UK paperback

Commander in Chief

Command and conquer

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent discussion about references to George W Bush, by himself and others, as the, or “our”, “Commander-in-Chief”. The phrase as used in that fashion is already Unspeak, since it conveniently leaves out the fact that, according to the Constitution, Bush is “Commander-in-Chief” only of the armed forces, while generating an alternative picture of him commanding the country as a whole, irrespective of the whims of the other branches of government – rather in the manner, you might say, of a military dictator. (On Friday, to the prospect of Congress challenging his plan to send “reinforcements” to Iraq, he retorted: “I’m the decision-maker”.) Of course, regular appeals in Bush’s legislative signing statements to his status as “Commander-in-Chief” and to the “unitary executive doctrine” notwithstanding, he does not, at least according to the Constitution that still obtains, command the country as a whole. Every American who is not a soldier may reply: You are not the Commander-in-Chief of me.

A propos of which, via hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, this article claims that Bush was already fantasizing about starting a war and glorying in the role of “Commander-in-Chief” back in 1999:

“He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. “It was on his mind. He said to me: ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.’ He said, ‘If I have a chance to invade·.if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

If I have a chance to invade… So the point of the long-dreamed-of war in Iraq was primarily for Bush to “be seen as a commander-in-chief” and acquire the “political capital” he needed to do anything he wanted domestically. On that score, the war may after all be accounted a great success.


Active denial

Of rayguns and ‘assault weapons’

The USAF yesterday showed off to the media its new raygun, the “Active Denial System”, which I had previously blogged about here. Don’t be confused by the name: rather than consisting of men shouting “NO!” through megaphones, the system is a weapon that irradiates human skin to create an intolerable burning sensation.

“This is one of the key technologies for the future,” said Marine Col. Kirk Hymes, director of the non-lethal weapons program at Quantico, Va., which helped develop the new weapon. “Non-lethal weapons are important for the escalation of force, especially in the environments our forces are operating in.”

Sci-fi dreamers who thought that “key technologies for the future” might include new ways to fight disease, maglev trains or interplanetary exploration obviously have a rose-tinted idea of the world to come. And what about this idea that the ADS and its ilk “are important for the escalation of force”? (Col Hymes clearly didn’t get the memo about avoiding the word “escalation”.) I suppose it means that currently, on the low end of the spectrum of “denial”, you can either shout at people or shoot them, if you are not physically close enough to them to take them indoors and start beating them up. The lack of any option between shouting at and shooting funny-looking distant people is perhaps a frustrating gap in an otherwise smooth continuum of “escalation of force” – shoot them with sidearms, shoot them with rifles, shoot them with missiles, et cetera. So the ADS fills that gap nicely.

Jack Shafer, editor at large of Slate, who this week wrote a very kind review of Unspeak and a follow-up article, wrote to make an excellent point:

“Active denial system” sounds like unspeak and a definition of unspeak.

A very nice observation. Unspeak is a system of denial, but not a passive system: it denies one thing while actively promulgating another view. It is indeed an “active denial system”.

In reponse to Shafer’s articles, Slate readers have also been offering examples of their own. One of the most well-reasoned came from antsi in the forum, who wrote about the term “assault weapon”:

“Assault rifle” describes a lightweight, fully automatic, medium-power carbine. This is a real term with an actual meaning.

“Assault weapon” was invented by gun control legislators to mean “any kind of firearm we want to ban this week.” The term also picks up additional loading from its intentional confounding with fully automatic assault rifles such as are used by the military. “Assault weapon” certainly does not refer to fully automatic weapons, since these were restricted under a 1934 federal law and any additional ban would have no effect. In many TV news stories about “assault weapons,” footage of fully automatic weapons is shown, adding to the public confusion about what kind of guns they are trying to ban.

The term “assault weapon” does carry an unspoken argument because it implies that there is no legitimate use for these firearms – no use at all other than “assaulting” someone. In fact, many of the firearms included on in the “banned lists” are designed for hunting or target competition. Others, particularly multi-shot shotguns, are particularly well suited to lawful home defense – but of course “defense weapon” doesn’t sound like something that needs to be banned right away.

