Death and Discourse

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, December 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Death and Discourse


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


"They got whacked and won't try that again," said an unnamed Pentagon official in the wake of the recent deadly confrontation in the Iraqi town of Samarra. The attack on two US convoys by Iraqi insurgents was described in only slightly less teacherly tones by Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "They attacked, and they were killed. So I think it will be instructive to them." The battle resulted in five Americans being wounded and anywhere from eight to fifty-four Iraqi dead, a number that remains uncertain, given the Pentagon's general lack of commitment to counting Iraqi deaths of soldiers or civilians.

Perhaps these Sopranos-style depictions of deadly firefights as "instructive" are merely the words of hardened soldiers in the grip of the kind of adrenaline rush that comes with close brushes with death. With terrorism as a driving force in the world and The Terminator as entertainment backdrop, I am aware that the day of the euphemistically inclined gentleman soldier is long over. No one expects soldiers to be diplomats--indeed, no one expects diplomats at all from an Administration that has so openly disdained diplomacy itself. Nevertheless, I worry that much of what comes out of the mouths of Pentagon officials these days is utterly undisciplined and deeply unprofessional. From comments that we're fighting a holy war against the evils of Islam, to the presidential invitation to "bring 'em on," there is a kind of giddy, hopped-up video-game quality to the way our top brass discusses things.

However barbarous the foe we face, such muscle-flexing on our part displays an astonishing lack of awareness of the provocativeness of such language, not just to our enemies but to potential allies as well. Living inside the bubble of any discipline can reorder one's values in ways that are startling to outsiders, I suppose. Anyone who's had the misfortune of sitting through a criminal trial where bodily injury has occurred might have heard a forensics expert speak with unconscious enthusiasm about some "wonderful" picture of a "perfect" contusion. Communication is an art under any circumstance, and never more so than where matters life and death hang in the balance of better comprehension.

In 1987 Carol Cohn, a senior research scholar in the political science department at Wellesley College, wrote an article titled "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals." Cohn had attended a two-week training program offered by military experts. Its purpose was to enable educators to better understand the strategic goals, technology and vocabulary of the nuclear era. What Cohn found was that by the end of all those intensive workshops among military brass, she and her fellow conferees came away with far more than just insight. They came away speaking a whole new language that had its own set of internal references, its own system of gendering objects and its own peculiar rituals. For example, missiles were often referred to in phallic terms. Whenever they visited warplanes or battleships, there was a bizarre little pause while everyone was given an opportunity to "pat the missile.

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