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Sunday, 2 May 2004

The semantics of torture?


Now Playing: Democracy Song, Leonard Cohen

Topic: Hurtling to Obscurity

Things that spring to mind when I look at the images of our boys torturing their boys as casually as we rail against 'terrorists' and ask the kindly government to please to bring in ever more repressive devices of social control to protect us...
The War of the Words

One of the chief problems with the current exciting adventure in Iraq is that no one can agree on what to call anyone else.
In the second world war we were fighting the Germans, and the Germans were fighting us. Everyone agreed who was fighting who. That's what a proper war is like.
However, in Iraq, there isn't even any agreement on what to call the Americans. The Iraqis insist on calling them "Americans", which seems, on the face of it, reasonable. The Americans, however, insist on referring to themselves as "coalition forces". This is probably the first time in history that the United States has tried to share its military glory with someone else.
Hollywood, for example, is forever telling us it was the Americans who won the second world war. It was an American who led the break-out from the prison camp Stalag Luft III in The Great Escape; the Americans who captured the Enigma machine in the film U571; and Tom Cruise who single-handedly won the Battle of Britain (in his latest project, The Few).
So I suppose it's reassuring to find the US generals in Iraq so keen to emphasise the role played by America's partners in bringing a better way of life to Iraq.
Then there's the problem of what the Americans are going to call the Iraqis - especially the ones that they kill. You can call people who are defending their own homes from rockets and missiles launched from helicopters and tanks "fanatics and terrorists" only for so long. Eventually even newspaper readers will smell a rat.
Similarly it's fiendishly difficult to get people to accept the label "rebels" for those Iraqis killed by American snipers when - as in Falluja - they turn out to be pregnant women, 13-year-old boys and old men standing by their front gates.
It also sounds a bit lame to call ambulance drivers "fighters" - when they've been shot through the windscreen in the act of driving the wounded to hospital - and yet what other word can you use without making them sound like illegitimate targets?
I hope you're beginning to see the problem.
The key thing, I suppose, is to try to call US mercenaries "civilians" or "civilian contractors", while calling Iraqi civilians "fighters" or "insurgents".
Describing the recent attack on Najaf, the New York Times happily hit upon the word "militiamen". This has the advantage of being a bit vague (nobody really knows what a "militiaman" looks like or does), while at the same time sounding like the sort of foreigners any responsible government ought to kill on sight.
However, the semantic problems in Iraq run even deeper than that.
For example, there's the "handover of power" that's due to take place on June 30. Since no actual "power" is going to be handed over, the coalition chaps have had to find a less conclusive phrase. They now talk about the handover of "sovereignty", which is a suitably elastic notion. And besides, handing over a "notion" is a damn sight easier than handing over anything concrete.
Then again, the US insists that it has been carrying out "negotiations" with the mojahedin in Falluja. These "negotiations" consist of the US military demanding that the mojahedin hand over all their rocket-propelled grenade launchers, in return for which the US military will not blast the city to kingdom come. Now there's a danger that this all sounds like one side "threatening" the other, rather than "negotiations" - which, after all, usually implies some give and take on both sides.
As for the word "ceasefire", it's difficult to know what this signifies anymore. According to reliable witness reports from Falluja, the new American usage makes generous allowance for dropping cluster bombs and flares, and deploying artillery and snipers.
But perhaps the most exciting linguistic development is to be found away from the areas of conflict - in the calm of the Oval Office, where very few people get killed for looking out of their windows. Here words such as "strategy" and "policy" are daily applied to the kneejerk reactions of politicians and military commanders who think that brute force is the only way to resolve difficult problems in a delicate situation. As Major Kevin Collins, one of the officers in charge of the marines in Falluja, put it: "If you choose to pick a fight, we'll finish it."
In the past, one might have used a phrase such as "numbskull stupidity" rather than "strategy". But then, language has a life of its own ... which is more than one can say for a lot of innocent Iraqis.

? Terry Jones is a writer, film director, actor and Python Source

What's pathetic about the horrific images of what our boys are capable of abroad, is that it surprises none of us. War is all about propaganda, it's all about dehumanising your enemy. It's not as if history hasn't taught us this, over and over again. We send people over there to kill, to maim, to die for our principles no reason, then we act all shocked and surprised when they do as we ask.
Al Jazeera's angle.
Democracy Song

It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.

From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It's coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.

It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we'll be making love again.
We'll be going down so deep
the river's going to weep,
and the mountain's going to shout Amen!
It's coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Sail on, sail on ...

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Thanks to Casino Avenue and Lemonpillows for breaking the UK blog No Politics Round Here Mate Ooh No hegemony.
I'm not reproducing links to the US and UK pictures, because they make me feel sick.

Edit: I was wrong: there are some UK bloggers who live in the same world as the rest of us, and aren't afeared to talk about it. [swiftly glosses over how many of these are expat blogs...]

This page graced by sarsparilla at 2:54 AM BST
Updated: Sunday, 2 May 2004 8:29 PM BST
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Sunday, 2 May 2004 - 12:08 PM BST

Name: Lux
Home Page: http://www.shylux.blogspot.com

That was a phenomenal piece.

Something else I noticed is that the U.S. media will report on foreign leaders "rallying Anti-American support" as a sort of mob riot, whereas when George W. comes on the news and says "you're either for us or against us... dead or alive... this will not be tolerated..." it's just a Special Report From The Oval Office.

Sunday, 2 May 2004 - 8:25 PM BST

Name: Vanessa

Aye, lass, the Dead Kennedys had it right the first time, 'appen as like.

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