UK paperback

A blue-on-blue situation

‘Friendly fire’ and virtual war

Written for today’s Guardian.

Since Jean Baudrillard declared in 1991 that the Gulf war was best understood as a simulation, technology has advanced to the point that the virtual is now more realistic than the real. Such is the disturbing impression one has from watching the just-released cockpit video of the attack on a British convoy by American pilots during the Iraq war in 2003, which killed one soldier and injured four others. As the glowing aquamarine lines and symbols of the aircraft’s HUD (head-up display), lazily rotating and scrolling as the aircraft banks, are projected over the desert landscape outside, it resembles nothing so much as a blurrier and not so pretty imitation of a videogame that many British children might have got for Christmas.

Ace Combat X ((It’s subtitled “Skies of Deception”, which is horribly appropriate.)), running on the handheld PlayStation Portable console, is a high-speed approximation of modern airborne warfare, with licensed models of real planes (including the A-10 Thunderbolt involved in the Iraq assault): chaotic dogfights and ground attacks take place against lovingly rendered, near-photorealistic landscapes, under the virtual light of setting suns. Amid the soundtrack of radio chatter and techno-rock music, the game has one fortunate difference: blue and red icons make it impossible to confuse your own forces with the enemy.

The US military has long exploited videogame technology for training purposes, and even released its own game, America’s Army, based on actual training procedures, as a recruitment aid. Now Predator drones in Afghanistan are controlled from thousands of miles away by joystick-wielding officers over a video link. Has the widening distance between action and result – the virtualisation of the first, and the screening-out of the second – led to a dangerous lack of emotional affect ((The word “affect” was replaced by the Guardian with “reaction”, which does not mean the same thing. There appears to be some journalistic allergy to the noun “affect”, either born of ignorance or assuming ignorance among readers – even though, in this case, I thought I had made sure of being understood by supplying the unnecessary qualifier “emotional”. I was careful to do that because, as it happens, the word “affect” was also edited out of my 2003 interview with William Gibson (end of paragraph 18, originally read “the Ballardian ante on the affect went up”), even though it was a direct quote from the author. Sigh.)) in the military? It could be so, but if we demand that soldiers kill on our behalf, we might not be justified in demanding also that they adopt what we consider the appropriate emotional posture at all times.

An analogous kind of virtualisation has in any case long been present in the tradition of military euphemism – as “friendly fire” itself is the opposite of a friendly thing, and a “blue-on-blue situation”, as the radio controller announces it, is not the Mediterranean horizon in summer but the killing of allies. This incident was not too virtual but insufficiently virtual. In a modern online wargame, an incident of “friendly fire” will have your fallen comrades swearing at you over the headset, but they’ll come back to life, or “respawn”, for the next round of battle. In that way, at least, the engineering of war to match its virtual version still has a long way to go.

Bonus spot-the-difference quiz related to the video dialogue:

arty shell 1   arty shell 2

Arty shell                             Arty shell



It’s a turkey shoot

What do you call the killing of a huge number of birds? A British outbreak of the H5N1 strain of “bird flu” (itself an oddly cutesy name for a virus that may become fatally pandemic in humans) has prompted the killing of 159,000 turkeys, reported in the news as a “cull”. A reader has written in to wonder about the origin of this euphemism, noting that the primary sense of “to cull” is to select. This is indeed the first meaning given in OED, which notes that “cull” comes from the Old French cueillir, to collect, gather or select, and offers George Crabbe’s definition of good literary style: continued »


The word

Monday morning public-service announcement

Concentrating as we must on the verbal eructations of politicians, let us not lose sight of the truth demonstrated at last night’s Superbowl. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are not America. Prince is America.


Not very dangerous

What Jacques Chirac said

There has been a flurry of outrage over some remarks about Iran’s nuclear ambitions by Jacques Chirac. The New York Times, for example, reported:

President Jacques Chirac said this week that if Iran had one or two nuclear weapons, it would not pose a big danger, and that if Iran were to launch a nuclear weapon against a country like Israel, it would lead to the immediate destruction of Tehran.

And the BBC reported that Chirac:

said it would not be very dangerous for Iran to possess a bomb or two, adding that the real danger was from nuclear proliferation.

Chirac now says that his remarks were extremely simplistic and he withdraws them. Nonetheless, it might be worth looking at what he originally said. Often the plea that one has been quoted “out of context” is a weak defence, but the context in this instance is arguably illuminating. I translate from the original interview: continued »


Human bomb murders

“Melanie Phillips” punctuation appeal

What should we call suicide bombers? After all, it is well known that the phrase “suicide bombers” makes us swell up in tearful sympathy for the perpetrators, entirely forgetting the victims. That is why Fox News, bless it, chooses the silly “homicide bombers”, as though “normal” forms of bombing did not also kill people. And “kamikazes” is too historically specific. Galloping to the rescue is “Melanie Phillips”, who offers a pert new alternative:

After the human bomb murders in Eilat last weekend…

Human bomb murders? Wouldn’t it make more sense, to express one’s proper outrage towards such killings, to call them inhuman bomb murders? But then, murder as an activity is all too human. The difficulty in parsing “Melanie”‘s phrase derives from a lack of clarity as to which term is qualifying which. I suppose “human bomb murders” is not to be constrasted with animal bomb murders. We can also dismiss the possibility that “Melanie” is talking about humans who murder bombs. Obviously she is thinking of murdering humans, using bombs. But to distinguish this particular form of murdering humans using bombs, in which the perpetrator also blows himself up (are you getting nostalgic for the simplicity of “suicide bombings” yet?), “human” must also qualify “bomb”: these are murders using “human bombs” as a weapon.

