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July 22, 2017

The language of war


July 22, 2017

Finally it comes down to this: Some people are expendable. In certain parts of the world – where we and our allies are waging war – the expendable people come in two categories: terrorists (good riddance!) and civilians, whom we only kill if and when necessary, and whose deaths often elicit official apologies (if there’s no way to deny it was our fault).

Indeed, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, according to the Daily Beast, “There has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties.”

We care about civilians so much – especially children – that we actually inconvenience ourselves in our efforts (don’t ask for details) to avoid killing them. This is true even though civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq have risen more than fourfold since Donald Trump has been in office – according to a study for the Daily Beast conducted by the research organization Airwars – and Trump has famously unshackled the military so that, as Mattis put it, “we can annihilate ISIS” (or as Trump put it, “bomb the shit” out of ISIS).

The only way not to notice the insanity of all this is to believe, even reluctantly, in the need for the U.S. to keep on waging war in the Middle East and eventually defeat terrorism and evil. This is how much of the media report the news of war, even when they report it critically. The need to seek victory remains unquestioned. The role of the military in ‘keeping us safe’ remains unquestioned. And the language of war remains unchallenged, which means the death of civilians – indeed, the death of anyone who isn’t American or European – remains, however regrettable, nothing more than a cold abstraction.

I say this in the belief that murder begins with language. Words can convey the truth, but mostly they convey, at best, part of the truth. And that’s not enough.

Consider this matter-of-fact account, from a recent article in New York magazine, of the controversy over how many civilians have been killed in the Iraq-Syria war zones. Airwars put the figure, since 2014, at about 4,500, almost half of which have occurred post-Trump, while the official U.S. count is just over 600. “But”, the article notes, “the official numbers also reveal a sharp uptick in civilian deaths”. And suddenly I have to scream: Stop!

Every dead person is a human being. At some point . . . at some point . . . this has to matter. An uptick in civilian deaths? When I deconstruct this language, I encounter a shrug of indifference, a detached sense of necessity: What can you do? If the dead were Americans (white Americans), would the words be so cold and detached? On Sept. 11, 2001, there was an uptick of dead office workers in New York City…

Do moral issues cross political and cultural borders? Not when we call it war – though there has been a bizarrely tepid change in consciousness even about this in the last half century, at least in the uber-armed, planet-colonizing Western world.

Last May, for instance, Samuel Oakford’s article in Foreign Policy informed us:

“The United States’ coalition partners in the war against the Islamic State are responsible for at least 80 confirmed civilian deaths from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. military officials. Yet none of their 12 allies will publicly concede any role in those casualties.

“These dozen partner nations have launched more than 4,000 airstrikes combined, the vast majority of which were undertaken by the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. However, they have so far claimed a perfect record in avoiding civilian casualties”. Why? In today’s world, killing civilians – or publicly acknowledging these deaths, at any rate – is somehow morally iffy.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Dead Civilians and the Language of War’.


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