Top Stories          Issue Released March 26 2003

The language of war

Covering the horrors with linguistic opportunism

By Ramabai Espinet

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 the day.

"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 conflicts."

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 experiencing.

"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hell," a phrase coined in earlier times when we had not yet evolved into this immense manipulability of language, has been replaced by a heady sense of delight and self-congratulation at the technological brilliance and efficiency of the present war machine.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."

"Non-stealthy airplanes" 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 right.

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 grief.

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 lesson."

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.


Massive Phagwah celebration in NY

Part of the massive crowd at the Smokey Park in Richmond Hill, Queens, NY at this year’s Phagwah celebration considered the largest of its kind outside India.

By Vishnu Bisram

New York — A crowd estimated at over fifty thousand Guyanese congregated at the Smokey Park in Richmond Hill, Queens, to celebrate Phagwah last Sunday. Thousands more lined the parade route for this annual event. This was the largest gathering of Guyanese anywhere in the world and the largest Phagwah celebration outside of India.

There was widespread revelry, excitement, entertainment and enthusiasm as the celebration took on a carnival-like atmosphere in the streets and in Smokey Park among the large Guyanese population in the region.

Phagwah was officially celebrated on March 18 this year but beacause it is not a public holiday in New York and is not accorded any official recognition the celebration is held on a Sunday for convenience.

The tens of thousands of celebrants, most clad in white traditional white garb were bathed in multi-color abeer as they danced in the streets and the park.

The parade commenced at the Cheddi Jagan Square at 133rd Street and Liberty Avenue, a busy shopping area lined with dozens of Guyanese and other West Indian stores, and culminated over a mile away at the Smokey Park in Richmond Hill, also known as "Little Guyana" because of the large number of Guyanese living there.

The New York City police in full force closed traffic along the parade route and blocked intersections to facilitate the movement of the celebrants.

The sunny, warm weekend, after one of the coldest winters in the history of the city, offered an ideal atmosphere for the outdoor event. Several magnificent floats and various colors of abeer, gulal, and abrack brightened up the parade areas while talc powder rose above and beyond the huge enthusiastic crowds. Spirits soared among the celebrants as they danced and clapped to the chautaal music. Groups of all ages participated in the activities. Young and old alike shouted at the top of their voices as the potpourri celebration reached its climax.

As the parade made its way through Liberty Avenue, various announcers atop flat-bed trucks blared out Phagwah greetings in Hindi and English over a loud speaker and invited onlookers to join the parade. The response from the multi-ethnic community of Richmond Hill, which comprises large numbers of Hispanics and Sikhs among other groups, was very heart warming. Thousands were on the steps and on the verandah in front of their homes, with other on the rooftop of their houses to take in the scenery and to cheer on the participants. Many joined in the parade.

Representatives of various organizations as well as politicians delivered messages appropriate to the occasion. Spokespersons from the Muslim and Christian communities also brought greetings and appealed for unity amongst all.

Phagwah was also celebrated in Jersey City last Saturday where hundreds showed up for their parade and cultural show.

Winners all the way: Australia lifted the coveted Cricket World Cup for the third time last Sunday after defeating India comprehensively in South Africa. Above the Aussies team huddles together in jubilation.



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