UK paperback

To justify our conduct

Blair foreseen

A belated farewell, then, to Mr Tony “Still here, sort of” Blair, off to keep on fixing the Middle East. I thought this was a striking analysis:

He seems to have the power of convincing himself that what to me seems a glaring wrong is evidently right, and though he regrets that a crowd of men should be killed, he regards it almost as an occurrence which is not to be condemned, as if it was one of the incidents of a policy out of which he hopes for a better order of things. He even spoke of our being able to justify our conduct in the great day of account. ((Cited in John Newsinger, “Colonial Wars and Liberal Imperialism”, in David Powell & Tom Hickey (eds), Democracy: The Long Revolution (London, 2007). ))

That is John Bright writing about William Gladstone more than a century ago, on resigning from Gladstone’s government over the bombardment of Alexandria. Plus ça change.


Stain the engagement

Unspeaking Haditha

Via the ever-watchful eye of WIIIAI: the New York Times has printed extracts from a remarkable internal memo from the Marines, written in January 2006, which discusses the right way to frame answers to questions posed by Time reporter Tim McGirk about the Haditha massacre. This is one case in which we can see an answer to the question, recently asked in comments by Ozma, of how Unspeak comes about. The memo was created by the battalion commander and the captain of the company that shot 24 Iraqis — or, as the NYT puts it slightly more fastidiously even in this article, “was involved in the shootings”. (If I rob a bank, it is somewhat euphemistic to say I was “involved in a bank robbery”, as though I could have been the clerk or a hostage.) The officers who produced the document demonstrate an imnpressive sensitivity to language:

McGirk: How many marines were involved in the killings?

Memo: First off, we don’t know what you’re talking about when you say “killings.” One of our squads reinforced by a squad of Iraqi Army soldiers were engaged by an enemy initiated ambush on the 19th that killed one American marine and seriously injured two others. We will not justify that question with a response. Theme: Legitimate engagement: we will not acknowledge this reporter’s attempt to stain the engagement with the misnomer “killings.”

The public is thus to be reassured that Haditha was a legitimate engagement, even if this seems to imply a hurry to pre-empt any investigation by pronouncing the “engagement” to have been “legitimate” — indeed, to have been an “engagement” in the first place, even though, after the bomb went off, only one side was fighting.

But what about this rather testy response to the word “killings”? Of course military language has long preferred to avoid the verb “to kill” and its cognates (“I prefer not to say we are killing other people. I prefer to say we are servicing the target”). ((Unspeak, p. 114)) But it seems rather a stretch for the Marines to claim they don’t even know what it means — “We don’t know what you’re talking about when you say ‘killings.'” But actually, the memo goes on to admit implicitly that they do know what McGirk is talking about: it’s just that they don’t like it. Because to use this ugly word “killings” to describe, of all things, people being killed — that would be a “misnomer”. The memo does not claim that people were not killed; just that their being killed did not constitute “killings”. Is there a sense in which the journalistic use of “killings” — that particular form of the word — implies something like “murders”? Perhaps: in which case the memo’s resistance is understandable.

What is more remarkable is the metaphor that accompanies it — to use the word “killings” would be to stain the engagement. It is almost as though the romantic sense of the word “engagement”, as of impending marriage, has spilled over into its military use: as though all participants in the event were dressed in virginal whites, which were certainly not “stained”, least of all with blood. A Marine “engagement” is pure and clean, intact of hymen as it were. ((“Stain” as sexual vice: Hamlet’s complaint of “a mother stain’d”.)) It certainly does not involve anything so fleshly or bloody as “killings”.

Another exchange:

McGirk: Are the marines in this unit still serving in Haditha?

Memo: Yes, we are still fighting terrorists of Al Qaida in Iraq in Haditha. (“Fighting terrorists associated with Al Qaida” is stronger language than “serving.” The American people will side more with someone actively fighting a terrorist organization that is tied to 9/11 than with someone who is idly “serving,” like in a way one “serves” a casserole. It’s semantics, but in reporting and journalism, words spin the story.)

