricular forces."
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"This argument was always about two things: the truth of words and the reality of violence. The statements to House and Senate committees, in late January and early February 2008, by Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell oddly converged on the following set of propositions. A method of interrogation known as "waterboarding" would feel like torture if it was done to them (Mukasey and McConnell offered different but parallel versions of the same personal formula, pretty clearly in coordination). The method had been used by American interrogators after September 11, 2001, they said, but it was not in use at present. Whether it constituted torture was a matter under investigation—an investigation so serious that no result should be expected soon— but authorization of the practice was within the powers of the President, and he reserved the right to command interrogators to waterboard suspects again if he thought it useful. The attorney general added his assurance that, in the event that the practice was resumed, he would notify appropriate members of Congress, even though Congress had no legal authority to restrain the President.

It would be hard to find a precedent for the sophistical juggle of these explanations. The secret in plain view was not a judgment about present or future policy, but an imposed acceptance of something past. President Bush, in 2002 and later, sought and obtained legal justifications for ordering the torture of terrorism suspects, and it is known that American interrogators used methods on some suspects that constitute torture under international law. If these acts had been admitted by the attorney general to meet the definition of torture, those who conducted the interrogations and those who ordered them, including the President, would be liable to prosecution for war crimes. Because the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials remains vivid today, the very idea of a war crime has been treated as a thing worth steering clear of, no matter what the cost in overstretched ingenuity. Thought of a war crime does not lend itself to euphemistic reduction."

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"Indeed, the single greatest propaganda victory of the Bush administration may be the belief shared by most Americans that the rise of radical Islam—so-called Islamofascism— has nothing to do with any previous actions by the United States."

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2 Comments:

Blogger Tom White said...

I find it insane that members of the Bush Administration have not been indicted for War Crimes. The thinly veiled denials of their actions should not in any way be able to protect them.

15 March, 2008 04:23  
Anonymous Scott Hughes said...

It reminds me of Orwell's 1984.

15 March, 2008 15:12  

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