You might want to interrogate the arguments bound up in antsi’s appeal to “lawful home defense”, which seeks to pre-empt any questions of legality and justification for “escalation of force”. On the other hand, the term “gun control” itself is Unspeak – it is not guns themselves that are out of control, gleefully marauding across America; and “control” is a more soothing way to say “regulation”, which is anathema to many. In any case, antsi’s unpacking of “assault weapon” seems cogent. Any kind of weapon may be used to “assault” someone: that potential is already analytically present in the very idea of a weapon. So “assault weapon” actively denies the possibility that a weapon might have legitimate non-assault uses; while “defense weapon” actively denies the possibility that people do in fact regularly attack other people with their guns. Perhaps the term “weapon” alone is the victim of verbal inflation, so that it no longer sounds scary enough on its own, and must be argumentatively enhanced.

The description of the “Active Denial System” as a “non-lethal weapon”, meanwhile, actively denies the possibility that the weapon in question might kill someone, which “non-lethal weapons” often do. You might not be completely reassured by the probabilistic statement of one airman to the AP about the new raygun:

There should be no collateral damage to this.

Actively denying what needs further to be cloaked in another term of Unspeak – “collateral damage” – this statement seems rather lonely and forlorn in the celebratory atmosphere of USAF’s media day. An event of “active denial” in many senses.



Whaling and gnashing of teeth

From an excellent new Natural History Museum book, Troubled Waters: The Changing Fortunes of Whales and Dolphins by Sarah Lazarus, a description of Japan’s “scientific whaling operation”, JARPA II in 2005:

Of an intended haul of 935 minke whales, 853 were harvested along with ten fin whales.

“Harvested”? Since the harvest is originally the collection in autumn of the ripe corn and other crops, you might think that it still carries a sense of reaping what you sow, ie getting out what you put in. Is it then accurate to apply it to the hunting of wild animals? The OED tells us that it has been so applied since at least 1947, citing uses of “harvest” to mean the killing of animals as various as fish, deer, seals and hippos.

But this is clearly a long-standing example of Unspeak. To call the messy and often drawn-out killing of whales with explosive harpoons a “harvesting” is to Unspeak that reality by evoking a placid agricultural idyll, and in the process downgrading the suffering of intelligent mammals to the status of the feelings of a stalk of wheat. At its base we can spy, too, the persistence of an idea of “dominion” of humans over all the planet’s life. (If it’s already ours, then to say we “harvest” it might make more sense in at least this way.) It’s so subtly persuasive, indeed, that we can imagine the usage gaining wider currency. Surely President Bush could recast the situation in Iraq as a “harvest” of troublemakers?



Bush: you won’t get me, I’m part of the Union

President Bush’s State of the Union address last night contained much crucial information, particularly the climactic assurance that:

The State of our Union is strong.

– which will have reassured the millions worrying that California was planning to secede. Perhaps the high point was the new term for the troop increase in Iraq, which in retrospect is so perfect it’s a wonder the government didn’t settle on it months ago:

So we’re deploying reinforcements of more than 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Iraq.

“Reinforcements” – of course! It’s brilliant. Emotionally, “reinforcements” easily trumps the now-obsolete controversy over “escalation” vs “surge” (and wasn’t one big problem with the word “surge”, by the way, the fact that it is already contained in the word “insurgents”?). “Reinforcements” focuses on the alleged needs of the soldiers, both US and Iraqi, already in Iraq: they are, so we suppose, radioing for backup in the face of an enemy onslaught, so who could deny them the help they need? “Reinforcements” is the cavalry coming over the hill, the thrilling turning point in a battle scene from a western or a second-world-war epic. It is Gandalf arriving with the dawn at Helm’s Deep. Frank Luntz, with your “reassessments” and “realignments”, eat your heart out. “Reinforcements” is where it’s at.

Mr Bush also announced:

We enter the year 2007 with large endeavors underway, and others that are ours to begin.

