The Language of War

This morning as I was driving into work, I caught a piece on NPR, an interview with an Arab (Palestinian) journalist who had been covering the war in Iraq, and had written a book about the war. The topic turned to insurgency. With this particular journalist, it was scary to hear that American forces in the early stages of the war were passing houses full of insurgents, who at the time weren’t firing upon them. But this journalist also noted the distinctions and factions that made up the insurgents: Some, for instance, were loyalists to Saddam Hussein, others were Islamists wanting neither Saddam nor Americans in Iraq.

Another Arab journalist brought up terminology: When this journalist wrote, he used “resistance fighters”, explaining that in Arabic the term had nuances that weren’t there in English. “Resistance fighter” is a term that you won’t likely hear in the Western press. Our preferred term is “insurgent,” which is vague, inoffensive. Dubya and Rummy have gone so far as to say that “insurgent” is hardly a good descripitive term. One term Dubya suggested was “Saddamist.” It made me think connotatively–Sodomist, Sodomites. Words, of course, that have connotations of sin, particularly for those of the religious ilk of someone like Dubya.

But, this whole name thing made me also think of a discussion I once read about the terms “rebel” and “revolutionary”; if you lose the revolution, you’re a rebel, just as Johnny Reb is still a rebel 140 years after the American Civil War. The question of course in Iraq: Are the insurgents rebels or revolutionaries? What are we? Though this is cliche: History often does get written by the victors. But we aren’t victors, are we? We’ve toppled one government, but have yet to make anything new. And was democracy what the Iraqi people wanted? Are we colonizers? Are we just “policing” as we did in Vietnam? Are the insurgents rebels, revoluntionaries, or resistance fighters? What are they rebelling against? What do they want to change Saddam Hussein’s reign into? What are they resisting, besides American/Western occupation? Perhaps that is what the Middle East itself has wanted–to resist the influence of the West, the insurgence of the West on a way of life. Except the money and power oil brings. Feed the Beast, but fight it off.

So much murkiness with this war, with Dubya’s crusade to rid the world of all ill, of all evil, by commiting Americans and the West to a worldwide state of perpetual war. “War is peace,” said Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. And in that novel language came to mean what the state said it meant. Not unlike where we are now. Are we fighting Saddamists? sodomites? terrorists? rebels? revolutionaries? or insurgents? Perhaps that’s the troubling aspect of any war: Why do we fight? Hemingway made it clear in A Farewell to Arms that men went to war for abstractions such as courage and honor. The narrator Frederick Henry realizes what bullshit those terms are, and he leaves the battlefield. Still, we fight. We (humanity) fight over words and words become bullets and planes crashed into towers. All in the language of war.


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