Someone lend Melanie a hyphen! Then she could write “human-bomb murders”, and though there would still be the faint possibility for a cynic to read it as murders of human bombs, we would have the established pattern of “knife murder” or “shotgun murder” to back her up. As his preferred phrase to describe this sort of crime, “suicide-murders“, attests, at least Christopher Hitchens knows how to use a hyphen. Perhaps someone should send “Melanie” a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves?



What Joe Biden said

Senator Joe Biden, who has announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, was reported by the New York Observer as saying of Barack Obama:

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

In fact that is in one way a serious misrepresentation of what Biden said. As Mark Liberman at Language Log shows (with an audio clip), Biden actually said: “I mean, you got the first, sorta, mainstream African-American?”, and Horowitz said “Yeah”, and then Biden continued. In other words, Biden did not say that Obama was the first sorta mainstream African-American who was articulate etc, which would be really very silly; but that Obama was the first sorta mainstream African-American, and also that he was those other things. But the first sorta mainstream African-American what? Presumably, the first sorta mainstream African-American presidential candidate. continued »



Search and ye shall find

So there I was, hoping to get another cheap post out of my referral logs, when I realised the truth. The folk who are directed to from search engines and find, or melancholically fail to find, their informational quarry are not just a congeries of atomised seekers after truth, but make up a hive-mind, coalescing into a Geist, the Spirit of the Internet. And the Spirit of the Internet, I came to believe, is trying to communicate with us – by writing poetry.

As a self-elected amanuensis to the Geist, I have laid out below each search-phrase exactly as it was entered, one per line, and added punctuation merely in order to bring out the inherent sense. The rhythmically compelling result could easily be sung to the tune of REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”, or, if you prefer, Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. I call it emergent literature.


Unspeakable yearnings #1

Soothing sayings websites,
intelligent sounding phrases,
vocabulary words and phrases smart people use say:


david.aaronovitch annoying:
why is it wrong to kick in the groin?
beat someone without leaving bruises
(is violence bad for kids in one paragraph?);
all great neptune’s ocean wash the blood from my hand.


snooker bow tie doctor,
body language pulling up socks:
                                             humble squid.


astronaut wife anywhere in the universe myspace.


britney spears’ genitalia,
britney spears panties limo
(fair fighting females testicles groin) –
ann coulter and melanie phillips,
oliver kamm modus operandi –
britney spears sticking a carrot up her fanny.
(bishop to the barmaid try it another way.)


– so i am a pig and david frum is not?

posing somdomite.


world in which we’re living:
global warming is false scientists trying to scare you
(obscure facts about antarctica?
                                             fuck kyoto!);
bad behaviour in children;
grunge idioms;
          bush euphemisms;
               axl rose narcotics;

(effects of singing in the military:
                                              hot sexx.)


what happens when the body goes without food for a long time?
is instant coffee bad?
(is this a metaphor; my thoughts are getting tangled in my intestines.)


bath clothed:
head means confusion metaphysically.


Real kiwi

Do you feel real?

I am always happy to learn of examples of Unspeak in other languages, so Joe Mondello’s recent post on Korean fruit is most welcome:

I scoured the Korean language for examples of unspeak. Korean government agencies and media outlets tend to use a lot of euphemism (for instance, in the current avian influeanza outbreaks). Outright unspeak is a little more difficult to come across. and so far the best one I’ve come up with is ‘chamdarae’ which is a recently created term for kiwifruit grown domestically. Imported kiwifruit are still called kiwi. The unspeakableness comes from the fact that ‘chamdarae’ means ‘real kiwi’ (‘cham’ meaning real and ‘darae’ being some kind of disused earlier term for the kiwi tree unknown to most non-experts). So if the domestically grown kiwis are ‘real kiwi’, that contrasts with a imported kiwis which must be ‘gajjadarae’ (fake kiwi).

Real kiwi – nice. Perhaps this is an example of the more general phenomenon in which the term “real” is retrofitted to a thing that we never previously felt the need to insist was real, since it just was; but at some point people begin to fear that it’s under threat from some putatively fake version. At this point the old thing must be explicitly labelled as authentic, the “real deal”. Hence, perhaps, Coca-Cola’s insistence that it is “the real thing”; or the phrase “real ale”, which must be distinguished from the sinister beverages sold in your local chain pub. (I admit that I once assumed, in my blissful ignorance of Spanish, that the football team Real Madrid was defending itself against a team of impostors who also claimed to play for that city.)

A similar thing appears to have happened to give birth to the phrase “real time”, which only became necessary after cinematic editing practices and computer technology had fragmented and expanded or compressed time in new ways. So it was a novelty for a computer to run a data analysis in “real time” (first OED citation: 1953), or for a TV show such as 24 to unfold in an approximation of “real time”.

And what about “real life”? OED‘s first example of the phrase has Thomas Jefferson saying, in a 1771 letter, that “real life” is not sufficient for education:

Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life.

Jefferson appears to concede that history is not really life (and so somehow an inauthentic shadow of it), but argues nonetheless that it is a necessary adjunct to the “real”. As SW points out in comments, the context makes clear that Jefferson is not opposing history to “real life” but insisting that “real life”, when written as history, is inadequate as a moral tutor, since so little virtue can be found in it. Later usages did not often preserve Jefferson’s ironical scepticism, more usually implying straightforward denunciations of “real” life’s supposed competitors – fictional, theoretical, or latterly electronic simulations. (Just as appeals to the associated concept of the “real world” often encode a denunciation of theory or analysis – or, indeed, law – in favour of the particular bias or “realism” on which the speaker congratulates himself.) Besieged as it finds itself to be by the multiplicity of simulation, the appeal to “real life” seems increasingly poignant.

Real life, real time, real kiwis – what other things should we be keeping real, readers?


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