The War of the Words
By Terry Jones
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. Thats what a proper war is like.
However, in Iraq, there isnt 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 Few).
So I suppose its reassuring to find the U.S. generals in Iraq so keen to emphasize the role played by Americas partners in bringing a better way of life to Iraq.
Then theres the problem of what the Americans are going to call the Iraqisespecially 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 its fiendishly difficult to get people to accept the label rebels for those Iraqis killed by American snipers whenas in Fallujathey 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 fighterswhen theyve been shot through the windscreen in the act of driving the wounded to hospitaland yet what other word can you use without making them sound like illegitimate targets?
I hope youre beginning to see the problem.
The key thing, I suppose, is to try to call U.S. mercenaries civilians or civilian contractors, while calling Iraqi civilians fighters or insurgents.
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, theres the handover of power thats 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 U.S. insists that it has been carrying out negotiations with the Mujahedeen in Falluja. These negotiations consist of the U.S. military demanding that the Mujahedeen hand over all their rocket-propelled grenade launchers, in return for which the U.S. military will not blast the city to kingdom come. Now theres a danger that this all sounds like one side threatening the other, rather than negotiationswhich, after all, usually implies some give and take on both sides.
As for the word ceasefire, its 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 conflictin 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 knee-jerk 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, well 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.
The Guardian, April 30, 2004