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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.

  1. 1  University Update - Iraq - Stain the engagement  June 25, 2007, 12:46 pm 

    […] North Korea Link to Article iraq Stain the engagement » Posted at Unspeak on Monday, June 25, 2007 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 View Entire Article » […]

  2. 2  richard  June 26, 2007, 8:42 am 

    One of our squads reinforced by a squad of Iraqi Army soldiers

    I think I understand where “involved in the shootings” comes from. Perhaps if US marines kill a nameless bunch of Iraqis it’s irresponsible and displays a wanton use of force, while Iraq army units doing it are “standing up.”

  3. 3  Thom  June 26, 2007, 9:53 am 

    How long before we hear ‘Killing the village to save the village’?

    Actually, that sounds so unsophisticated these days. ‘Neutralising the village to prepare it for democracy’.

  4. 4  Steven  June 26, 2007, 10:30 am 

    I remember trying to track down a reliable source for “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it” while writing Unspeak, and not finding one, so ended up hedging by calling it “possibly apocryphal”. Does anyone know?

    Richard, the exact role of the Iraqi soldiers present was elaborated by one of the Marines at his pre-trial hearing:

    He said he watched how his squad leader, Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich, shot five Iraqis who were trying to surrender and then told his men to lie about the killings.

    “They were just standing, looking around, had hands up,” Sgt Dela Cruz said. “Then I saw one of them drop in the middle. I didn’t know what was going on, sir. Looked to my left, saw Staff Sergeant Wuterich shooting.”

    The Iraqi civilians had been standing by a white car with their hands interlocked behind their heads when they were shot, Sgt Dela Cruz says.

    “He [St Sgt Wuterich] told me that if anybody asked, they were running away and the Iraqi army shot them,” Sgt Dela Cruz said.

  5. 5  Guano  June 26, 2007, 2:14 pm 

    “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” This was a quote attributed by Peter Arnett to an anonymous American major speaking about the town of Ben Tre, the main town in Ben Tre province, Vietnam, after the Americans had heavily bombarded it. Arnett wrote this quote on February 7th 1968. As we don’t know who else was there at the time and who the major was, it is going to be very difficult to prove or disprove that it was actually said. Those of us who were around at the time liked the quote because it seemed to sum up what was happening in Vietnam as a whole.

  6. 6  Steven  June 26, 2007, 2:19 pm 

    Ah, thank you Guano. I agree: it’s one of those things that’s true even if it isn’t.

  7. 7  murenhausen  June 26, 2007, 3:40 pm 

    Sorry if this deflects from the current topic, but…Tony Blair -Peacemaker?! Now that’s GOT to be unspeak…!!! It could only be worse, surely, if Bush got sent as ‘Saviour’ or ‘Prophet’…

  8. 8  Thom  June 27, 2007, 11:50 am 

    Murenhausen – its certainly irony, possibly stretching to megolomania, delusions of grandeur, and a seriously warped worldview.

    I make it 5 wars/armed interventions that Bomber Blair has lead Britain into

  9. 9  Thom  June 27, 2007, 11:51 am 

    Four! Four wars. Apologies

  10. 10  Alex Higgins  June 27, 2007, 6:16 pm 

    “Four! Four wars. Apologies”

    It depends what you count.

    British interventionism in the Thrid World is so extensive, the country is, in effect, never at peace.

    Blair sent special forces to Colombia for instance, in support of the bad cause of bolstering the Uribe government. That sort of thing happens so often, it’s hard to keep count.

  11. 11  Workshy Fop  June 28, 2007, 11:49 am 

    Incidentally, I think Blair becoming a peace envoy shows that at least he’s beginning to act independently of the Americans.

    The level of irony is far too sophisticated for it to have been drawn up by the septics.

  12. 12  Steven  June 28, 2007, 1:04 pm 

    Not to worry – Blair’s role is to be economics not peace, since Condoleezza Rice, she of sustainable ceasefire etc, evidently has the latter sewn up.

  13. 13  redpesto  June 28, 2007, 5:27 pm 

    There’s a paradox re. ‘stain the engagement’. There are some marital traditions which involve the public display of a sheet to show that there’s blood on it, thus proving the bride is a virgin. On the other hand, stained sheets as an indicate of (illicit) sexual activity don’t usually involve blood.

  14. 14  richard  June 28, 2007, 5:45 pm 

    I wonder if Blair will join Major and accept a formal pay arrangement from Carlyle Group.

    In the article you linked to, Fahd Kheitan, of the Jordanian daily Al Arab al Youm is startlingly kind about British diplomatic efforts in the middle east, I think (my own opinion is that they’ve been a fiasco at least since WW1): “Blair is hated so much here — he took the Bush line all the way, and he was not worthy of Britain’s past diplomacy.”

    It’s amazing how many past messes look comparatively good, these days.

  15. 15  murenhausen  June 29, 2007, 9:31 pm 

    ok…so, does this not ‘stain’ his ‘engagement’?
    he is, after all, the only british prime minister to have been questiond once, let alone THREE times…what the hell are we going to do about this? i mean, rather than sitting around analysing it…

  16. 16  richard  June 29, 2007, 10:29 pm 

    Cash for honours doesn’t seem to me like a problem on a par with cash for questions, or cash for (PPP) policy. On the other hand, as with Capone and tax evasion, if it’s the one charge that can be made to stick…

    I don’t know that I can do anything about it: I’d’ve thought one would need a good background in the law. On the other hand, Blair makes an inviting target, now that he’s no longer in office; if he did get prosecuted I would think it would send a chill through those still in office.

