“An American soldier was wounded and Iraqis also by the enemy who fired a flare into an ammunition dump.” CNN early summary of a huge explosion of ammunition in residential Baghdad, 26 April 2003
Who is the enemy? ‘A person who hates another and wishes and tries to injure him–synonym: opponent.’ Am I George W. Bush’s enemy because I oppose his war policies mounted in the name of freedom? I do oppose him though I do not wish to injure him personally. But I do wish and will try to ‘take him out’ him politically. Is my desire murderous? Will the Secret Service check on me? How real and dangerous are words like ‘enemy’?
In war the word ‘enemy’ licenses corporeal killing. You may, perhaps should, kill the enemy who by definition is one who hates you and wishes to injure or kill you. A soldier’s personal identity is effaced. He or she can’t define the enemy or disagree with the leader. The job is to fight the enemy and that label ‘enemy’ makes violence become self-defense, as well as authorized by your country. The license to kill usually comes from religion (kill the infidels) or the state (kill terrorists or evil regimes). Private licenses to kill are discouraged. (You shouldn’t kill members of ethnic or racial or gender groups you despise, or family members who irritate you, or most anybody else unless you have a very good and legally defensible reason.) The enemy is the killable other. The US soldier who early in the Iraq War rolled grenades into his officers’ tents violated the rules by changing enemies.
We often try to draw distinctions about killing in war. In Iraq we wanted to kill the most hostile soldiers-the Republican Guard and Fedayeen. We often let the regular conscripted army soldiers go if they would abandon their weapons and hostility and soldier status. We said we desired not to kill and maim children and innocent civilians. When we did kill them we argued that it was a mistake or due to the brutality of warfare or the enemy’s fault. The enemy, we said, lacked our scruples and deliberately imperiled civilians by placing armaments near them. We blamed the viciousness of the enemy who used innocents as human shields for their own hostilities. And, mostly, ultimately, we blamed the enemy because their evil provoked us to war.
When the ammunition dump exploded in residential Baghdad, the guarding American soldiers tried to help dig out the people buried in the rubble, and the crowd wouldn’t let them. The Americans and the Iraqis couldn’t speak each others’ languages and there were no translators handy. So the soldiers couldn’t argue that an Iraqi enemy had deliberately caused the violence, not the soldiers. In one bit of news footage an American soldier yells to his captain ‘They don’t understand’ and the captain responds ‘ I know they don’t understand. Neither do I.’ The Iraqis are later reported to be saying that they had warned the soldiers to move the arsenal, that babies are buried alive.
The soldiers looked like an enemy; the angry crowd looked like an enemy too. Further violence was avoided because the soldiers withdrew. In many similar scenes soldiers sometimes shoot and crowds sometimes murder. Not just in Iraq but in Israel and elsewhere.
Could language have calmed this scene? With translators could soldiers and crowd have found a common enemy-an outsider enemy who wished to injure them both-whom they could blame and then work together to help the victims?
Violence can erupt on a word. Yell ‘enemy’ in war and people often die. Talk shows and politicians pontificate that Madonna and the Dixie Chicks and Hollywood figures aided the enemy in wartime by their opposition to our government’s policy. The Congressional cafeteria in Washington serves ‘freedom toast’ and ‘freedom fries’ to verbally attack and eliminate the French for their words against our war.
This sense is not the children’s rhyme that sticks and stones will break our bones but names will never hurt us. It’s more ‘them’s fightin’ words.’ If words construct the enemy they’re the beginning of war. How do we go from naming enemies-terrorist, tyrant, evil-to killing them? How do we move from opposition to attack? ‘The time for talk is over,’ Powell and Rumsfeld and Bush announced. ‘The enemy means us harm and is moving secretly against us,’ they said. ‘We risk terrorist attack if we do not attack,’ they warned. We go from words to war by ceasing talks and beginning bombing. We also go by abstraction-we don’t kill men and women and children and cities but the enemy and evil regimes. We go by justifying our anger as self-protection and revenge. We go by collapsing present time into future intention: ‘war is about peace.’
We go by defining and redefining words and staying on message-shutting down other language. We wage a war of words as well as of brute force. The US soldier who screamed at an angry Iraqi crowd “We’re here for your fuckin’ freedom” needed a translator. Americans have always been fond of the supreme court of the gun. In many a western, Law and Order and Education need force to protect them. Yet the words are what make the actions moral.
Words support ambivalence just as they construct it. An enemy today might have been a friend yesterday or become one tomorrow. Donald Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein twenty years ago and gave him weapons against Iran. Word language allows for another time, a different tense. It admits contradiction and paradox. Language can entertain the idea of loving your enemy, the idea of transcending or changing your definitions.
Language also allows conflict without physical killing. We can oppose verbally and not attack physically. We can articulate intense anger and refrain from bloody followup. We can make mental warfare and live to fight again and tell the tale. We can change our enemies and have new fights. In corporeal warfare we lose language and ambivalence. We cannot heal wounds of the flesh with words or raise the dead. That’s what the children’s rhyme means-the domains of sticks and stones and words are different. We try to teach children not to hit but to talk.
When the soldiers tried by sign language to signify that they weren’t responsible for the carnage at the Baghdad arsenal they were not understood. When the crowd screamed the soldiers were murderers they were not understood either. Were they enemies?
President Bush is angry at Kofi Anan of the UN for calling the US the occupying force rather than the liberating force. President Bush is angry at world leaders calling the US unjust war mongers rather than freedom fighters. Presidents get angry and name their conflicts ‘Just Cause’ and ‘Iraqi Freedom’ not ‘Kill the Bastards’ or ‘Smoke the Evil Ones.’ They do this to distinguish brutal acts of the righteous from brutal acts of the evil. This is called rationalizing or spinning or lying or delusion. The acts are similar-bombing for example. Labeling alone changes the symmetry of the acts of 9/11 and the shock and awe bombing of Baghdad. We meant to inflict terror through the shock and awe of bombing brute force. We not only thrilled at our explosive might, we boasted we were the most stunning military force in all human history. But we weren’t monsters because we meant well and our motives were pure. We were good and the evil regime we swaggered to dazzle was not. They were brutal, cut out tongues, killed, gassed and impoverished their own people, swaggered and swilled scotch and had mistresses. We said we respected Islam, loved the Iraqi people, were bringing democratic freedoms. And we just had to make war because the evil ones wouldn’t change any other way.
Most of the world has trouble with these distinctions. The real language that’s being spoken is brute force. You can speak before you bomb and say you don’t want to hurt anybody and you can speak after you bomb and say you’re sorry. The bomb has a different language, one which does not support ambivalence or tense change. Americans don’t face their own violence, not the deep psychological kind, not the obvious historical kind. When we railed about weapons of mass destruction, no one pointed out that like the crazy Shakespearean kings we’re terrified of them because we’ve done the thing we fear. Americans don’t look at the footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombing, and Japan is no longer the enemy. Our myth is that violence is changed by good intentions, that it can be cleansing. Some will say it’s a religious error, others that it’s the bleak, brusque Darwinian truth of survival.
Does it matter what we say? Osama bin Laden says he’s a slave of God and is on a divine mission to revenge insult to Allah and his people. George Bush says he’s on a divine mission to rid the world of evil. Both bomb. Do they differ? In enemy tactics, they are enemy twins-resorting to force, blaming their enemy, claiming righteousness, and wreaking savage damage.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org