'Precision Devices' vs. 'Weapons of Terror'


NOT LONG BEFORE his death in 1950, the great English journalist/novelist George Orwell wrote a memorable essay entitled "Politics and the English Language," in which he demonstrated how people routinely distort words in ways to make them mean precisely the opposite of what they say.

Later he would refine the concept in his final novel, "1984," in which he created a mythical totalitarian state where ubiquitous wall posters bore nonsensical slogans like "War is Peace" and "Freedom is Slavery" and "Ignorance is Strength."

Nothing brings out this tendency more than a war, and the war in the Persian Gulf has already begun to provide abundant examples of what Orwell called the "criminalization of language."

The military briefers now speak routinely of "air sorties," as if describing a lovely Sunday stroll in the park. What they mean by that term, of course, is bombing raids in which 18,000 tons of TNT is dropped from planes for 10 hours over vast areas of a country -- the equivalent of the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Gen. Norman "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf speaks in low tones of "KIAs." What he means is a dozen young American men who have been blown to bits in the past 12 hours.

And consider this example: In an interview on one of the morning television shows, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney was being questioned about the use by the Iraqis of Scud missiles. He declared that these are basically old-fashioned weapons which cannot strike targets with precision, therefore have "no military value" and thus can only be called "weapons of terror."

After this deft, three-step exercise in illogic, the defense secretary, for the remainder of the interview, referred to all Iraqi missiles as "weapons of terror." A few days later President Bush himself picked up the term, which is a pretty good indication that the phrase did not simply pop into someone's head spontaneously but in fact had been carefully crafted, probably rehearsed, and was being now being systematically implanted into the public consciousness in a calculated manner.

By contrast, our missiles are graced with such admirable names as "Patriot" and "cruise" and are described as "precision surgical devices" -- never mind that ours are capable of destruction on a scale infinitely greater than the "weapons of terror" that the Iraqis use. Applying this semantic abracadabra to a famous biblical story, David's slingshot would become a "weapon of terror" while Goliath's sword would be "standard defense equipment."

And consider another semantic configuration: The Iraqis are said to possess "biological" weapons capable of spreading the disease of anthrax among innocent populations. This is viewed as a particularly horrible and inhumane device -- as indeed it is. But if our bombs should destroy the water system of Baghdad, thereby spreading an epidemic of typhus throughout a population of two million, this would called "unintended collateral consequences of raids on military targets."

And take another term that has become a part of the lexicon of the present war: "The liberation of Kuwait." The term has such a lofty sound that it almost wholly obliterates its real purpose: The installation of a medieval monarchy which maintains a theocratic system under which a woman theoretically could be beheaded for adultery -- and in fact some have been in neighboring Saudi Arabia -- while a man can have virtually as many wives as he can afford. This is of course a hereditary system which, if the ruling caste has its way, will continue into perpetuity.

Or take the action of Congress in authorizing President Bush to ** use force. It passed something called "the Michel-Solarz Resolution to implement United Nations Resolution 646," or some similar gibberish. What does that semantic fog really mean? Simply, Declaration of War.

Or take President Bush's ultimate reductio ad absurdum invoked in a speech to a group of religious leaders this week: We are simply engaged in a contest between "good" and "evil." That comes pretty close to another Orwell invention, in his satirical novel "Animal Farm," in which the animals, having rebelled and taken over the farm from their human masters, maintain morale in times of danger by chanting, "Four legs good, two legs bad."

But it should hardly be surprising that we already see the language abuse that Orwell decried emerging so quickly in the Persian Gulf war. We need only look back at our most recent conflict, the Vietnam war, which was never really officially called a war although it lasted for a decade and was fought under three presidents.

In his essay, Orwell wrote:

"Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification."

Twenty years after Orwell wrote those words, what did our military leaders call our "effort" in Vietnam? You guessed it: Pacification.

My, how times don't change.

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