Caught in the grip of a war
machine which is now deep into its "shock and awe" stage of theatrics,
it is easy to overlook the jeopardy we in the rest of the world find
ourselves in, bombarded as we are every waking second by weapons of
mass destruction from the inexorable war on words that is
simultaneously taking place.
More than ever before, the
country wisdom of Caribbean grandmothers who excel in the art of
"picking sense out of nonsense" is necessary as we stand on guard
against the adventurism that characterizes the specialized language of
"Decisive force" or
"overwhelming force" is the cornerstone of the "shock and awe"
campaign in "Operation Iraqi Freedom," yet civilian targets are to be
minimized by "a precision no one had even dreamt of in previous
That last phrase belongs to
General Tommy Franks, whom I watched on CNN as he explained that
"precise munitions" were being used "on a scale never before seen."
This was shortly after a U.S. missile went astray and hit a town in
south-western Iran. Add to that the growing number of fatal incidents
involving "friendly fire" and one has to wonder about the boast of
precision as well as the very real impact of the killing that occurs
when precision succeeds.
One of the most frightening
aspects of these twists and turns of language is its intention (and
success) in driving out of our imaginations the human suffering and
raw physical pain that the unminimized civilian targets (people -
babies, children, flesh and blood men and women) are indeed
"War is hell," a phrase coined
in earlier times when we had not yet evolved into this immense
manipulability of language, has been replaced by a heady sense of
delight and self-congratulation at the technological brilliance and
efficiency of the present war machine. Linda McQuaig, a Toronto
Star columnist, commented last weekend that "a more appropriate
logo for CNN might be The Joy of War."
streak the sky while in the ocean "navy seals" do their part to ensure
that the campaign is run with "agility and flexibility." "Plumes" rise
from the sky as the "leadership decapitation" campaign and then simply
the "decapitation" phase gets underway.
And in bars across America, in
homes and in public places, some people are able to dicuss the war as
if it were simply a video game occurring in virtual reality. In parts
of America too, xenophobia is at an all-time high, as those who stake
a claim to the bounty of the land of the free reassert their God-given
Others, engaged in a global
street protest "on a scale and with a precision never before seen,"
march with placards that accurately deconstruct the war on logic and
intelligence with their own felicitous turns of phrase such as the
creative "Buck Fush," or the plain-spoken "No Blood for Oil" or "Not
in my Name."
Whitehouse spokesman Ari
Fleischer informs us that "The President regrets that Saddam Hussein
has deliberately put innocents in places where their lives will be
lost." This, while we are told immediately afterwards that 1500
precision-guided bombs have been dropped in 24 hours, and the strategy
includes 2000 sorties and 1500 cruise missiles.
Astoundingly, the news changes
by the second and unless one is taping every report, it is easy to
doubt both audio and sanity. I and everyone else, it seems from other
reports, had heard that bombs were dropped on Baghdad in the early
"decapitation" phase but no, as General Tommy Franks explains a day
later, his patience underscored by irony and obvious irritation. The
bombs were dropped not on Baghdad, but on Greater Baghdad, a location
where there are numerous military targets.
"This is about liberation not
occupation," it is "not to be a campaign of half-measures," luckily
we’re only seeing "slices of the war," and we must be properly
grateful for the exercise of "the humanity that goes into targeting."
What this linguistic opportunism does to our
minds (never mind our hearts) in the long run is a lasting kind of
damage that is difficult to quantify. The Vietnam War was also waged
on the word front, as was the first Gulf War. The most important
elements of language attack must be to remove every trace of empathy
from the presentation of activities in the theatre of war, to
intensify the construction of the enemy as other - wild, savage
hordes, a clash of civilizations, a conspiracy between the Saddams,
Osamas, Al Qaedas and other strangers against Christendom - and to
personalize the game.
Care must be taken to
eliminate an empathetic and horrified understanding of the cost of war
on a human scale - the screams, the whimpering, the blood, torn flesh,
ripped guts, shattered bones, the smell of death, the flight, the
running, the scampering, the fright of refugees, the sheer unmitigated
Only if people are imagined
not as sovereign human beings but as primitives who are grateful for
deliverance by a great (white) liberator, would the code name
"Operation Iraqi Freedom" make sense.
Talk of reconstruction was in
the air even before this operation began (not counting the many months
of bombing in the no-fly zones). Had plans already been made as well
to destroy all traces of this ancient civilization’s monuments, its
historic architecture, its artifacts, and replace them with quick and
dirty concrete facades? Had these plans already hardened into
opportunity? And if so, for whom?
The opportunities are
limitless, it seems. Even an opportunity for geography lessons. On CNN
Wolf Blitzer attempts to lighten things up by remarking that we’ll all
be familiar with the towns in these areas by the time it’s all over;
"we’ll all become geographic experts," he chuckles. And anchorwoman
Paula Zahn’s cheerful rejoinder is that given the pathetic scores of
Grade 4 students in the U.S., "we could all do with a geography
The geography of death
continues unabated, sanitized by the clean and precise language of
war. On Sunday last CBC radio carried an interview with a man whose
self-appointed task was to study the meaning of silences in public
presentations. He mentioned that silence is edited out of radio and
television broadcasts in order to leave more air time for
advertisements, but in live deliveries, such as Bush’s address to the
nation on Monday night of last week, it is not possible. This man
harvested the pauses within George Bush’s speech and found that they
added up to just over two minutes of silence. In the interstices of
the President’s declaration of war (unless!!!), one listener
discovered a requiem for the death of democracy in America.