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The Triumph of Words Over Actions

“We train young men to drop fire on people.  But their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘f**k’ on their airplanes because it is obscene”

– Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now!

When I was in graduate school in the mid-1990s, one of my professors threatened to “crucify” me on the next exam if I didn’t support my claims with evidence.  Despite being a practicing Catholic, I took the professor’s comment in context.  It was clear he meant that he would lower my grade drastically if I carelessly made unsupported arguments.

Twenty years later such a comment could lead to punitive measures, public shaming and humiliation in the pillory known as social media, and the obligatory apology that accompanies statements some Americans find “offensive”.

The old saying, “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” has died an unceremonious death in America.  Over the past ten years the public seems more transfixed on words and the supposed moral transgressions they reveal than perpetual war, the militarization of the policethe increase in military spending , the dumbing down of education  and the obesity epidemic, among other signs of American decline.

Last week’s suspension of University of Massachusetts football coach Mark Whipple for claiming one of his receivers was “raped” by an official’s call is yet another example of an “offensive” comment taken out of context.  The coach’s penalty was a one game suspension and an act of public contrition noting, “I am deeply sorry for the word I used on Saturday to describe our play in the game.”  Stories like these filter in and out of the news cycle and are quickly forgotten. But the steady procession of outrage they engender diverts the public’s attendance from vital issues like the perpetual war waged in its name and with its tax dollars.

One way to consider the Coach’s story is to compare his transgression to those committed by the US military and its allies over the last 17 years of continuous war.  Merriam-Webster defines “rape” as forcible “unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse”, but also as “an outrageous violation” or “an act or instance of robbing or despoiling or carrying away a person by force”.

Interestingly, while the American public debates the sins of college professors and football coaches, those like our Saudi allies who actually crucify people and commit “outrageous violations” of countries do not elicit much criticism, let alone condemnation or forced apologies. In the US where words can lead to suspensions like Whipple’s and end careers, the police and military continue to use excessive violence to further state interests, masking their transgressions with well-oiled euphemism and rarely apologizing.  Although there has been some criticism of police brutality it has been met with great indignation and inspired counter praise for law enforcement.

The military, of course, is beyond reproach, evidenced by Congress recently passing a $716 billion military budget for 2019.  Furthermore, the Senate’s support of Brett Kavanaugh and recent bipartisan lionizing of John McCain should leave no doubt that those in government benefit greatly from the public being outraged by linguistic and moral transgressions but remaining monumentally silent in the face of perpetual war. Despite the emergence of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on our nation’s campuses and the incessant anger expressed on social media, it is business as usual in the war department.

In order for the US to wage perpetual war, it is essential that words be more important than actions.  Even when our leaders earnestly set out to address war, the amount of fabrication and deception is astounding.  For example, in a 2009 speech in Cairo President Obama made it a priority to convince Muslims and the American public that he sought a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”  The Noble Peace Prize president’s actions, however, spoke louder.  Obama’s expansion of US bombing from four to seven countries, including increased drone strikes targeting civilians and US citizens, plus poor foreign policy decisions that led to the rise of ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan reveal the true nature of his administration’s attitude toward Muslims.  For all intents and purposes, Obama, like his predecessors, embraced Orwell’s mantra: war is peace.

One telling 2008 example from the Iraq war sheds light on the ten-year trajectory of the triumph of words over actions.  In that case, a US soldier was sent home for using the Koran as target practice. Reuters reported that “such an act of desecration of the Muslim holy book could inflame anger against the U.S. military presence in Iraq, but an Iraqi community leader told Reuters an apology by senior American military commanders had helped calm tensions.”  The apology was uttered by Major General Jeffrey Hammond who said, “I am a man of honor.  I am a man of character.  You have my word that this will never happen again.”  The irony is thick when a government forces its military to apologize to the Iraqi people for shooting a book while that same military destroys hundreds of thousands of lives.

Americans were right to be appalled by the callous desecration of the Islamic Holy Book that was reported by numerous media outlets. On the other hand, they were often barred from learning about far more brutal and murderous actions committed in their name.  Thus, it is not surprising that many might have actually believed General Hammond when he said, “I’m sorry.”  But believing that an apology for shooting a book could wash away the destruction of hundreds of thousands of lives betrays little understanding of war and human nature.

This lack of understanding is due to the fact that too few politicians, journalists and citizens take notice as the US continues to wage and threaten war across the globe. To be fair, noticing the wars is apt to raise a citizen’s awareness of his or her role in perpetuating them.  Perhaps that is why so many Americans opt to chastise individuals in the US for their words rather than take on the military-industrial-technological complex for its actions. After all, it is easier to criticize an individual football coach for metaphorically using the word “rape” than condemn an entire nation for tacitly supporting that action across several continents.

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Dana E. Abizaid teaches European History at the Istanbul International Community School.

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