Words and War
It takes at least tacit faith in massive violence to believe that after three decades of horrendous violence in Afghanistan, upping the violence there will improve the situation.
Despite the pronouncements from high Washington places that the problems of Afghanistan can’t be solved by military means, 90 percent of the spending for Afghanistan in the Obama administration’s current supplemental bill is military.
Often it seems that lofty words about war hopes are boilerplate efforts to make us feel better about an endless warfare state. Oratory and punditry laud the Pentagon’s fallen as noble victims of war, while enveloping its other victims in a haze of ambiguity or virtual nonexistence.
When last Sunday’s edition of the Washington Post printed the routine headline “Iraq War Deaths,” the newspaper meant American deaths -- to Washington’s ultra-savvy, the deaths that really count. The only numbers and names under the headline were American.
Ask for whom the bell tolls. That’s the implicit message -- from top journalists and politicians alike.
A few weeks ago, some prominent U.S. news stories did emerge about Pentagon air strikes that killed perhaps a hundred Afghan civilians. But much of the emphasis was that such deaths could undermine the U.S. war effort. The most powerful media lenses do not correct the myopia when Uncle Sam’s vision is impaired by solipsism and narcissism.
Words focus our attention. The official words and the media words -- routinely, more or less the same words -- are ostensibly about war, but they convey little about actual war at the same time that they boost it. Words are one thing, and war is another.
Yet words have potential to impede the wheels of war machinery. “And henceforth,” Albert Camus wrote, “the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.”
A very different type of gamble is routinely underway at the centers of political power, where words are propaganda munitions. In Washington, the default preference is to gamble with the lives of other people, far away.
More than 40 years ago, Country Joe McDonald wrote a song (“An Untitled Protest”) about war fighters: who “pound their feet into the sand of shores they've never seen / Delegates from the western land to join the death machine.” Now, tens of thousands more of such delegates are on the way to Afghanistan.
In pseudo-savvy Washington, “appearance is reality.” Killing and maiming, fueled by appropriations and silence, are rendered as abstractions.
The deaths of people unaligned with the Pentagon are the most abstract of all. No wonder the Washington Post is still printing headlines like “Iraq War Deaths.” Why should Iraqis qualify for inclusion in Iraq war deaths?
There’s plenty more media invisibility and erasure ahead for Afghan people as the Pentagon ramps up its war effort in their country.
War thrives on abstractions that pass for reality.
There are facts about war in news media and in presidential speeches. For that matter, there are plenty of facts in the local phone book. How much do they tell you about the most important human realities?
Millions of words and factual data pour out of the Pentagon every day. Human truth is another matter.
My father, Morris Solomon, recently had his ninetieth birthday. He would be the first to tell you that his brain has lost a lot of capacity. He doesn’t recall nearly as many facts as he used to. But a couple of days ago, he told me: “I know what war is. It’s stupid. It’s ruining humanity.”
That’s not appearance. It’s reality.