Other “large endeavours” that are “ours to begin”? Does that sound like a threat to you? Does its insistence on the choice being “ours” to start when “we” decide remind you of Bush’s threat to attack “at a time of our choosing” just before the invasion of Iraq? By coincidence, Bush also called for a doubling in size of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and made five mentions of the iniquity of Iran.

Bush closed with an oddly attenuated version of the usual benediction:

God bless.

Perhaps that stands as a recognition that it’s not only America that God needs to bless. In a way, it is generous. God help everyone.



Frank Luntz: a shadow of his former self

In an interview with Salon, notorious Republican Unspeak consultant Frank Luntz sets out his new linguistic philosophy:

The most important rule of language in 2007: It must be believable.

Believable is an interesting choice of word, isn’t it? Compared to alternatives such as, say, “accurate” or “fair” or “true”, believable carefully takes no position on whether it is desirable that a speaker should be honest. The only thing that counts is whether language functions to persuade the hearer: mere plausibility is the prime virtue.

Commenting on the word-fight around “surge” vs “escalation” to describe Bush’s commitment of more troops to Iraq (announcing which, as Luntz seems to be unaware, Bush did not actually use the word “surge”), Luntz suggests:

The president would have been better off focusing on “reassessment” and “realignment” – a reassessment of where we are and where we need to go, and a realignment of troops and resources.

Oh, Mr Luntz, this is thin gruel. Have you lost your celebrated mojo? It is true that “reassessment” and “realignment” are Unspeak, in that they deliberately conceal the fact of an increase of troops in Iraq. A “realignment” could simply involve ordering all troops to turn to face Mecca, or Las Vegas; or telling them to leave Iraq, perhaps via the border with Iran. And maybe the deadeningly abstract language of “reassessment” and “realignment” would have succeeded in putting a great number of Americans to sleep so that they wouldn’t notice what was going on. Nonetheless, “reassessment” and “realignment” do lack the zip and vim for which Luntz’s Unspeak is normally renowned.

Maybe Mr Luntz is having a crisis of confidence, since elsewhere in the interview he rewrites history in order to disown one of his noblest successes:

The issue to me is not whether there is global warming or climate change; the issue is the best policy to addressing it. That’s where the debate should have been.

But Mr Luntz! You undersell your own contribution! The reason why that’s not where the debate was is partly because you yourself so brilliantly advised the Republicans to confuse the issue about whether there was global warming at all! As you so cleverly warned them [pdf]:

It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of global warming […] climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge. […] Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.

Now that’s believability. From this to his present flaccid mumblings about “realignment”? What a falling-off was there. Let us hope Mr Luntz soon recovers from his imaginative slump, for the sake of America.



Anarchy in the UK

On Sunday, the Observer ran extracts from Nick Cohen’s new book:

On 15 February 2003 , about a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime. It was the biggest protest in British history, but it was dwarfed by the march to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime in Mussolini’s old capital of Rome, where about three million Italians joined what the Guinness Book of Records said was the largest anti-war rally ever. In Madrid, about 650,000 marched to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime in the biggest demonstration in Spain since the death of General Franco in 1975. In Berlin, the call to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime brought demonstrators from 300 German towns and cities, some of them old enough to remember when Adolf Hitler ruled from the Reich Chancellery […] On a memorable day, American scientists at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica produced another entry for the record books. Historians will tell how the continent’s first political demonstration was a protest against the overthrow of a fascist regime.


Mr C: Hi honey, I’m home! Shall we overthrow a fascist regime?

Mrs C: [TO HERSELF] Oh no, not again…

Mr C: Answer me! Shall we overthrow a fascist regime or not?

Mrs C: Which one is it this time?

Mr C: It doesn’t matter! Answer the question!

Mrs C: [DECIDES TO HUMOUR HIM] All right, how do you plan to do it?

Mr C: What do you mean?

Mrs C: Well, “overthrow” a “fascist regime”. “Overthrow” sounds quite vague, like “remove” or something. What is the actual plan?

