Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The First Casualty of War: Truth

I was teaching a course on the literature of the Vietnam War when the United States invaded Iraq.  Some of the similarities were creepy and disheartening -- making me despair of Americans ever truly learning from their own history.

One example: George Bush's mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction that were the excuse for the invasion were eerily similar to Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin Incident -- the mythical attack on a U.S. warship that gave him the excuse to escalate the U.S. military involvement against North Vietnam. 

For some other similarities, read Michael C. Herring's America's Longest War, which was one of the textbooks for my class.  Also, watch the documentary Hearts and Minds and pretend the talking heads are discussing Iraq and Afghanistan rather than South Vietnam.  It isn't hard to do.

This week I was reminded of another similarity.  On I saw a story about the Obama Administration defining any adult males killed by drones as "militants."  This is regardless of who those people might actually have been.  And the media, which is rumored to be liberal, reports the dead as militants without questioning or verifying.

Can you say "body count"?

In the Vietnam War, U.S. officials played a nearly identical game, wherein adult males killed by U.S. troops could be considered fighters for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army -- no questions asked.  The official U.S. strategy was a war of attrition, and so great emphasis was placed on body counts -- the number of enemy combatants killed by U.S. troops.  This gave soldiers in the field motivation to classify anyone killed as an enemy combatant, and it gave U.S. officials incentive to exaggerate numbers.

The game did not end there.  There was what actually happened and then there was the official U.S. version of what happened -- with policy and strategy decisions being based on the official story rather than actual events.

This disconnect between life and language is a major theme of Dispatches by Michael Herr.  He was a journalist who covered the war and produced a book based on his dispatches for Esquire magazine.  He described the daily sessions in which Army officers would give the official description of events, descriptions that frequently had little in common with reality.

Herr wrote: "Nothing so terrible ever happened upcountry that it was beyond language fix and press relations..." (42).  And later: "The spokesmen spoke in words that had no currency as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world..." (214).

As they say, truth is the first casualty of war.  Calling anyone killed by a drone a "militant" is an example of "language fix."  Since the only people a drone can kill are militants, then all drone attacks are successful, and therefore the United States is winning the war.  Since everyone killed by a drone is a militant, the United States can worry less about alienating the civilian population and distressing the American population.  But perhaps it should worry more.

The "language fix" is more than simple "spin."  In Herr's time and in ours, too often the U.S. government makes key decisions based upon the "language fix" and not reality.  If we didn't learn in Vietnam that the "language fix" fixed nothing, then we should definitely avoid the same mistake now.  But perhaps it is too late.


  1. I saw drone attacks firsthand in the first gulf war. It was a surreal experience, actually seeing targets we were shooting at some twenty miles away from the battleship.

    Nowadays, these attacks are conducted thousands of miles from the battlefield. In other words, they can be carried out without any physical risk to the attacker (psychological risk is another matter - Have you seen the PBS documentary on these drones? . What an incredible tool, ripe for the abuse of the politically powerful.

  2. I haven't seen the documentary, so thanks for the link!

  3. The whole Frontline:Digital Nation show is worth a look, but that bit on the drones really struck a nerve with me for some reason.