Serving a casserole! If I didn’t know better I might think that someone in the Marine Corps had been reading my early blog entry on Terrific service. That aside, this response displays a fascinatingly complicated attitude to the engineering of rhetoric for public consumption. The public cover-story, as often, is that it is mere “semantics”, silly word games forced upon the manly perpetrators by the feral media. But here it’s a cover story that they even feel necessary to insist upon privately, among themselves. In this way it constitutes a kind of defence — naturally, we know that the people we are shooting to death are mostly nothing to do with al-Qaeda, ((The frequency with which it is claimed that all the enemy in Iraq are “al-Qaeda” has increased markedly in recent months, and has mostly been swallowed tamely by the media, as shown by Glenn Greenwald.)) but to claim that they are anyway is not lying: it’s just semantics, and those bothersome reporters started it. Of course, it is only this last example about al-Qaeda that is confessedly mere “semantics”. If you were to plug that dismissive attitude to word-juggling back into the defence of Haditha as a “legitimate engagement”, you would find something like a contradiction — for how could a pure and legitimate military action ever be “stained” by words, by mere semantics? Out, out, damned spot, etc.

The lesson, as always, is this: my language shines with a just concern for truth and accuracy; yours is dirty semantics. If you don’t understand this, you must be, as the memo contemptuously says of McGirk, “uneducated in the world of contemporary insurgent combat”. This memo, I conclude, is a valuable first step in such an education.


Doctrinally appropriate

Rumsfeld and torture redux

In the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh writes about General Taguba, who was assigned to investigate Abu Ghraib and then forced to resign. The article, studded with gems of Unspeak, encouraged me to sketch the following brief glossary, which may be used in parallel with it:

Doctrinally appropriate techniques: torture.

Strategic interrogation techniques: torture.

Setting the conditions for successful exploitation of the internees: torturing them.

Loosen this guy up for us: torture him.

Executive action: whacking people.

Special Access Programs: plans to torture or whack people.

Preparing the battlefield: whacking people around the world.

‘Case law’ policy: reserving the right to lie. “[Rumsfeld] did what we called ‘case law’ policy — verbal and not in writing,” Taguba says. “What he’s really saying is that if this decision comes back to haunt me I’ll deny it.”

Any more that I missed?


Aspirational goals

Pipe dreams, feral beasts, ‘redesignation’, exciting prose, Gaza

By way of apology for my latest bout of feckless non-posting, I present a brief round-up. Happily, Unspeak doesn’t go away just because I ignore it for a while. At the end of May, George W. Bush attempted to pre-empt the G8 on global warming with an alternative vision for reducing carbon emissions. Jim Connaughton, Chairman of the Council on “Environmental Quality”, was challenged by a sceptical reporter:

Q Now I’m confused. Does that mean there will be targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions and that everybody will be making binding commitments to each other about greenhouse gas reductions — or, at the end of the day, are those just voluntary commitments?

CHAIRMAN CONNAUGHTON: The commitment at the international level will be to a long-term aspirational goal —

Q Voluntary.

CHAIRMAN CONNAUGHTON: Well, I want to be careful about the word “voluntary,” because we do these kinds of goals all the time, international agreements. It’s the implementing mechanisms that become binding.

One should always be careful about the word “voluntary”, in case it gives the right impression. Still, aspirational goal is a lovely coinage. “Aspirational” is a glossy-magazine lifestyle fantasy of fast cars, large houses and single-malt whiskies. And aspirations are always virtuous, even if they are — almost by definition — not actually going to be accomplished. As the poet said, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

Tony “Still here?” Blair criticized the media, calling it a feral beast. Evidently he would prefer it to be a tame beast, docile and obedient — as, perhaps, when it swallowed the drugged meat of “Saddam can launch a bioweapon attack in 45 minutes” and so forth. Happy days they were, just before the war. That the media has since descended into what Blair decries as “cynicism” ((Of which Alastair Campbell has also complained in the past, not without a certain pathos.)) is, of course, a terrible injustice that hurts all of society and is spoiling his legacy.

