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'Beyond the Killing Fields': On the Language of War

3 years ago
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Five Politics Daily staffers -- Carl Cannon, Melinda Henneberger, Walter Shapiro, David Wood and James Grady -- are joining in an online discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, about politics and the press as seen through the prism of his new book, "Beyond The Killing Fields" and his reporting career.

Here is Schanberg's response to Grady, who asked him to expand on the concept of language as a political weapon and also talk a bit about some of the truly
Orwellian examples of Khmer Rouge "politically correct" speech.

As you point out, language is almost always a casualty when nation-states set out to sell their people on a war. I am not a pacifist. I believe some wars are unavoidable, such as when a power-hungry tyrant decides he wants to swallow you and erase your civilization. But many wars are clearly unnecessary and are perpetrated by regimes solely to amass power and restyle the world in their image, thereby intimidating competitor nations and winning re-election at home. Americans have been living in such madness and its after-shocks for the past decade.
Language is not the only device used in the marketing of wars, but it's a significant one. "Go Shopping" was President George W. Bush's mantra as he took us into the Iraq War. Usually presidents call for austerity and national sacrifice. Not Bush. He told Americans to take the modest tax rebate he had given them and spend it to keep the economy robust. Here we stand, almost a decade later, in our robust economy.
During the Vietnam War, military briefers called napalm "soft ordnance." After the war, the Pentagon announced that, because of the bad reputation of napalm, it had decided to end the use of the incendiary weapon. But then they started using it again in the first Gulf War in 1991 and again in Iraq. Oh, no, they told the press, those "fire bombs" aren't napalm. Translation: One chemical in the napalm mixture had been altered. Thus, they said, it can't be called napalm anymore. By the way, the effect of that chemical alteration now causes the weapon to burn its human targets more fiercely.
This is probably a good moment to raise the question of whether the United States is more bestial in war than other nations. From my years of covering wars close-up, the answer is no. Ours is one of the world's more disciplined military forces. It's war that by definition is bestial and insane. That's why presidents and politicians always say they consider war only as a last resort -- even when there is no evidence that they had considered any other options first.
Henry Kissinger's embrace of the word "realpolitik" was an effort to paint himself as a patriotic pragmatist and not as a man who cared little about the lives of the weak and powerless. I witnessed his handiwork in Cambodia, a small country trying to stay out of the Vietnam War. The Kissinger-Nixon military "incursion" into the country in 1970 -- an attempt to clean out North Vietnamese sanctuaries and supply lines -- dragged Cambodia full bore into the conflict. The weak Khmer Rouge communists then used the heavy American bombing as a recruiting tool in the countryside, a pattern that we have seen in Iraq and now in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In less than five years, the insurgents grew from scattered bands of an estimated 4,000 harassing trouble-makers into the guerrilla army of 70,000 that seized the capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975 and began their horrific purge of the population to make it "borisot" -- pure -- a word never before used to apply to human beings. The bourgeoisie, which the Khmer Rough called the "soft people," were to be erased. The verb they used was "komtec," meaning smash or kill. The targets were the educated, the citified people, anyone who had worked with foreigners. This "purification" took nearly two million lives – a quarter of Cambodia's population.
Kissinger, as Secretary of State, had adamantly refused to seek a peace treaty with the Khmer Rouge, an effort that other diplomats, including the American Ambassador to Cambodia, John Gunther Dean, thought might have muted this outcome.
The White House press corps seemed mostly fond of Kissinger. He was accessible. They could always get a quote or two from him for their page one stories. For a long time, many Washington reporters described him in print as "Dr. Kissinger," which he preferred. The honorific was for his graduate degrees. He had no connection to the medical profession, whose oath commands: "Do no harm."
Yes, corrupted language plays a significant part in the selling of wars, but an accommodating press that ignores its crucial adversarial role can be an even more defining contribution. A committed, energized press can expose the perverted language and perfumed falsehoods.
(The examples above of the Khmer Rouge use of Orwellian "Newspeak" come from the formidable first-hand research of Ben Kiernan in his ground-breaking book, "The Pol Pot Regime.")
Filed Under: Media, Military

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