Mr C: Well… obviously, we need to have a war!

Mrs C: A war?

Mr C: Yes, a short, sharp, clean war! With flowers and laptops raining down afterwards!

Mrs C: [SIPS TEA] Ah, so by “overthrow a fascist regime” you mean kill some people.

Mr C: We regret all collateral damage! And anyway the point is to save people!

Mrs C: By killing them?

Mr C: [SHOUTING] Do you hate justice? Do you spit on the idea of democracy? You can’t overthrow a fascist regime without breaking eggs!

Mrs C: I suppose you’re pretty sure you’re going to save more people than you kill?

Mr C: [SPLUTTERING] Th-th-that’s just . . . consequentialist sophistry! [WITH TRIUMPH] Islamo-utilitarianism! I can’t believe I’m hearing this!

Mrs C: Look, is war really the only option right now or –

Mr C: [WITH SUDDEN QUIET MENACE] What, are you a pussy?

Mrs C: Excuse me?

Mr C: I said, are you a snivelling pussy?

Mrs C: I’m your wife.

Mr C: You’re secretly a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, aren’t you? All so-called ‘liberals’ are the same!

Mrs C: This is getting absurd –

Mr C: [GESTICULATING WILDLY] Shut up! Do you want to overthrow a fascist regime or not? Yes or no?

Mrs C: Well, darling, I’m really not convinced that a war right now is the best –

Mr C: [CLUTCHES HEAD AND SCREAMS] Oh my god! I can’t believe that you support a fascist regime! My wife is in love with totalitarianism! You fascist! That’s it! I’m leaving!



The anti-terrorist response

The ‘attack on Yugoslavia’

It’s a useful rule of thumb that, if you ever see the phrase “attack on Yugoslavia” to describe the 1999 Nato bombing of Serbs (which was officially codenamed, somewhat optimistically, “Merciful Angel”), you are dealing with an apologist for genocide and may ignore everything said thereafter. So it is with this craven CiF post by Neil Clark. By 1999, “Yugoslavia” only existed vestigially as Milosevic’s “Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”, comprising the republics of Serbia and Montenegro, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia having fallen apart by 1992. And Kosovo was part of FRY itself, though unwillingly. So to say that 1999’s war was an “attack on Yugoslavia” arguably constitutes an implicit attempt to blur or Unspeak the role of Serbs, in particular, in events leading up to the war, and to portray the country as a peaceful, homogeneous whole, victim of unwarranted external aggression. Clark also happily perpetrates this sinister piece of Unspeak:

The west encouraged a terrorist group, the KLA, to provoke the Yugoslav authorities, and when the anti-terrorist response from Belgrade came…

The anti-terrorist response? A fine example, in a pseudo-argument ostensibly opposed to state violence, of defending state violence in the perpetrators’ own Unspeak terms (I am reminded of the 1994 Russian invasion of Chechnya being officially described as “the anti-terrorist special operation of the Russian troops”). In this sense the wilder conspiriologists of “anti-war” writing agree perfectly with Tony Blair that the choice is stark and binary: either all our wars are justified or none of them could ever be. Think you can pick and choose, by weighing, for instance, an actually occurring humanitarian catastrophe over here against a lack of evidence of any threat over there? Evidently, that’s not how the world is.


Not how the world is

Blair: the endless desirability of war

Begging your sufferance, I belatedly turn to Tony Blair’s “defence” speech, delivered on board HMS Plymouth Albion last week, and find that, although the PM has not suddenly become any more impressive a thinker, he has at least been collecting new euphemisms. Blair rarely talks of starting wars, but scrabbles around for all kind of bureaucratic circumlocutions, from “hard power” to this particularly fine construction:

In October 2001, the Taleban in Afghanistan was subject to military action. Within two months by the use of vast airpower, they were driven from office.