Meanwhile, at Guantanamo Bay, a judge ruled that the “Military Commissions” had no jurisdiction over prisoners:

The military judge, Col. Peter E. Brownback III of the Army, said that Congress authorized the tribunals to try only those detainees who had been determined to be unlawful enemy combatants. But the military authorities here, he said, have determined only that Mr. Khadr was an enemy combatant, without making the added determination that his participation was “unlawful.”

The Pentagon spokesman’s riposte was enlightening:

“For all intents and purposes it’s the same thing,” said Commander Gordon. “It’s just an issue of semantics. We’ve already said they were unlawful in 2004-2005 because of a variety of factors. They don’t wear a uniform. They’re not members of [the] armed forces of another nation-state. They don’t display arms openly. They don’t have a chain of command. All those issues make them unlawful enemy combatants. So they were already ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ back when they were designated as such, however the technical verbiage was just ‘enemy combatant.'”

Interesting that Gordon would refer to technical verbiage, almost as though such labels were thrown around by the administration without any regard to their actual meaning in law, so as to enable prisoners to be held for years without trial. Of course, it’s just an issue of semantics, and we all know that semantics, ie what words mean, ie what things they might actually refer to in the world, is irrelevant in the context of a reality-creating imperial TWAT.
But all is not lost: as explained here, prisoners can simply be redesignated as “unlawful enemy combatants”. Do you think that the decision as to what is or is not “unlawful” ought to be left to, you know, a trial? Well, that is all very well as an “aspirational goal”, perhaps, but redesignation is so much more efficient.

Literary interlude: in the current issue of the New York Review of Books is a piece that apparently hopes to pass for literary criticism: Andrew O’Hagan laments Don DeLillo’s “inability”, in the novel Falling Man, “to conjure his usual exciting prose”:

In his best novels, DeLillo is pretty much incapable of writing unexcitingly — but September 11 vanquishes the power of his sentences before he can make them linger.

It is left up to the reader to imagine what exactly might qualify as “exciting prose”, not as I remember any sort of Empsonian category, and further to to try to understand what on earth “September 11” itself is doing as an actor in the above sentence, somehow jumping in to neuter DeLillo’s writing before — before? — DeLillo can render it in a mode competent to excite Andrew O’Hagan. It is true that exciting Andrew O’Hagan must be accounted a worthy “aspirational goal” for any writer of prose, even if the standards are so high that most will surely fail.

Lastly, the international strategy of isolating and imposing sanctions upon the elected Palestinian government appears to be bearing fruit. Yesterday in Gaza, an institution changed hands:

Hamas fighters took over the Fatah-run Preventive Security compound, driving away in cars loaded with weapons, computers, office furniture and other equipment.

Perhaps preventive security was all along a poignant “aspirational goal”, rather than a description of successful acts. If preventive security didn’t work, it may now be time for preventive war. After all, there is already a shining example of that in the region.


After Dark

Murakami on the night shift

After Dark
by Haruki Murakami, trans. Jay Rubin (Knopf)

coverThe night needs to be re-enchanted. So in the nocturnal milieu of Tokyo’s 24-hour cafes and love hotels, Haruki Murakami’s new novel makes an eerie metaphysical wager. As the manager of a small jazz bar (whom it is tempting to read as an avatar of the author himself) says at one point: “Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can’t fight it.”

Just before midnight, we meet a young woman, Mari, smoking and reading a book in a coffee shop. Before dawn she will have met a trombonist, Takahashi, as well as Kaoru, the tough blonde manager of a local love hotel, where a Chinese prostitute is beaten up by a mysterious man. Meanwhile, Mari’s sister Eri is asleep, as she has been for the last two months, and something very strange is happening in her bedroom. An unplugged television set sparks to life, showing a room where a man sits wearing a cellophane mask. Later, Eri will be sucked through the screen and trapped in that room.

