The other day I wrote a dispatch in part about a new U.S. intelligence term, “extraordinary rendition,” applied when our agents turn a “person of interest” (read: terrorist suspect) over to some friendly, or less than friendly, country ready to put the screws to him for us; in other words, torture-by-proxy. I commented then that our language, often a-boil, is now roiling with new words, phrases, images, euphemisms, acronyms, all bubbling up into the media from the darkside where the Bush administration loves to dwell. Collectively, they are little signs, signals to the rest of us, of things going on often just beyond sight. If you could write them all down and somehow connect the dots, you’d have an image of our world and a devil’s dictionary. Accordingly, I launched a little “contest” for nominees for the best new words and phrases from Bushworld and was quickly inundated with suggestions.
Consider what follows — a mix of candidates suggested by others and terms that happened to catch my own eye — as scattered notes on our evolving language, notes toward someone else’s future dictionary:
The easiest of these to categorize are the opposites that fit the Orwellian war-is-peace model. A number of people, for instance, sent in the term “free speech zone,” which I also used in a recent dispatch. This is a fenced-off area, designated by the local police at the behest of the Secret Service, often miles from wherever the President will appear. There you can “protest” his policies to no avail whatsoever — or else. They are the equivalents of that childhood conundrum about the tree falling in the forest, and should obviously be called “muzzle zones” or “deep-six zones” or something of the sort.
Here’s one I noticed recently: “US Visit” — this is the name the Department of Homeland Security has given its new fingerprinting and photographing program for visitors from abroad (who don’t happen to come from 27 lucky, mostly European countries). It should obviously be called the “US Don’t Visit” Program.
The Brazilians, who happen not to be among those lucky 27, responded by instituting a cumbersome fingerprinting and photographing process for American visitors to their country, even (gasp!) diplomats, and of course we promptly expressed outrage. I found the following wonderful paragraph of Bushworld logic in the New York Times the other day in a piece by Christopher Marquis headlined News Analysis: Latin American Allies of U.S.: Docile and Reliable No Longer:
“On the security front, Brazil has been equally adamant. When the administration began requiring photos and fingerprints of foreign visitors who are from countries that require visas to United States, a Brazilian judge took umbrage and ordered the same treatment for American visitors to Brazil. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Thursday argued that Brazil’s action was discriminatory, while the administration’s position was universal, with admitted exceptions.”
“Universal, with admitted exceptions” — shouldn’t that enter the language? It catches something of our one-way-street of an imperial planet.
“Universal, with admitted exceptions” — shouldn’t that enter the language? It catches something of our one-way-street of an imperial planet.
Among new or relatively new terms suggested by readers, many are already old friends and bosom companions, remarkably deeply embedded (whoops see below) in our lives. These would include:
The “USA Patriot Act,” which manages to patriotically reduce our liberties (or as one reader wrote, “stands for legislation that seriously endangers the rights our patriotic ancestors fought for and really makes me crazy”).
“Regime change,” a very cool and neutral term indeed for a global policy of overthrowing the governments of countries whose leaders we don’t care for — by armed invasion if need be.
“Homeland,” a word that feels like it was borrowed from the Germans as a replacement for “our country,” “our land” or just the plain old “U.S.” It’s an over-combined word — both “home” and “land” as if one or the other weren’t good enough — meant to offer a double dose of emotion. And isn’t it just the perfect term to link to “security” for real emotional wallop. Put them together and you have “homeland security,” a distinctly un-American duo (or is it actually trio?) — as in the Department of Homeland Security which should clearly be either the “U.S. Insecurity Department” or the “Homeland Paranoia Department.”
In a country which now officially prefers not home, or land, or security but “Homeland Security” and a vast repressive bureaucracy to go with it, along with a labyrinthine color-coding system that’s always turned up to hot — Quick, what’s the color below yellow? — a surprising number of new terms are militarized. But perhaps this isn’t really so startling, given the last years. Certainly, money creates its own realities which have to be named or renamed or acronymed or euphemized — and a Pentagon budget of $400 billion-plus (without even the supplemental Iraq and Afghan war funds added in) should buy you plenty of Scrabble tiles.