  17. 17  richard  June 29, 2007, 10:29 pm 

    …sorry: PPI policy.

  18. 18  JBoom  June 30, 2007, 7:26 pm 

    So, Richard, if you can’t do anything about, what are you and we all wasting time trying to be clever about the analysis of what these clowns are saying? Get out and enjoy the sunshine.

    As much as I enjoyed the Unspeak book, to be honest, so what?

  19. 19  richard  July 1, 2007, 10:01 pm 

    JBoom, I took your advice today and it was delightful. Thanks.

    I was referring specifically to the case of indicting Blair, which, it strikes me, requires some specialised knowledge that cannot be speedily acquired. If someone with the requisite knowledge were to offer their services, and if they were looking for help (stamping envelopes, raising money) then perhaps I could do something after all.

    I am not quite so defeatist as to say that there is no point in thinking about what politicians tell us in general, because there’s nothing we can do anyway. The politicians are only human, and their plans are the plans of men, after all. However, dissent, like consent, needs to be informed, and any political actor needs to know what their own and others’ statements are doing. I see Steven’s efforts as being aimed at creating an informed public, and giving them a grasp of the tools used in public discourse, so that they can engage in consent or dissent regarding the things done in their name. This is, in itself, definitely ‘doing something.’

    For myself, outside of this forum I am almost entirely politically quiet. I also feel that it’s likely impossible to make much of a difference to the actions of political leaders unless you make that your more-than-full-time vocation – something I’m not ready to commit to right now. Nonetheless, I find the discussions on this site useful, for helping me to form my own ideas and positions on things. And who knows, I’m still some decades away from the average age of politicians either in England or America; maybe one day I’ll chuck in my day job and engage more actively in trying to make politicians more accountable to the law.

  20. 20  Jeff Strabone  July 2, 2007, 1:25 am 

    There is plenty more that Richard and others can do. One thing to do is to call one’s legislators, local or national, and introduce oneself to both the legislators and to their staffs. One might be surprised to learn how pleased they are to hear from the previously quiet. Once one gets to know the staffers, one can readily call them with policy suggestions and whatnot.

    Another thing to do is to join a local activist group. By attending one or two meetings a month, one can help shape the group’s agenda and others in the group might do the work of making politicians heeds the agenda.

    Surely, the more time one devotes, the more one can achieve. But plenty can be achieved with less effort than one typically thinks.

  21. 21  Leinad  July 2, 2007, 8:27 am 

    OT: I’ve just noticed media outlets and describing the Keystone-esque London and Glasgow car bombs as Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices and ‘Iraq-style carbombs’. I call unspeak.

    1) VBIED? WTF? Why not just turn CAR BOMB into a huge acronym while you’re at it (Compact Assault Road Blast Ordinance MoBile anyone?)? I have no idea where the military get this fetish for acronyms but in this case it serves to blur the nature of the weapon while car-bomb, truck-bomb, cart-bomb, bus-bomb , pantomime horse-bomb (hyphenated or conjoined to one’s pleasure) and the like serve as short, clear descriptors. No one called Richard Reed’s crappy contraption an ‘Enclosed Podiatory Vector Delivered Improvised Explosive Device’: EPVDIED — or a least they better not’ve…

    2) IED is obfuscatory in it’s own right. ‘Improvised’ appears to be used as the opposite of ‘conventional’ — but the explosive devices themselves are frequently conventional munitions or landmines, and their assembly methods are often more Kenny G than Be-bop. Whole factories have been found churning these things out using Motorola(TM) transmitters and 155mm artillery shells. If they’re sophisticated and fit for industrial wholesale, that’s kinda stretching the definitions of ‘improvised’.

    3) ‘Iraq-style’ carbombs? Those things? They didn’t even have explosives, just gasoline, nails and a shonky detonator. Regardless of the long provenance of the VBIED the first ( -hyperlinks appear to be gobbling prose) of which was deployed by an American anarchist using horse and cart and it’s modern refinement by the Stern Gang in 1947; this current spate of attacks pale in comparison. No doubt they’d be exceptionally unpleasant to passers-by had they gone off, but Stevens, Limey pleez, that shit ain’t Bali or Baghdad, it’s backyard kiddie steez. Four young guys from Tassie with some fertiliser and an rusty auto-wreck put these clods to shame — luckily they were making a documentary about the dangers of Australia’s lax fertiliser access laws.

    4.Note that this kind of alarmist ‘Al Qaeda is taking this to the next level’ shite is coming out in spite of the much more effective and deadly attacks of two years previously. If AQ is behind this attack they’re looking decidedly worse for wear.

  22. 22  B  July 5, 2008, 11:45 am 

    Murder is murder.

  23. 23  leinad  July 6, 2008, 6:53 am 

    Glib is glib.

  24. 24  Steven  July 6, 2008, 11:57 am 

    Live is life.

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