As usual in Murakami, the uncanny is juxtaposed with exquisite ordinariness. Mari, the serious, still centre of the novel, chats about battery farming or cinema or her beautiful sister’s modelling career. There is also the man who beat up the prostitute, in his office late at night, talking to his wife on the phone or doing sit-ups on a yoga mat with Scarlatti on the CD player.

Explanatory connections, and reasons for acts, there are few. Instead the novel progresses through hallucinatory edits. Twice, light itself seems to slow down, becoming sluggish and viscous, as people leave their likenesses in mirrors, the reflections still peering out when their owners have left the room. Except that the second time, the mirror image does something that the person hadn’t done. Beyond the mirror, as beyond the TV screen, there appears to be another realm.

There are holes, and you can fall down them. One of the love-hotel assistants talks of her troubled life: “The ground we stand on looks solid enough, but if something happens it can drop right out from under you. And once that happens, you’ve had it …” We know from Murakami’s previous fiction that people sometimes go down wells. But holes need not be physical ones in the ground. The strangeness of the novel’s action, it is suggested at one point, is due to it happening in “a place resembling a deep, inaccessible fissure. Such places open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light … No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or when or where they will spit them out.”

Such fatalism is made only more resonant by the novel’s matter-of-fact, cool style. Indeed, it is altogether too cool for comfort. When Eri is trapped on the other side of the TV screen, she is described thus: “Her pupils have taken on a lonely hue, like gray clouds reflected in a calm lake.” Beautiful as the image is, there is an existential dread inherent in it, amplified by the fact that the languorous narrator has taken such poetic care over his words while looking on, right there in her bedroom.

Well, I should say “narrators”: the narrative voice is a mysterious first-person plural. ((Or, as the TLS review chooses to call it, a “third-person plural”.)) Often the use of “we” is merely a formal way to solicit the reader into sharing a particular point of view, or following a train of thought. But something more peculiar is going on here. The narrators inveigle you into imagining yourself as a swooping night-bird or a TV camera, whispering softly for you to join the “we”, but they also drop subtle hints of a collective identity that you do not share: they have sets of “rules” and “principles”. One gradually comes to suspect that the narrators are not even human.

The subtle dislocation of a narrative “we” that denotes a separate, alien grouping should be borne in mind when reading the astonishing synthetic description of an entire city waking up: “Each of those under transport is a human being with a different face and mind, and at the same time each is a nameless part of the collective entity … Handling this dualism of theirs skillfully and advantageously, they perform their morning rituals with deftness and precision: brushing teeth, shaving, tying neckties, applying lipstick.” Turning their attention to crows out scavenging for food, the narrators deadpan: “Dualism is not as important an issue for the crows as for the human beings.” As with much of the novel’s humour, the mode is comic-sombre.

After Dark is perhaps the closest Murakami has yet come to composing a pure tone-poem. Aspects of his earlier styles – the dark, surreal farce of A Wild Sheep Chase, the mournful realism of Norwegian Wood, the supernatural yearning of Sputnik Sweetheart – here intermingle in a story that spells out less but evokes as much if not more. Exposition is set to the minimum, while the mood-colouring is virtuosic. Morning, at the end of the novel, is an extraordinary blend of the hesitant blossoming of romance and an ode to renewal with unhealed sorrow and continued foreboding. The novel could be an allegory of sleep, a phenomenology of time, or a cinematic metafiction. Whatever it is, its memory lingers after many sunsets.


Googleverse 2

More emergent literature

I was going to post my review of the new Murakami novel, but the Guardian hasn’t printed it today. In the meantime, perhaps not as few as zero readers will be happy to learn that the search-terms leading hapless seekers-after-truth to during the month of May are now in, which at least allows me to offer you the following poem, assembled according to the usual rules (plus the new rule that the poem’s title itself must also be hivemind-generated material). This example is shorter but arguably more compressed and potent in its imagery. The spirit of the internet, it seems, finds new creative energy in the spring.