A number of readers, for instance, noted the replacement of the Vietnam era term “body bags” with “transfer tubes,” which manages to sound both ethereal and pneumatic and goes so well with the general playing down of funerals to which our president does not go. Transfer tubes — you can almost hear the whoosh that sends it to the opposite end of some strange spectrum of history from body bags, no less deaths, casualties, mangled limbs, war.
Or how about a term we’ve grown used to — it’s already beginning to migrate elsewhere — “embedded.” It was a Pentagon application. Journalists, as we all remember so well, were to be “embedded” in military units invading Iraq. As a word, it has both the feeling of “in bed with,” and encased in concrete. It’s hard and soft at once and has something of the ring of that other strange term, “soft targets” (sent in by another reader), meaning human beings. (While the allied and somewhat older term, “collateral damage” bears the same relation to the killing of civilians as “transfer tubes” does to Vietnam’s “body bags.”) Embedded is one of those soft-hard terms that manage to take the edges off the reality being described without entirely doing away with it. As with so many terms in Bushworld, “embedded” stands at the end of a long history that began in Vietnam where, at least as myth has it on the right, reporters roamed free and so destroyed our war effort.
If you think for a second that this version of Vietnam history isn’t still on the minds of top figures in this administration and in the military, just check out the following quote from Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, American commander in Iraq, from a front-page New York Times portrait by John Burns (Challenge for Bootstrap General Is Winning Over the Wary Iraqis):
“‘It’s about gaining and retaining the consent of the people,’ General Sanchez said to the officers who gathered in front of a satellite map of the Abu Saida area in the dim interior of the command post. ‘That’s what we’re here for, fighting a war, and building a nation.’
“It is a task that General Sanchez believes is within grasp. In a conversation at his headquarters in the Republican Palace in Baghdad a few days before the trip to Abu Saida, he said that despite the scale of warfare that has disappointed and even shocked many Americans, allied forces here could fail only if the political will of the United States faltered. ‘I really believe that the only way we are going to lose here, is if we walk away from it like we did in Vietnam,’ he said. ‘If the political will fails, and the support of the American public fails, that’s the only way we can lose.'”
That description of the Vietnam War may indeed be fantasy, but embeddedness has turned out to be remarkably descriptive — and the program remarkably successful — from the Pentagon’s point of view, part of what’s now called, according to David Miller, “information dominance.” Miller recently wrote in the British Guardian:
“In the past, propaganda involved managing the media. Information dominance, by contrast, sees little distinction between command and control systems, propaganda and journalism. They are all types of ‘weaponized information‘ to be deployed. As strategic expert Colonel Kenneth Allard noted, the 2003 attack on Iraq ‘will be remembered as a conflict in which information fully took its place as a weapon of war’. Nor is information dominance something dreamt up by the Bush White House. It is a mainstream US military doctrine that is also embraced in the UK. According to US army intelligence there are already 15 information dominance centres in the US, Kuwait and Baghdad.”
And, of course, in a world of “weaponized information,” as Miller says, “unfriendly” information must be targeted.
Some of the terms of our militarized moment like embedded are already moving elsewhere. (I was told, for instance, that reporters at recent demonstrations in Miami against the free-trade negotiations were “embedded” with the police.) Take “shock and awe,” whose official debut was the spectacular televised bombing of downtown Baghdad as our most recent war began. These fireworks, the son et lumière of our age, represented a production which cost multimillions to mount and were a ratings success, being watched by multimillions. Now, a reader reports, that “shock and awe” was recently used by NASA to describe reactions to the photos just sent back from Mars. This is how language migrates, of course, and how, assumedly, a new lingo of information dominance will slowly infiltrate our world, transforming it and being transformed by it.
