Friday, 1 April 2011

The Dangers of Historico-speak

You may not have realised yet, but apparently NATO is currently fighting a war in Libya. Well that’s not strictly true for, according to Washington spin-doctors, American, British and French aircraft are actually engaged in a “kinetic military action.” Well that’s ok then. The exact nature of this action is, at present unclear, although a spokesman has at least been able to confirm that “surgical air strikes have been pacifying hard targets and neutralising enemy combatants”. When asked about casualties, the spokesman noted that “non-operative personnel were confined to forces loyal to the old regime.” 

As you may have already gathered, I find the increased use of verbal camouflage (the euphemism) in official-speak both fascinating and ultimately rather worrying. At times of conflict, politicians and the military employ such tactics not only to disguise the horror of war but also as a way of softening the harsh reality of conflict overseas. Of course there is nothing new in this, for a study of the coin series of any self-respecting Roman emperor clearly demonstrates the power of spin and propaganda: leaders utilising images of ‘peace’ in times of war, ‘victory’ at times of military defeat and ‘unity’ in the midst of civil conflict. I suspect that emperors and their advisers were also pretty good at masking inconvenient truths behind euphemism and verbal camouflage so as to pacify both the senate and people of Rome. 

It occurred to me, during a lecture on the Roman invasions of Britain, that similar tactics could today be used when discussing the ancient past. Perhaps modern euphemism and verbal camouflage could legitimately be employed to aid the interpretation (or mask the true horror) of history. Julius Caesar’s first disastrous foray against Britain in 55 BC could easily be dressed up as an “aquatic military investigation”, whilst the unsuccessful second operation in 54 BC could be described as “troop-based terrestrial probing”.

In a similar vein, Caligula’s abortive attempt to invade Britain in AD 40, when he made his soldiers collect sea shells from the French coast (possibly in order to humiliate them) could be termed as “coastal resource management” or even “marine habitat quantification”

whilst the emperor’s later proclaimed victory against Neptune and the Ocean as “extreme non-militarised sea-deity pacification”.

The Emperor Claudius’ invasion of southern Britain in AD 43 could, furthermore, be described as “surgical strike enhancement in order to upgrade native socio-political control mechanisms" (puppet rulers loyal to Rome). Of course it also had the effect of simultaneously “enforcing regime change” upon those considered to be disloyal or resistant to Rome. Unfortunately, from the perspective of “indigenous personnel” (the Britons) “unquantifiable civilian resources” (people) were, in the course of the invasion “subjugated to extreme pacification” (killed) whilst “domestic neutralisation” (the random burning of native settlements) resulted in unexpectedly high numbers of “non combatant life deprivation” (civilian deaths). On the positive side, such “kinetic military action” (war) undoubtedly led to a period of “permanent post-hostility” (peace). 

I expect that, shortly after the invasion of AD 43, all “indigenous non-combatant personnel” (British civilians), on discovery of an “unexpected period of permanent post-hostility” (peace) had a moment of “positive well-being realignment” (happiness) evidenced by “involuntary facial spasming creating an upward communication interface extension” (a smile)....but then that’s the joy of historico-speak for you.

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