English is such a wonderfully malleable language, especially the American branch of it. New words, phrases, even recombined bits and pieces of words pour out of our mouths (or our computers) and — poof — before you know it, they’re in our lives and the dictionaries. Our new realities — whether the Internet (after all, I’m a “blogger” less than three years after I discovered the Internet existed) or George Bush’s global crusade, his “war on terrorism” (itself a new combination of words) — produce new vocabularies all the time, or drive more specialized vocabularies into wider usage.
“Blowback,” to take but one example, was an old CIA term for “the unintended consequences of covert operations [to overthrow foreign governments], kept secret from the American public.” An insider’s term, it initially appeared in the CIA’s after-action report on the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh’s government in Iran, the first successful CIA operation against a properly constituted government in our history. In 2000, Chalmers Johnson published a book by that title. It warned of “blowback” from global operations by our government of which Americans were largely ignorant. A little over a year later, members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda — in the early 1980s one of the Islamic fundamentalist groups armed and encouraged by the CIA and the Pakistani intelligence service in order to bleed the Russians dry in Afghanistan — smashed hijacked jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, offering a horrific televised example of blowback. The book, by then in paperback, made it to the center of 9/11 tables in bookstores around the country and the word left the precincts of Langley, Virginia, and along with “unintended consequences” entered our lives. It’s already in the dictionaries.
All this is my way of saying that, in the course of my daily readings, I’m often taken aback by terms — new to me at least — which seem to be bleeding out of various dark nooks and crannies of this administration. This is distinctly in the American grain. Whether the terms themselves are in the American grain — or what exactly our “grain” is these days – well, that’s another question, isn’t it?
Words and phrases of this sort bubbling into print are just little signs pointing to stealth phenomena of all sorts, should we care to look. And we should.
Here are two that I happened to stumble across in my readings of the last 24 hours — with a few comments:
Extraordinary rendition: Try to guess, as a start, what this pretzel phrase, right out of the murky but ever better funded world of “intelligence,” could possibly mean.
It’s actually an extraordinary rendition of and euphemism for torture — and not just any kind of torture either. I found the term in Christopher Pyle’s “Torture by Proxy” (1/4/04), a piece in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle Insight section, that lays out how immigration officials seized a Syrian-born Canadian, Maher Arar, as he changed planes at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, after he turned up on one of our murky watch-lists for possible terrorists. In a bleak odyssey of imprisonment, he then passed through the none-too-gentle hands of the New York City Police, the FBI, and finally (“presumably”) the CIA — or some unidentified Americans anyway — who flew him from Washington to Jordan where he was turned over to the Syrians for interrogation as a possible terrorist. Pyle writes:
“This covert operation was legal, our Justice Department later claimed, because Arar is also a citizen of Syria by birth. The fact that he was a Canadian traveling on a Canadian passport, with a wife, two children and job in Canada, and had not lived in Syria for 16 years, was ignored. The Justice Department wanted him to be questioned by Syrian military intelligence, whose interrogation methods our government has repeatedly condemned.”
He was put in a cell the size of a grave and “interrogated” — tortured — for ten months before being released when it became apparent that his ties to terrorism were nonexistent. And so to our term:
“Our intelligence agencies have a name for this torture-by-proxy. They call it ‘extraordinary rendition.’ As one intelligence official explained: ‘We don’t kick the s — out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the s — out of them.’ This secret program for torturing suspects has been authorized, if that is the right word for it, by a secret presidential finding. Where the president gets the authority to have anyone tortured has never been explained.”
All in all, not just an extraordinary rendition of torture but a verbal reflection of a new reality — that we have created a global mini-gulag that ranges from Guantanamo to Afghanistan and whose extralegal rules include the turning of “suspects” over to “friendly” — or even, it seems, in the case of Syria, less than friendly — regimes ready to apply kinds of the pressure we may prefer not to apply ourselves.
Here then is my second term:
Hunter-killer teams: If “extraordinary rendition” has all the bizarre power of euphemism behind it — as an unnaturally tortured verbal combination, doesn’t it actually seem worse than “torture by proxy”? — “hunter-killer teams” seems quite straightforward. I learned about them in some detail in a recent piece in the Washington Post by Gregory L. Vistica, “Military Split On How to Use Special Forces In Terror War,” (1/5/04). A hunter-killer team or “Special Mission Unit” is, essentially (as its name implies), a military assassination squad let loose on the world, sent “to kick down the doors”; that is, to hunt down terrorists and assumedly other enemies without regard to national boundaries, declarations of war, or, evidently, legalities “niceties” of any sort.
As an insider report, the Vistica piece largely focuses on military concerns over “restrictions” on the freedom of action of these teams, but it’s a wonderland of new language. It turns out, for instance, that our Secretary of Defense, who has a “global vision for the hunter-killer teams,” and has perhaps has seen too many Predator movies, is enamored of a “manhunter plan” to kick-down-global-doors and reorder our world. (No more “knock, knock” jokes for the Pentagon.)
Delta Force is one of these “Special Mission” groups and here’s another new phrase for our world: “Delta envy”: Writes Vistica, “But ‘Delta envy’ now permeates the ranks, especially among younger soldiers who realize early in their careers that the ‘kick down the door approach’ is what Washington wants, said one civilian advocate of unconventional warfare. ‘All they want to do is strike missions,’ he said.”
