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03 April 2004

Serious, as promised, about the events in Iraq

It all started when I came across this now well-nigh blogged-to-death post on mercenaries from The Agonist. I'm sure he wasn't the first blogger to use the term "mercenaries" to describe what the mainstream media are calling "contractors". Mere minutes later, on the UK version of the Yahoo news site, I read an AP standard mainstream coverage of the Fallujah story, which consistently referred to the killing mob as "insurgents". I hope you will understand that I am not taking their side when I splutter "Insurgents into where from where?"

It is now a very old idea that Orwell brought forth so fresh and new in Politics and the English Language that the enforced use of a narrow list of approved words can lead to a docile populace only capable of thinking a narrow list of approved thoughts. So this is very blatant. (If I need to spell it out for you, the difference is in "contractors killed and mutilated by insurgents in a war zone" vs. "mercenaries killed and mutilated by citizens of an occupied town". You can choose which describes Fallujah.) The abuse of the English language for political ends is now so far advanced that mere rhetoric cannot break through the fog. It takes works of imagination, like the SF novel Jennifer Government which I read about a month ago and just finally reviewed today. If you care to read the review, you will see that in the near-future society it describes, this mania for privatization has proceeded to its expected hideous-but-funny (in a sick kind of way) conclusion. I'll bet some eyewitnesses in Iraq (not least the Iraqis themselves) would not find this novel funny at all.

The Blogosphere is abuzz with discussions about the mercenaries and the insurgents and the words that left, right and centre use to express their feelings about this pivotal moment in America's empire building. Those I have read that are of particular interest, and I am sure there are a lot more, but not enough time to find them all, are this highly personal reaction from the Daily Kos, and this almost exhaustive summary from Jeanne of Body and Soul. My intention here is not necessarily to add any new insight, but to simplify and distill the issue.

Finally, in the arena of words, I have to say something about the response from CPA head Paul Bremer, or maybe I should call him Fuehrer Bremer, given the inevitable historical referents his choice of words brought to mind. "Their deaths will not go unpunished." Sounds pretty reasonable, until you start to think about what it could mean in practice. Sure, this was a crime. But a bloodthirsty mob is not the same thing as a gang of criminals. It is almost impossible to know, and it is impossible to prove, individual culpability in a mob incident. Fascists and their historical antecedents and descendants don't worry about such things. They fire into a crowd, mow down a demonstration with armoured vehicles, or destroy a neighbourhood or village as a reprisal.

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