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.”

Perhaps the most interesting insight into Clark, though, comes from a 1981 Washington Post Magazine article devoted to— surprise— the brilliance of Wesley Clark, then a Lieutenant Colonel commanding a tank brigade. Even then, apparently, Clark knew everything, because both he and the U.S. Army had made no mistakes. “Maybe I’m poorer for never having had that experience,” he answers when asked about failure, after arguing that the U.S. military won the Vietnam War: “It was more than a can-do attitude we had. We did do. We set out to destroy the enemy’s main forces, their political infrastructure, to build up the South Vietnamese economy and government, and we did. I would say that the United States just lost heart too soon. Had we held our heart after the peace talks, intervened if the accords were violated as we promised, there would still be a South Vietnam.”

Smaller Cakes and No Ale

The only way to really get what you want at the Washington Post, conventional wisdom among Post veterans holds, is to secure the interest of the New York Times— at which point top Post editors will promptly fall all over themselves doing whatever is necessary to keep you. Latest case study: the gifted fashion writer Robin Givhan, who’s parlayed an offer from the Times to secure the plum 2000 presidential campaign billet in the paper’s Style section. (Unlike National staffers, Style’s political writers are actually allowed to be engaging and trenchant if they choose.)

Leaving the paper later this summer— but not for the Times, or even anything
journalism-related— is the eternally compound-interested James K. Glassman, who reportedly wants to parlay his column-based following into corporate consulting and seminar gigs.

Sources told Press Clips they’re not sure if Glassman will get a farewell party from the financial desk staff, but if he does, it’s likely his going-away cake— another Post tradition— will be smaller than those in the past. Not only have budget cuts resulted in a freeze on free Wall Street Journals or New York Timeses for the National staff’s reporters, but the goodbye-party budget has been pared. “The cakes are smaller, and no more soda!” one Postie fumed. While this may seem a bit overwrought— Post writers are among the best-paid in journalism— some at 15th and L NW say Post writers see it as adding insult to injury after new National editor Jackson Diehl’s purge of five veteran writers from the National staff. Since suggesting the writers (now known as “the Jackson 5”) find jobs elsewhere at the paper, Diehl has gained a hardly endearing but utterly appropriate nickname: “Slobodan.”


  • A recent Washington City Paper story commemorated former New Republic staffer Ruth Shalit’s transition from Washington wunderkind journalist to New York City junior advertising executive. City Paper editor David Carr observed that, in addition to being a plagarist and a not consistently accurate reporter, “Shalit is a tremendously self-involved person who is not particularly self-aware.” Nor, apparently, is she (or Salon’s editors) geographically aware. In her debut May 11 piece as Salon’s advertising columnist, the diminutive dilettante wrote that “If there is such a thing as ‘false consciousness,’ its giant brain must lie at the corner of 18th and Madison.” Last time we checked, Madison started at 23rd. . . .

    Cynthia Cotts returns next week.

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