Not only must the story be cast, clumsily, in the passive voice, it appears that to be bombed is now to be “subject to military action”. Interesting, this use of “subject to”. When it is said that people who break some bylaw will be “subject to” fines or imprisonment, it carries a sense of deserved vulnerability to an impersonally imposed punishment. Blair thus casts the story as the Taleban offending objective cosmic justice and paying the price. When a first-person plural finally appears, it is to celebrate our prudence: “The cost to our forces was minimal.”

Tony has also been busy rewriting history:

Eighteen months later, with Saddam consistently refusing to abide by UN Resolutions and with alarm at the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, Iraq was invaded. This time it was more difficult and more costly. Nonetheless, Saddam was removed within 3 months, again by the exercise of overwhelming military firepower.

Notice again the passive voice: “Iraq was invaded.” You might enjoy, too, the cunning lie about Saddam “consistently refusing to abide by UN Resolutions” (he was complying with inspections, according to the inspectors themselves, until the inspectors were pulled out), and the subtle transformation of the motivations claimed by the impersonal dispensers of objective justice. Whereas it was announced at the time that Saddam specifically had “stockpiles” of chemical and biological weapons, Blair now retreats, because Saddam did not in fact have such stockpiles, to the invocation of generalised “alarm at the proliferation” of such weapons, as well as of nuclear weapons, which even the US and UK governments did not claim Saddam actually had at the time.

Meanwhile, the useful term “removed” makes another of its regular appearances, to be twinned with the use of “driven from office” for the Taleban. One may as easily be “driven from office” by a tabloid revelation as by a bombing campaign, and so war is described in terms of political business as usual. The fact that the “exercise” of military “force” or “action” involves killing people and destroying things is soothingly sidelined by these terms of abstract political machismo, “removed” and “driven”.

The main message of Blair’s speech was that Britain should not be satisfied with peacekeeping but should continue to start wars. What kind of wars? Well, it seems, any old wars. Don’t believe me? I quote:

There is a case for Britain in the early 21st Century, with its imperial strength behind it, to slip quietly, even graciously into a different role. We become leaders in the fight against climate change, against global poverty, for peace and reconciliation; and leave the demonstration of “hard” power to others. I do not share that case but there is quite a large part of our opinion that does. Of course, there will be those that baulk at the starkness of that choice. They will say yes in principle we should keep the “hard” power, but just not in this conflict or with that ally. But in reality, that’s not how the world is.

That’s not how the world is. What is not how the world is? Well, the idea that “we should keep the ‘hard’ power, but just not in this conflict or with that ally”. In other words, and please let me know if I am translating too liberally: the idea that one might carefully choose which wars are justified and which not. What a silly idea! That’s not how the world is. It’s all wars or none of them. Is this really what Blair said? I’ve read it several times and can’t find any more generous interpretation. He continues:

The reason I am against this case, is that for me “hard” and “soft” power are driven by the same principles. The world is interdependent. That means we work in alliance with others. But it also means problems interconnect. Poverty in Africa can’t be solved simply by the presence of aid. It needs the absence of conflict. Failed states threaten us as well as their own people. Terrorism destroys progress. Terrorism can’t be defeated by military means alone. But it can’t be defeated without it. Global interdependence requires global values commonly or evenly applied. But sometimes force is necessary to get the space for those values to be applied: in Sierra Leone or Kosovo for example. So, for me, the setting aside of “hard” power leads inexorably to the weakening of “soft” power.

Blair neglects to tell us which countries we will be compelled to invade in order to set the stage for the use of “soft power” in countering global warming or pandemic disease, but I’m sure that was just an oversight. War, after all, is endlessly useful, for it is the most vigorous form of talking:

When the Taleban murder a teacher in front of his class, as they did recently, for daring to teach girls; that is an act not just of cruelty but of ideology. Using force against them to prevent such an act is not “defence” in the traditional territorial sense of that word, but “security” in the broadest sense, an assertion of our values against theirs.

That’s right: bombing is moralizing speech, “an assertion of our values”. Our values are those of bombing. And we must bomb everywhere or not at all. I say to you now, we will bomb and bomb again until the whole world shares our bombing values. Thank you.


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