Here’s one I like: “Footprint.” It’s used for what Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, calls the “U.S. global defense posture.” (Of course, as with the opposites rule above, you need to read this as “global offense” since our “defense” now rather aggressively straddles the planet.) “Posture” is a term used often and it seems to fit so well with “footprint,” since obviously if you stand correctly, starting with those feet, you’re bound to have a good global posture. But here’s the strange thing, it turns out that, imagistically speaking, the Pentagon doesn’t have footprints or even feetprints, despite our hundreds and hundreds of global bases and all those “forward deployed” troops meant to “to project power” into distant “theaters.” They have only a global “footprint” — one giant foot on which we are evidently imagined to be balancing, towering (or perhaps even teetering) above this tiny world of nations. It sounds precarious to me and it’s an image that runs into some conceptual problems when applied to localities, as in a speech Feith gave to the Center for Strategic and International Studies on December 3, when he said:
“Our key Asian and Pacific allies are investing in new technologies, playing roles in Afghanistan and Iraq, coordinating with us regarding global and regional threats, such as the North Korean nuclear program, and working with us to rationalize the US troop ‘footprint’ in their countries to keep the alliances sustainable and capable well into the 21st Century [and again later in the speech] Realigning the U.S. posture will also help strengthen our alliances by tailoring the physical US ‘footprint’ to suit local conditions.”
Let’s tailor that footprint just a little more so that the unfortunate phrase “crush underfoot” doesn’t come to mind.
I bring this up in part because a reader, who prefers anonymity, sent in an e-note which amused me, about “little footprints,” a term I had never — for reasons that will be clear — run across. He wrote:
“It supposedly is a military term, derisively referring to [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld’s aspirations to make his mark on history. I came across the expression this way. [A relative], who was an Army officer into the early nineties, met up this past year with one of his old army buddies. This person has remained in the Army and was stationed at the Pentagon. The term reflects dissent in the officer ranks with the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. (It also supposedly reflects the fact that Rumsfeld is a short person.)”
Anger in the military at Rumsfeld, the neocons, and the postwar mess in Iraq is indeed at the boiling point. Only yesterday, for instance, Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported (Study Published by Army Criticizes War on Terror’s Scope):
“A scathing new report published by the Army War College broadly criticizes the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terrorism, accusing it of taking a detour into an ‘unnecessary’ war in Iraq and pursuing an ‘unrealistic’ quest against terrorism that may lead to U.S. wars with states that pose no serious threat. The report, by Jeffrey Record, a visiting professor at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, warns that as a result of those mistakes, the Army is ‘near the breaking point.'”
We are certainly in a grim and yet inventive new world of names and terms. For instance Barton Gellman in his recent Washington Post piece, Iraq’s Arsenal Was Only on Paper, offers this passage on one group of Americans searching for the WMD that wasn’t:
“The survey group’s most exotic line of investigation sought evidence that Iraq tried to create a pathogen combining pox virus with cobra venom. A 1986 study in the Journal of Microbiology reported that fowlpox spread faster and killed more chickens in the presence of venom extract. Investigators received a secondhand report that Iraq sought to splice them together. Such an artificial life form — created by inserting genetic sequences from one organism into another — is called a ‘chimera,’ after the fire-breathing monster of Greek mythology commingling lion, serpent and goat.”
Well, the ancient Greeks had to be good for something, didn’t they? Otherwise why did they come up with all those strange gods and bizarre creatures anyway? Oh, this particular “chimera” was investigated by “Team Pox.”
Perhaps this is all, to pick up a term suggested by another reader, “the new normal” (as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights grimly calls it). Certainly, our language is being driven in new directions by destruction. Sometimes in the process it’s badly wounded. Al, a reader, sent in the following passage from the Washington Post as an illustration:
“Earlier Wednesday, U.S. troops said they destroyed a home in Fallujah, the center of the anti-American insurgency west of Baghdad, where enraged neighbors said a married couple was killed and their five children were orphaned. The neighbors insisted the couple was innocent in an attack on the troops that led them to shell the house.
