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Adamson: The language of war

Winning the West - just one of the 19th century euphemisms that promoted public support for Indian wars. For a full century after Wounded Knee, history described the massacre of hundreds of innocent women and children as a major battle. Needless to say, the battle between opposing armies at Little Big Horn was a massacre, even in contemporary history books.

Very few of the Indian massacres during this time are described as anything but militia or vigilante actions. The main exception is in the historically accurate museum of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

But the language of war reaches beyond our common history. Countless war-like conflicts pursued by the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Germanic and U.S. powers against Afghanistan, India, Africa, Hawaii, Cuba, China, Indochina, New Zealand, the island of Grenada and almost everywhere else were called "expeditions," "skirmishes," "campaigns," "invasions," "mutinies," "conflicts," "occupations" and "militia/vigilante actions." Such terms of art for acts of war were a kind of coded justification. But Indians more than most know that, by any code of reference, these acts of war can be meant to dispossess rightful owners, and if necessary to justify killing them.

Today, leaders and their public relations people are more sophisticated. Therefore we'll call our military engagements war even when we don't declare one - as in Korea, and even when the public won't support one - as in Vietnam.

This is especially so when it comes to killing civilians. The trend of 60-plus years now has been for war, with the ever-increasing destructive potential of its weaponry to kill increasing numbers of non-combatants. Civilians everywhere can feel that pain and sense that threat. To counteract it we need a language that can justify national conduct.

And so a whole lexicon has been developed that sanitizes acts of war and its materiel and obscures its purpose. Attacks are called "strikes," bombing runs are called "airborne missions," invasion is called "rebuilding" and the killing of civilians, the destruction of all that supports civilian life, is now called "collateral damage."

We should regard collateral damage in Iraq with real fear and trembling - or maybe the word is, with honesty. If we are honest, we must recognize that the real collateral damage may be to the U.S. and the world. If we are honest, we must recognize that a doctrine of preemptive war on the basis of a supposed future threat sets a precedent whereby any aggressive acts can be justified as self-defense. If we are honest, we must recognize that war preparations have reduced a budget surplus once projected in the trillions to deficits now projected over years if not decades, strapping state finances and slowing economic growth.

If we are honest, we must recognize that these military preparations have been accompanied by diplomatic and political displays that are breaking up time-honored alliances - bad-mouthing anyone who is against us in the crudest terms, belittling historical allies who happen to disagree with us, strong-arming friendly non-aligned nations that live under too immediate a threat to toe our line like the minions we seem to consider them, engaging in propaganda against sworn enemies that is simply unworthy of our informed citizenry. These alliances in turn form the backbone of international order.

If we are honest, we must recognize that this is no way to guide a great nation.

Despite the Bush administration's strenuous effort to reduce all of Iraq to the name and image of one deeply evil dictator, we must also recognize a few facts about that country if we are honest:

*Iraq is a country of 26 million people with individual characteristics far more in common with you and I than with an undisputed megalomaniac.

*According to statistics that are somewhat dated but still the best available, 50 percent of the country is under the age of 15 and 50 percent are women.

*Two decades of warfare and U.N. sanctions have left 60 percent of 26 million Iraqis relying on the government's food distribution system for more than 2,000 calories daily. Destruction of this food distribution system will leave an estimated 3.03 million civilians - 1 million pregnant women and 2.03 million children - in need of therapeutic feeding.

*The United Nations and World Health Organization estimate that "collateral damage" will leave upwards of 500,000 Iraqi civilians dead either as a direct result of war or through disease and starvation.

*The Bush administration has made heavy weather of its doctrine that armies exist to fight and win wars, not to police states or rebuild nations.

The stench that hasn't yet passed the public smell test in our plans for Iraq is precisely this: we'll call it a war even if it's a massacre, we'll call it collateral damage even if it's a famine, we'll call it peace even if it is a desolation.

At that point, even though we'll call it a war, there will be no justifying it.

Rebecca Adamson is president of First Nations Development Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today.