War of the Words

Truth is the first casualty in war, as the old cliché goes, but in the case of Kosovo, truth must be unscathed, since there is no war.

Throughout the '90s, the media has witnessed repeated instances of carefully chosen words, spins, spoken sleights of hand, and verbal betrayals of Cain-ian proportions from the neoliberal prevaricators currently running the world— and in some cases (American example: president lies under oath about tawdry sex) has been unflinching in sticking it to those of forked tongue. In the case of Kosovo, however, rather than zealously hold authorities accountable for the most glaring of lies told daily, the packs of hacks from Washington to Brussels and points in between have bought into the Orwellian by failing to insist officials cease with the suave characterizations of Kosovar-related carnage.

Press Clips was hoping that— after thousands killed in Serbia, thousands more killed (along with hundreds of thousands displaced) in Kosovo, tens of thousands of sorties flown, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of ordnance dropped over the Balkans— the media might launch a salvo of its own, on NATO officials' sustained euphemistic assault on clarity with the use of phrases like "international military action" in lieu of the more accurate "war." Indeed, as several veteran war correspondents have told Press Clips, whatever the circumstances, scale, or style, war is war, and war is hell. It is a powerful word loaded with images of the horrific. It is an acknowledgment that, as Clausewitz realized, diplomacy has failed, and that diplomatic tools have given way to brutality that is fundamentally dehumanizing to all involved. To the jaded, "war" may be just another word, and most reporters are cynics; yet the powers that be understand there are enough people out there for whom the word resonates, or at least gives pause. Indeed, what does it say about the quality of a war when the people selling it are afraid to even call it what it is?

The New York Times picked up on one such instance of lacking self-assurance. But rather than hone in on it, the paper chose to use fact as obstacle to truth, in the form of a tongue-in-cheek kicker. Writing in the May 16 edition, Michael Gordon noted the response of Major General Charles Wald, the operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to concerns about future errant bombings of Albanians: "This is war." Then:

"NATO nations, however, insist that they are not waging a war against Yugoslavia but are merely conducting a military campaign to pressure Mr. Milosevic to accept a settlement. General Wald quickly realized his slip of the tongue. 'It's combat, as I said,' he immediately corrected himself."

No gays in the military, but somehow, a hint of Clintonism has found its way into the ranks. So, too, apparently, with foreign legislatures. After an irritating line of inquiry during Question Time in Britain's House of Commons regarding his absence from Cabinet meetings, Prime Minister Tony Blair let anger give way to truth: "Recently, obviously, with the war on, I haven't been able to attend two or three Cabinets," he snapped. By the end of the day, not one, but two, offices of the British Government were on the case. Use of the dread W-word had been an unfortunate "slip of the tongue," according to a statement from 10 Downing Street, which also insistently noted that Blair "has made it absolutely clear that we are in an international armed conflict." Added a spokesman from the Foreign Office, "We are not at war. In order for us to be at war, it would require a formal declaration by at least one side, and probably both. Legally, there have been no wars since 1945."

Only the Times of London, characterizing the dissembling as "surreal," reported the incident, under the headline "Blair lets slip the words of war." It got four paragraphs on page 15.

Wesley the Right

Of course, phrases like "international armed conflict" are merely the latest additions to revisionist military lingo like "friendly fire" and "collateral damage," the latter of which NATO commander in chief Wesley Clark invoked last month after NATO planes bombed a passenger train. Despite that unfortunate interruption of rail service, Clark asserted that the air war (oops, international armed effort) was "the most collateral damage-free air operation that's ever been conducted." Hundreds of permanently collaterally damaged Albanians later, that claim seems a bit dubious. Nonetheless, don't expect the media to be too tough with ol' Wes. Ever since hostilities commenced, Clark has been routinely characterized as "brilliant," a soldier-philosopher with a dash of the diplomat. Look elsewhere, however, and one has to wonder if the Little Rock­reared Clark isn't Clinton's military doppelgänger.

The April 30 issue of Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair's iconoclastic CounterPunch paints a rather different picture of Clark. Under the head "Vain, Pompous Brown-Noser," the newsletter reports that Clark's career has been hallmarked not only by a pattern of "manipulating appearances" (such as rigging training exercises), but by contempt for subordinate officers, soldiers, and even U.S. senators. "We are state of the art pomposity and arrogance up here," CounterPunch quotes a Senate aide regarding a Clark appearance before a committee, "so when a witness displays those traits so egregiously that even the senators notice, you know we're in trouble." The theme is echoed in an item from the Paris-based newsletter Intelligence, which reports that Clark often summoned his Latin American military counterparts to meetings when he ran U.S. Southern Command in Panama, "but that he 'only seemed interested in photo ops' during the gatherings."

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