“This is not an invasion of Cambodia,” explained Richard Nixon in 1970. Clearly. An invasion would have been unpopular, not to mention illegal. No, it was an “incursion,” and staffers were ordered to call it such.
The term was openly mocked by media commentators as a gross example of Orwellian doublespeak, on the order of “Vietnamization,” “pacification” and “terminate with extreme prejudice.” Our government and those who spoke for it were deliberately using language to lie. Society was divided between those who could see that and those who wouldn’t.
Several students protesting the “incursion” were shot to death by National Guard troops performing their own “incursion” of Kent State University.
More than thirty years later, we read daily of the Israeli “incursion.” Journalists in print and on the air use the term with no apparent sense of either irony or history. It seems to roll right off the networked tongue.
It is by far the “easiest” word to use. Almost any other that comes to mind would seem “harsh” and “judgmental.” What could you call it that wouldn’t seem critical of Israel?
On the one hand, we have “suicide bombings” and “terrorist attacks.” On the other, where we might have “ethnic cleansing” or “juggernaut rolling over the bones of children” we have “incursion,” a word that suggests a quiet, off-the-books transaction involving our solicitors, who certainly have no emotional stake in the outcome. It lends an air of reasonableness, a suggestion that whatever might be going on, it is necessary and justified.
“Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain,” it seems to say.
If it is problematic for journalists to substitute another term for “incursion,” it is finishing the sentence that makes real trouble for them. Nixon ordered an incursion into Cambodia. At least we know who or what he “incurred.”
But to write, “Sharon ordered an incursion into …” is to plunge immediately into the big thicket. An incursion into Palestine? Try getting that past the copy editors at the New York Times. Most writers who bother to finish the sentence wind up giving us a long, awkward construction such as “territories under control of the Palestinian Authority,” but alas, the Israeli tanks bulldozing homes and hospitals lend a certain je ne sais quoi to the words “under control of,” don’t they?
So, most often, it is simply “the Israeli incursion” and never mind “of what.”
In other words, to speak of an “incursion” is to mention what is happening without naming it truthfully, describing it forthrightly or invoking the reality of it.
The phrase “discusses and settles these matters without mentioning them,” as a critic once said of a Wallace Stevens poem.
Having deplored the incursion, we now call for a “pullback.” Compare this euphemism with demands that Arafat “stop the terrorist attacks” and “publicly denounce, in Arabic, the suicide bombings” which of course “justify” and “provoke” the incursion.
Will General Powell demand that Sharon “publicly denounce, in Hebrew, the destruction of Palestinian homes and killing of civilians”? Or will the Middle East be digging its way out of a blizzard before that happens?
Back in the time of Nixon’s original incursion, Walter Cronkite was once informed on the air by a NASA spokesperson that a moonwalking astronaut who had dropped a monkey wrench had “re-established visual contact with the object.”
“Are you telling me he’s found it?” asked Cronkite, in a tone of voice that explained more than a hundred deep backgrounders.
It’s always good to ask what they are really telling us. When someone tells us there is an incursion going on, they are telling us not to look too closely at who is doing what to whom, and where. They are telling us that nothing in particular is happening to no one in particular, and what is not happening is happening nowhere, really.
David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com