Casting dispersion

Man is a falling being. Discuss…

Is Islam a terrorist relegion?
Why is flooding so dangerous?
Is carbon good for you?

Norwegian sheep watching TV,
Growing strange plants in the office.

Haiku by Alistair Campbell:

Britney limo shot:
theology of contempt;
simulated crowds.

English prose and ethical insincerity.

Frank Luntz’s hair —
                sexed up.
Notorious Republicans
(Cheney is pure evil;
Jacques Derrida garbage).

How to overthrow your fascist regime
(planet Melanie Philips Cheney dwarf):
I love Mussolini!
                      I love Zizek!

Dessert weapons,
Hippo culling,
Purple rain.

Fuckers and non-fuckers,
is euphony legitimate?

Blair’s resignation speech:
He led his regiment from behind
(you know we don’t do body counts).

Do you mean to insinuate that I should tolerate such diabolical nonsense?



Sound philosophy

Bush and Blair: a good year for the roses

Slouchingly, I turn my late attention to the moment last week when Tony “Still here?” Blair gave a press conference with George W. Bush at the White House. The best line of the occasion has already been widely reported. Bush:

My relationship with this good man is where I’ve been focused, and that’s where my concentration is. And I don’t regret any other aspect of it. And so I — we filled a lot of space together.

Quite so. They did fill a lot of space together. Who can forget the moment in the Rose Garden, back in early 2003, when George W. Bush solemnly forced one end of a footpump down his own oesophagus and one end of another footpump down Tony’s, and then ordered Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to pump away as hard as they could, which the latter men did joyfully, stamping their shiny shoes up and down, only stopping, dripping with sweat and loosened ties askew, when Bush and Blair had been inflated to five times their normal size, and had begun to float up off the ground, tethered to reality only by stressed lengths of rubber tubing? But what leapt out at me besides that precious memory was Bush’s invocation of the dark forces arrayed against America:

No matter how calm it may seem here in America, an enemy lurks. And they would like to strike. They would like to do harm to the American people because they have an agenda. They want to impose an ideology; they want us to retreat from the world; they want to find safe haven.

Just like gay people according to “Melanie Phillips”, the lurking enemy also has an agenda. But hang on — so does Bush:

I’m not going to be around to see the final history written on my administration. When you work on big items, items to — agendas based upon sound philosophy that will transform parts of the world to make it more peaceful, we’re not going to be around to see it.

Well, now I am confused. Can it really sometimes be a good thing to have “an agenda”? It seems so, as long as it is “based upon sound philosophy”. I like this phrase sound philosophy. Just as sound science is a term of Unspeak designed to instil fear and distrust of science, ((Unspeak, p.59.)) so sound philosophy handily denigrates a vast unexamined swathe of what is implied to be unsound or junk philosophy, leaving a kernel of ratiocination that by definition is “sound” as long as it recommends the “agendas” already being pursued.

But it looks like Bush also made a remarkable confession here. Will his action based on sound philosophy actually do what it says on the tin — “transform parts of the world to make it more peaceful”? Not in his own lifetime, he now forlornly admits. “We’re not going to be around to see it.” You might be tempted to take that as a metric of failure for the “agenda” and its attendant “philosophy”, but really, one needs to take the long view. I happily imagine a descendant of Zhou Enlai 200 years hence being asked whether George W. Bush made the world more peaceful, and replying diplomatically that it is too soon to tell.



It’s in your own best interests

When it comes to the issue of abortion, what are you pro? “Life” or “choice”? Well, there is now a terribly clever new alternative in this hoary old clash of Unspeaks, as anti-abortion campaigners have begun to describe themselves – titter not – as “pro-woman”. UPI reports:

“We think of ourselves as very pro-woman,” Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee [sic], told the Times. “We believe that when you help the woman, you help the baby.”

Right. I for one will not protest that I am “anti-woman”. So they win!


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