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Against bad war writing
On David Aaronovitch in The Guardian
Iraq, war, language
Saturday, April 17, 2004 13:30 GMT

Sometimes I'm shocked by how someone sees fit to write about people they are supposedly trying to defend. I had to pen some thoughts on a particularly infuriating piece by David Aaronovitch in The Guardian (April 9 2004).

See the article here.

There are more or less subtle forms of warfare. The warfare of mere words may be so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable; and yet it always forms a part of war-making proper – and is probably its necessary precondition.

You wage such war with phrases that firmly divide "us" from "them", with clichés that grant "us" a monopoly on rationality and humanism, and with disturbing metaphors that illustrate "their" backwardness and savagery. Though you may attempt to turn such clichés and metaphors to nice arguments, to erudite and unobtrusive thoughts, they still have their own martial force: for from behind this pleasantry comes the whispered cry to take up arms and save "them" from themselves.

Any attempt to write in a plausibly neutral way about a conflict must grapple with this fact: language is not a transparent net that can be thrown over the world, but rather a geological accumulation of other people’s ignorance, poetry and propaganda. This is not simply a question of observing politically correct niceties. It is a matter of engaging radically with the humanity of other people living in different political systems and with different histories, and finding an ever new language with which to represent it.

The Guardian has adopted a pretty critical stance towards the British and American governments' actions in Iraq, so the chauvinism of David Aaronovitch’s editorial, which was a merry parade of all the clichés of British cultural superiority, was surprising. A short literary appreciation follows.

We begin close to the Iraqi border with a scared Aaronovitch who, by his own admission, knows little about the country he is about to visit. A scene of desolation greets him: "someone had taken chains and a tractor to all the electricity pylons for 100 miles, bending them in the middle so they stooped over like coolies in a rice paddy." It seems he is having trouble finding appropriate similes for a landscape which is, to him, alien; as he thinks back to his high-speed journey along Iraqi highways he can think of nothing so much as the imperialist surveying from some mechanical transportation the eternal peasant at work in the emerald fields of another part of what was once the British Empire. It is a truly bizarre image. Very few of Aaronovitch's readers can ever have seen coolies in rice paddies. He is referring them, not to something they have seen, but to a floating image of imperial Englishness that establishes, at the beginning of his piece, a certain relationship – that of the natural conqueror – to the place he has come to. His image is doubly poignant, of course; for in the imperial order he invokes it is industrious peasants who bend over the soil; here, after decades of corrupt "self rule", it is only twisted steel.

Aaronovitch can see the ridiculous side of his appearance in this place: he is jumpy, conspicuous and ill-adapted to such a situation, and he senses that others are looking at him with some pity. "They must have realised that I was helpless, just a baby. A big, white, fat, rich, probably American baby." But this is not humility. The big fat rich white man is sweaty and ungainly in the Arabian heat, but this is evidence precisely for the fact that he has not lost his reason to it. The rest of the article is a series of interviews with locals which display to what extent they have.

"The rest of the evening was a strange whirl of events, including conversations with Iraqis at a garage, where they intimated that … the Americans were mad and trigger-happy – one had lost a father, apparently, to a US bullet." On the day that Aaronovitch’s article came out, CNN reported that 480 Iraqis had been killed that week, so there seems no reason, a priori, to cast doubt on such a casualty report. Usually you expect people to be able to speak confidently of whether their father has been killed or not; it is a distinction to which they attach considerable importance. But Aaronovitch is not talking here so much about his interlocutors as about himself: for him everything is a "strange whirl" within which even an apparently normal event like a conversation at a garage is so blurred by the mind-altering haze of foreignness that truth evaporates, and he is driven to doubt its existence even when people are telling him basic facts about themselves.

