a d v e r t i s e m e n t


Them's Fightin' Words

By Geoffrey Nunberg
Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University.

November 30, 2003

"We did not … defeat a brutal dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins." That was President Bush addressing troops in Baghdad during his holiday drop-in, picking two terms from the long list of epithets for the bad guys in Iraq.

A CBS News report last week used five different names in the space of a couple of paragraphs. It was headed "Series of Strikes on Iraq Rebels," and it went on to say, "U.S. forces assaulted dozens of suspected guerrilla positions, killing six alleged insurgents … amid a U.S. drive to intimidate the resistance…. Soldiers arrested an organizer of the fedayeen guerrillas."

Thugs, assassins, rebels, guerrillas, insurgents, resistance and fedayeen — everybody has been struggling to find the right term for the enemy in Iraq. True, as long as it's unclear who is behind the attacks, it's probably prudent to cover all the bases.

But the variation also signals a deeper problem in interpreting the news coming out of Iraq. The media may be making a valiant effort to cover the good news, but no one's sure what story line to wrap around the bad. Just which movie are we screening here?

Take "the resistance," which Merriam-Webster's defines as "an underground organization of a conquered or nearly conquered country engaging in sabotage and secret operations against occupation forces." That seems to fit the present situation on all counts, right down to the "or nearly conquered" part.

Still, you can understand why papers like the Los Angeles Times would demur from describing the fighters as "the resistance," a name that conjures up stirring World War II heroics, a la "Casablanca" and "Passage to Marseille," this before the French were recast as duplicitous surrender monkeys. (You could see Sydney Greenstreet as Ahmad Chalabi but Paul Bremer deserves better than Conrad Veidt.)

The other words have problems too. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "insurgent" as "one that revolts against civil authority" and "rebellion" as "open, armed and organized resistance to a constituted government." But both words seem a little optimistic for Iraq right now, where civil authority and "constituted government" are thin on the ground. Then too the words have awkward heroic resonances of their own: They bring to mind the good guys in "The Empire Strikes Back" or more disquietingly, "Lawrence of Arabia." (I picture Alec Guinness saying, "The English have a great hunger for desolate places.")

Bush's "thugs" and "assassins" trail inauspicious associations too. The assassins were originally members of a radical Ismaili sect in medieval Syria who were sent out to murder the Crusaders by a reclusive ascetic known as "the old man of the mountains," who never was captured. (A popular myth links the name of the cult to the hashish that its members chewed.) And thugs were originally the disciples of thuggee, murderous Indian banditry that the British finally suppressed in the 1830s after a messy, decade-long campaign. The cult lives as a model for villains in Orientalist melodramas, from Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone" to "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

For a while, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was pushing "bitter-enders," which brought to mind those Japanese holdouts in the caves of Saipan and Tarawa (recall Jeffrey Hunter in "Hell to Eternity"). But if you depict the task in Iraq as merely a mop-up operation, you have to acknowledge at some point that it isn't going very well.

Hence the shift to describing the situation as "a low-intensity conflict, a guerrilla war," as Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of the country, put it recently. Those terms put the engagements on a different footing — what were disturbing postwar security problems have now become merely minor skirmishes in an ongoing "postwar" (as a few journalists have taken to rendering the word) battle.

When rockets were launched at two Baghdad hotels from donkey carts last week, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt dismissed the attacks as a "militarily insignificant" effort to grab headlines. (And so it did — a Reuter's follow-up story was headed "Life worsens for Iraqi donkeys under U.S. suspicion," which sounded like a line from a plot summary of "The Secret of Santa Vittoria.")

But it was notable that Kimmitt went on to refer to the perpetrators with the singular "he" that soldiers have used since Kipling's day to confer a grudging respect on the enemy. "He's an inventive, ingenious enemy."

So it's understandable that some people should be looking for a new word for enemy that isn't charged with unwanted associations. Back in June, Bremer started to refer to those resisting the coalition presence as "rejectionists," adapting a term that has been used since the 1970s for Arab groups and governments opposed to a negotiated peace settlement with Israel. Recently the new use of the word has begun to pop up in other places — Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) used it in a recent op-ed piece.

It would take quite a while for any new nameto establish itself and for a story line to cohere around it, particularly if the screenplay has to be written from scratch. But it's looking as if there will be time for that.