Any restrictions on loosing these teams on the world evidently causes high officials to break out in metaphor: “‘It was very, very frustratingâ€¦ It was like having a brand-new Ferrari in the garage, and nobody wants to race it because you might dent the fender,’ said Schoomaker, a former head of the Delta Force who is now the Army’s chief of staff. ‘We were never instructed [in the Clinton years] to mount a serious operation against bin Laden, never.’”
Let me stray for a moment here. The evidence for kick-down-the-door success these days, though without the assassination to go with it, has been Saddam’s capture. But as with so much in the Bush world of stealth and spin, even that heroic tale, broadcast to the world with copious inside shots of both the spiderhole where the former tyrant hid and his mouth, may turn out to have been but another Jessica Lynch moment. You simply can’t take a thing these people announce at face value. For them, even the camera is a liar. I normally tend to avoid stories like this — but persistent reports have been passing around the foreign (though not the American) media, perfectly reputable places like Agence France Presse, that Saddam was initially found, or even captured by Kurds, not Americans. I’m usually wary of such rumors, but on this one, given the administration’s rep thus far, I do wonder who kicked that door down (or the rug over the spider hole up). David Pratt in the Scottish paper, the Glasgow Sunday Herald, recently had a good summary of this developing tale that began (“Saddam’s capture: was a deal brokered behind the scenes?” 1/4/04):
“[F]or 249 days Saddam’s elusiveness had been a symbol of America‘s ineptitude in Iraq, and, at last, with his capture came the long-awaited chance to return some flak to the Pentagon’s critics. It also afforded the opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of America‘s elite covert and intelligence units such as Task Force 20 and Greyfox .
“And it was a terrific chance for the perfect photo-op showing the American soldier, and Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”, hauling “High Value Target Number One” out of his filthy spiderhole in the village of al-Dwar. Then along came that story: the one about the Kurds beating the US Army in the race to find Saddam first, and details of Operation Red Dawn suddenly began to evaporate.
“US Army spokesmen – so effusive in the immediate wake of Saddam’s capture – no longer seemed willing to comment, or simply went to ground. But rumours of the crucial Kurdish role persisted, even though it now seems their previously euphoric spokesmen have now, similarly, been afflicted by an inexplicable bout of reticence.”
Now, to return to the issue of language: Of course, there are also new phenomena, for which the terms available — even the euphemisms — remain inadequate. They still await their wordsmiths. Take another Washington Post piece that caught my eye recently. In “U.S. Has Big Plans for Embassy in Iraq” (1/2/04), Robin Wright wrote about plans for turning Iraqi sovereignty back to as yet unknown Iraqis in June, after which we expect to negotiate agreements for stationing our troops in Iraq forever and a day, and then establish an embassy in Baghdad, the sort of thing one sovereign nation naturally does with another. But here’s the catch, as Wright explains, “In preparation for ending its occupation of Iraq, the United States is making plans to create the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world in Baghdad, complete with a staff of over 3,000 personnel, according to U.S. officials.”
Now try to grasp that for a minute. You’d need a major convention center, not an “embassy” to fit more than 3,000 “personnel.” What follows is a classic paragraph-long euphemism: “The bulk of the U.S. staff will continue to be headquartered in Saddam Hussein’s former Republican Palace. But to avert the potential psychological fallout from staying in the headquarters of the previous dictatorship, the new embassy will officially be in a building not far from the ‘Green Zone’ of Baghdad, where the Coalition Provisional Authority operates. The embassy, however, will have nominal use.” Puzzle that one out for a minute.
Wright concludes: “The Baghdad embassy will have the largest diplomatic staff anywhere in the world, the State Department said.” Here is where our normal vocabulary, which has failed Wright throughout the piece, falters utterly and we can only pray that soon a whole new Darth-Vaderesque set of descriptive terms will well up from our verbal underworld to fill the bill. You could at least put “diplomatic” in quotes — “the largest ‘diplomatic’ staff’ anywhere in the world” — but of course there will be nothing “diplomatic” about such a staff, the sort of staff meant to unofficially continue to occupy, “reconstruct,” and pacify a country. Few on that “staff” will have much to do with what we once would have thought of as diplomacy. This, of course, says a good deal about exactly how we plan to “withdraw” from Iraq (just as did British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s recent comments [Guardian, 1/5/04] that British troops were expected to stay in that country for at least three or four more years. “Speaking to the BBC, Jack Straw agreed it would be a matter of years rather than months, before adding – under pressure from the interviewer – ‘I can’t say whether it’s going to be 2006/2007.’”).
And finally, there are those things for which words, even inadequate ones, seem to be missing entirely. Here’s a simple example. You all undoubtedly remember the “peace dividend,” much bruited about in the year or two after the Berlin Wall fell. Money, even the pundits believed then, might be diverted from the enormous Pentagon budget to other needy sectors of our society and world. As it happensâ€¦ but you already know that story, don’t you?
What I wonder, though, is why the “peace dividend” was all over the press for a while even though it never materialized and the “war dividend,” which is something like the essence of our world’s reality, has never been named. This is certainly my nominee for a new term to describe what used to be the dark underside and is now becoming the dark landscape of our planet.
Even in high school I didn’t exactly have that linguistic touch when it came to Latin (or any other language but English, sadly) and I’ve made a fool of myself with a Latin phrase at this site before, so let me just ask, what’s the opposite of Pax Americana and shouldn’t it enter our lives?
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]
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