Aaronovitch’s instinctive mistrust of the people he meets subsides somewhat when he speaks to people rather like himself. People who have spent long periods outside Iraq and who believe that Anglo-American occupation will eventually set the country on the road of eternal liberal progress. People who speak good English. Etc. But with people such as Sheikh Ahmed Jaizani, Dean of Sadr Islamic University, he doesn’t even pretend to take them seriously. "If you like your extremists to look mad," he begins, ensuring we do not take the Sheikh seriously either, "he is a disappointment." The two men have a conversation about democracy. Jaizani makes the point that too sudden an abandonment of state control over individuals could harm the long-term chances for democratic culture. He points out that even in blasé France there are limits to freedom: a woman cannot just go out naked. Aaronovitch does not want his picture to be messed up by ideas like this, and anyway it never occurs to him that such a man could have any legitimate opinion about how his country should be governed. He scoffs openly while the man speaks, sighs with liberal piety at the indelicate suggestion that a free society might not just drop from the sky – and, in case all this is not enough, puts into his mouth a kind of "Lawrence of Arabia" pidgin.

"What we fear" [says Jaizani] "is that the temporary constitution cuts off the possibility of [peaceful] coexistence." And why? We’re back [sighs Aaronovitch] to the guaranteeing of rights. "There should be certain limits to this." Such as? His answer borders on the bizarre. "I read in the papers that in France there is an article in French law which does not allow women to go out very naked looking. Disrespectful freedom is prohibited." This will be news in St Tropez.

The final, sarcastic sneer is completely unworthy. Aaronovitch tries to discredit the argument with a knowing wink to "us" Mediterranean beach veterans, but his point is idiotic: the existence of a few, strictly circumscribed nude beaches only proves the observation that a woman cannot simply walk naked down the street in France. Moreover, when a rich (his word, not mine) European journalist uses his breezy St Tropez worldliness to score cheap points over people whose access to places and information has for years been painfully restricted (isn’t this why Aaronovitch was supporting the war?) you could legitimately feel a bit disgusted.

Aaronovitch’s snide assaults on anyone who tries to voice opinions too complex for his blithe narrative of armed progress continue throughout the piece ("bollocks" he comments at one point, a homely English idiom that does not need to argue its point, since anyone who speaks like that must be a decent fellow). But deep down he is not particularly interested in investigating the climate of ideas in Iraq, simply with telling the basic, banal story that "they" are very different from "us" – and therefore with shoring up his own uneasy suspicion that the world would be better if filled with people like him. At the end of his piece, after four pages of self-centred travelogue, he tries to leave us with an image of high seriousness. Waiting for his tickets to Heathrow he is approached by a young man:

"He started by saying that he wanted to visit Britain. And then he broke down. Here’s what he said, more or less verbatim. "I sorry. But I die in Iraq. I die now, every day. Maybe I shoot me. I can't live here. Weapons, tanks, enemy all the time. I can’t sleep with shootings. No money. I die. I must go.""

Aaronovitch comments, dramatically: "Salih doesn't need our arguments any more. He needs our help." After nights dreaming of death at the hands of savage "insurgents" (the word usually describes rebels against a legal regime, and so betrays Aaronovitch's opinion on the question he is supposedly trying to resolve) and days hearing a lot of confusing opinions ("Iraqi politics are complicated; there was a lot to understand") our author tries to make things simpler for himself by eschewing any kind of intellectual effort and providing us with an image that is supposedly so self-evident we do not need to probe opinions or arguments any more. But the reason he thinks Salih is so self-evident, so apt to resolve all these cacophonic conversations into consensus, is because he is an ancient figure that he has seen many times before: he is the Negro boy who cries because he is a Negro; the African woman who cries because her children will grow up to be Africans. Because we know nothing about Salih's history he is able to function as a myth of absolute suffering, absolute innocence and absolute helplessness; and, though Aaronovitch's experience in Iraq has been complicated and contradictory, in the face of such an image he is able to remind himself of ancient certainties: such people will never be able to function without us.

After all, they cannot even string a sentence together.