Death and Discourse

Death and Discourse

“They got whacked and won’t try that again,” said an unnamed Pentagon official in the wake of the recent deadly confrontation in the Iraqi town of Samarra.


“They got whacked and won’t try that again,” said an unnamed Pentagon official in the wake of the recent deadly confrontation in the Iraqi town of Samarra. The attack on two US convoys by Iraqi insurgents was described in only slightly less teacherly tones by Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “They attacked, and they were killed. So I think it will be instructive to them.” The battle resulted in five Americans being wounded and anywhere from eight to fifty-four Iraqi dead, a number that remains uncertain, given the Pentagon’s general lack of commitment to counting Iraqi deaths of soldiers or civilians.

Perhaps these Sopranos-style depictions of deadly firefights as “instructive” are merely the words of hardened soldiers in the grip of the kind of adrenaline rush that comes with close brushes with death. With terrorism as a driving force in the world and The Terminator as entertainment backdrop, I am aware that the day of the euphemistically inclined gentleman soldier is long over. No one expects soldiers to be diplomats–indeed, no one expects diplomats at all from an Administration that has so openly disdained diplomacy itself. Nevertheless, I worry that much of what comes out of the mouths of Pentagon officials these days is utterly undisciplined and deeply unprofessional. From comments that we’re fighting a holy war against the evils of Islam, to the presidential invitation to “bring ’em on,” there is a kind of giddy, hopped-up video-game quality to the way our top brass discusses things.

However barbarous the foe we face, such muscle-flexing on our part displays an astonishing lack of awareness of the provocativeness of such language, not just to our enemies but to potential allies as well. Living inside the bubble of any discipline can reorder one’s values in ways that are startling to outsiders, I suppose. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of sitting through a criminal trial where bodily injury has occurred might have heard a forensics expert speak with unconscious enthusiasm about some “wonderful” picture of a “perfect” contusion. Communication is an art under any circumstance, and never more so than where matters life and death hang in the balance of better comprehension.

In 1987 Carol Cohn, a senior research scholar in the political science department at Wellesley College, wrote an article titled “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” Cohn had attended a two-week training program offered by military experts. Its purpose was to enable educators to better understand the strategic goals, technology and vocabulary of the nuclear era. What Cohn found was that by the end of all those intensive workshops among military brass, she and her fellow conferees came away with far more than just insight. They came away speaking a whole new language that had its own set of internal references, its own system of gendering objects and its own peculiar rituals. For example, missiles were often referred to in phallic terms. Whenever they visited warplanes or battleships, there was a bizarre little pause while everyone was given an opportunity to “pat the missile.” Of particular interest from today’s perspective, ordinary dictionary meanings were turned on their heads in the Pentagonese language. War was not just a means leading to the end of peace but actually came to mean peace. Likewise, there was “no word signifying peace” within this linguistic mode. To mention it was “immediately to brand oneself as a soft-headed activist instead of an expert, a professional to be taken seriously.”

Cohn spoke at a recent symposium on violence at Barnard College: “In contrast to just war theory,” she said, “this discourse is explicitly not centered on the ethics of warfare, but on its material and political practicalities…. In other words, the concerns of the dominant strategic discourse are limited to the destructive effects of the weapons when, and only when, they are detonated, and to the possible deterrent effects of possessing these weapons. There is scant attention to the potential suffering of targeted societies, and no attempt to evaluate complicated effects on possessor societies of deploying and developing these weapons, nor to grapple with the moral significance of willingly risking such massive, total destruction.”

As a “possessor society” ourselves, we must indeed begin to grapple with the totalizing power of this narrower discourse upon us. September 11 was a horrific trauma upon our national psyche, but in the space of those two years we have become less of who we were in ways that are increasingly self-inflicted. We have embraced ethnic and religious profiling of Arab-Americans and immigrants; we allow the indefinite detention of prisoners not charged with any crime; we shrug off the use of torture as an unfortunate but necessary option; we detain the innocent wives and children of Iraqi suspects and trash their homes as “punishment.” We are frightened, yes, but we seem also to have lost the ability to speak about the demise of due process, habeas corpus and regard for international law in any civic-minded way. Instead, the very language of dissent has been turned as upside-down as the notion of peace.

To criticize the Administration is persistently recast as a “personal attack.” “Bush-hating,” the newly and strategically minted Republican turn of phrase, is a semantic device that turns Democrats or other dissenters into duck hunters–reflexive emotional sportsmen rather than serious analysts of public policy. It’s just Northern peevishness about his folksiness rather than his policy of pre-emptive warfare. It’s about his twang rather than his reactionary judicial nominations. It’s about his cowboy boots, not the restriction of civil liberties. And indeed it does seem rather churlish to speak of anything so grim as casualties if the only question on the table is whether Bush is or isn’t a basically likable fellow, what with his down-home, turkey-serving, God-fearing, baseball-throwing, all-’round folksy-cowpoke manliness. But all that is quite beside the point. It will require the most courageous kind of citizenship to put our ears to the ground for the terrible resonance of all that whacking in the wilderness.

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