“The 82nd Airborne Division said its paratroopers acted after receiving ‘two rounds of indirect fire’ around 9 p.m. Tuesday.
“‘Paratroopers from our Task Force engaged the point of origin with a grenade launcher and small arms, causing two personnel to flee into a nearby building, which was also engaged and destroyed,’ division spokeswoman Capt. Tammy Galloway said in a statement. ‘The building was searched and no weapons or personnel were found. Upon questioning, civilians in the area reported two dead personnel were taken to a nearby hospital,’ the statement said.”
Al provides the following possible translation: “Two personnel”: two people (apparently in this case a civilian couple fleeing from the firefight); building “engaged”: blown up.”
Ray McGovern, the former CIA analyst who was one of the founders of VIPS (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity), served up — to my mind — an especially vivid image of this moment, showing that we, too, can push the language a little. It should, I believe, lead to the creation of a new acronym: DWIWP. In a recent piece at the Tompaine.com website he wrote:
“It came at the very end of a long New York Times report of Jan. 2 regarding the havoc caused at Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. because of heightened concern there of a terrorist attack. ‘In a footnote, the director of security at Dulles airport was arrested Thursday on suspicion of drunk driving.’
“Dulles airport’s director of security, former Secret Service agent Charles Brady, was pulled over on suspicion of being drunk at the wheel at the very height of the emergency! What a telling metaphor for malfeasance at a more senior level, I thought to myself. While President George W. Bush may no longer be drinking, the year 2003 showed him to be DWI in a far more dangerous sense-driving while intoxicated with power The top story of 2003, in my view, deals with official malfeasance, the difference between Brady and Bush, and the reasons why the latter has not yet been pulled over for reckless endangerment on an international scale.”
So let’s start using DWIWP (like drip with the “r” replaced) — drunk while intoxicated with power. Or even DWIPANOTPHO — drunk while intoxicated with power and no one to pull him over.
And all of this, I assure you, is just to stick a toe in the waters of our moment. I haven’t even gone wading — just my footprint on the beach and my big toe forward deployed to our linguistic waters. On my shelf I have – and find myself quite satisfied with — The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. But if the next edition reflects the new normal, it’s going to be far fatter and I’m not so sure that “American Heritage” will be part of the title any more.
And the opposite of Pax Americana is
At the end of my previous dispatch on language, I wrote: “Even in high school I didn’t exactly have that linguistic touch when it came to Latin (or any other language but English, sadly) and I’ve made a fool of myself with a Latin phrase at this site before, so let me just ask, what’s the opposite of Pax Americana and shouldn’t it enter our lives?”
And this throwaway paragraph was the one that got the most responses and the single response that most caught my fancy. A number of readers suggested that the opposite would be “Pox America.”
Chris Daniels offered the following:
“Assuming that the opposite of Peace is War, the opposite of Pax Americana would be Bellum Americanum. But it seems to me that war is a word that is traditionally associated with courage and honor and sacrifice. I think we need more than one word. The opposite of Pax Americana is Cupiditas Stultitiaque Americana: American Greed and Folly.”
Michael wrote aptly:
“Not to enter the contest, and from about as Latin-less reader as you claim to be: surely the proper Latin tag to respond to Pax Americana is Tacitus’s solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant –‘they create a desolation and call it peace.'”
And Hugo, whose last name I don’t have, wrote the contest winner: “The opposite of Pax Americana is good night’s sleep.”
I know, I know (don’t write in)… the award should have been for an already existing word or phrase from Bushworld, but the judges have decided. It’s he who gets the promised “fabulous trip for two nowhere. (Given airports, alerts, cancelled flights, no-fly lists and the like, believe me, that’s a good offer.)” Tom