Support Our Euphemism

Americans who support the invasion of Iraq are offering three reasons for their acquiescence to the Bush administration’s imperial plans.

First is the dire threat of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” — which slid back and forth from nuclear bombs to mustard gas, as the occasion demanded. Eventually, with more than a hundred thousand Brits and Americans busily killing Arabs, British Home Secretary David Blunkett casually admitted publicly on 5 April what everyone knew, that no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons are likely to be found.

This original excuse for the war now seems specious and even rather quaint, so the administration has quickly moved to a second, the liberation of the inhabitants of the country we’re attacking — the cry of conquerors throughout history. But many Iraqis and much of the rest of the world are rightly skeptical of the liberation to be brought by American oil companies, pro-Israel proconsuls and military bases for further war. The “moderate” Secretary of State, Colin Powell, insisted that the US would play a “dominating” role in post-war Iraq but not stop there. “In a strongly worded speech to the pro-Israel lobby [AIPAC], Powell bracketed Iran and Syria with Iraq as promoters of terrorism and suggested they faced grave consequences,” reported the Associated Press.

As people around the world see through these ruses, the defenders of the American war answer truculently that we’re “defending freedom” — ours and the Iraqis’ — and press on triumphantly to their third and final reason to justify the killing of Iraqis: we have to “support our troops.”

The invocation of American siblings, parents, and children in uniform worked wonders. The “opposition” party — feckless Democrats who had generally shrunk from any criticism of the administration’s foreign adventure — fell immediately into line. On Thursday 20 March Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle announced, “The President is the commander-in-chief, and today we unite behind him.”

One hopes that Sen. Daschle is familiar enough with the Constitution to know that the president is not his commander in chief, nor mine — nor yours, unless you happen to be a member of the armed forces. Article 2, section 2 of the present US Constitution holds that the President is the commander and chief of the army and navy — not of the populace as a whole. The construction of that army and navy and their use are supposed to be under the control of Congress.

Suppose you were talking to a German expatriate in the middle of World War II, and he said to you, “Now, I’m not taking a position on the war, but I certainly do support our boys over there!” Even if he weren’t vigorously waving his national flag, you’d probably conclude that he was being a bit disingenuous; you might even inquire rather pointedly what “his boys” were doing over there. But awkward questions about what “our troops” are doing — and whether there’s any justification for their doing it — are avoided, and politicians vie with one another to profess their support.

The “pro-troops” line echoes what is perhaps the most successful rhetorical strategy in modern politics, “pro-choice.” In each case attention is shifted away from a questionable action toward the actor, for whom sympathy is solicited. But everyone knows that “pro-troops” is an assertion of the legitimacy of the war, just as “pro-choice” is a contention that abortion is ethical. In neither case does the argument have to be made explicit. Both involve ending human life (obvious in the case of war, but rejected as a description of abortion by some of its defenders; others however admit that abortion ends human life but is nevertheless justified, and their position is closer to the “pro-troops” position).

There’s another similarity. Noting that many of the invading US troops cannot legally buy an alcoholic drink in the US, one commentator has spoken of Bush administration plans’ being carried out by “brutalized 19-year-olds.” (It’s true that the American sniper quoted last week as saying he killed a female civilian because “…the chick was in the way,” was a 28-year old Marine sergeant.) The presumed beneficiaries of pro-choice policies could also often be described that way. Most people considering abortion feel that they have little “choice” — the decision seems necessary in a society that doesn’t provide medical care, education, housing or income. In the same way “our troops” are often constrained by economic necessity. Nineteen-year-old Pfc. Jessica Lynch from West Virginia was celebrated throughout the media after her rescue; her father was quoted as saying, when he first heard that she had been captured, that she had enlisted only because there were no jobs for 19-year-olds, even at McDonald’s…

It’s a vicious society that offers abortion and enlistment as palliatives for poverty. To force people young and old into situations in which they have no choice but to stain their consciences with the deaths of others is a great crime, one that can’t be covered with euphemisms. The beginning of wisdom is often to call things by their right name.

CARL ESTABROOK is a Visiting Scholar University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at: galliher@alexia.lis.uiuc.edu



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