|The war of the words
Friday April 30, 2004
One of the chief problems with the current exciting adventure in Iraq is
that no one can agree on what to call anyone else.
In the second world war we were fighting the Germans, and the Germans
were fighting us. Everyone agreed who was fighting who. That's what a
proper war is like.
However, in Iraq, there isn't even any agreement on what to call the
Americans. The Iraqis insist on calling them "Americans", which seems,
on the face of it, reasonable. The Americans, however, insist on
referring to themselves as "coalition forces". This is probably the
first time in history that the United States has tried to share its
military glory with someone else.
Hollywood, for example, is forever telling us it was the Americans who
won the second world war. It was an American who led the break-out from
the prison camp Stalag Luft III in The Great Escape; the Americans who
captured the Enigma machine in the film U571; and Tom Cruise who
single-handedly won the Battle of Britain (in his latest project, The
So I suppose it's reassuring to find the US generals in Iraq so keen to
emphasise the role played by America's partners in bringing a better way
of life to Iraq.
Then there's the problem of what the Americans are going to call the
Iraqis - especially the ones that they kill. You can call people who are
defending their own homes from rockets and missiles launched from
helicopters and tanks "fanatics and terrorists" only for so long.
Eventually even newspaper readers will smell a rat.
Similarly it's fiendishly difficult to get people to accept the label
"rebels" for those Iraqis killed by American snipers when - as in
Falluja - they turn out to be pregnant women, 13-year-old boys and old
men standing by their front gates.
It also sounds a bit lame to call ambulance drivers "fighters" - when
they've been shot through the windscreen in the act of driving the
wounded to hospital - and yet what other word can you use without making
them sound like illegitimate targets?
I hope you're beginning to see the problem.
The key thing, I suppose, is to try to call US mercenaries "civilians"
or "civilian contractors", while calling Iraqi civilians "fighters" or
Describing the recent attack on Najaf, the New York Times happily hit
upon the word "militiamen". This has the advantage of being a bit vague
(nobody really knows what a "militiaman" looks like or does), while at
the same time sounding like the sort of foreigners any responsible
government ought to kill on sight.
However, the semantic problems in Iraq run even deeper than that.
For example, there's the "handover of power" that's due to take place on
June 30. Since no actual "power" is going to be handed over, the
coalition chaps have had to find a less conclusive phrase. They now talk
about the handover of "sovereignty", which is a suitably elastic notion.
And besides, handing over a "notion" is a damn sight easier than handing
over anything concrete.
Then again, the US insists that it has been carrying out "negotiations"
with the mojahedin in Falluja. These "negotiations" consist of the US
military demanding that the mojahedin hand over all their
rocket-propelled grenade launchers, in return for which the US military
will not blast the city to kingdom come. Now there's a danger that this
all sounds like one side "threatening" the other, rather than
"negotiations" - which, after all, usually implies some give and take on
As for the word "ceasefire", it's difficult to know what this signifies
anymore. According to reliable witness reports from Falluja, the new
American usage makes generous allowance for dropping cluster bombs and
flares, and deploying artillery and snipers.
But perhaps the most exciting linguistic development is to be found away
from the areas of conflict - in the calm of the Oval Office, where very
few people get killed for looking out of their windows. Here words such
as "strategy" and "policy" are daily applied to the kneejerk reactions
of politicians and military commanders who think that brute force is the
only way to resolve difficult problems in a delicate situation. As Major
Kevin Collins, one of the officers in charge of the marines in Falluja,
put it: "If you choose to pick a fight, we'll finish it."
In the past, one might have used a phrase such as "numbskull stupidity"
rather than "strategy". But then, language has a life of its own ...
which is more than one can say for a lot of innocent Iraqis.
* Terry Jones is a writer, film director, actor and Python