Book review: Words as weapons of warfare

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THE KOSOVO tragedy is not only about military violence, massive displacement of people and a clash of political wills, but also about opposing vocabularies sharpened in order to manoeuvre public opinion. Expressions like "autonomy" and "aggression" have abysmally different meanings when uttered on CNN and Serbian TV. "Holocaust" seems to be undergoing a radical redefinition, to the degree of almost trivialising its Nazi incarnation. Even "Adolf Hitler" has acquired an altogether new life as Belgrade, Moscow, and Peking simplify it to refer to President Clinton, while Nato leaders abuse it to depict the second-rate dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

A society at war is a society that needs to revamp words to provide a rationale for its goals. When a crisis of this magnitude emerges, speech becomes a nervous thermometer, measuring the rapid ups and downs of popular moods and leaders' needs to placate those moods by closing ranks while "re-educating" their supporters.

So today's media people and politicians today should read Marguerite Feitlowitz's A Lexicon of Terror. This is an impressive account of the horrors of the so-called "dirty war" in Argentina (1976-1983), seen not from the torture chamber, but through the parroting lips and oratorical exercises of the country's military junta. Admiral Emilio Massera, among its most accomplished representatives, secured his place in the pantheon of political manipulators when he said: "Unfaithful to their meanings, words perturb our powers to reason." To reason, then, a society in need of "purification" must unmask words, return them to their essence, make them faithful again. That, Massera believed, was his personal duty and that of other "protectors" of the Argentine psyche.

The similarities between Kosovo today and Argentina 20 years ago may seem tenuous - but that is why Feitlowitz's volume is so useful. "Ethnic cleansing", the desire to "erase" a whole population, has become part of international discourse fairly recently, following the Bosnian conflicts of the early 1990s.

Yet the decision by the Argentine dictatorship to "eliminate Marxist subversives" from its soil was also a form of "cleansing", although the rationale was was ideological rather than ethnic. For the most part, though, the "dirty war" - a term used to describe a low-intensity battle spread through many years - was a national affair. It never prompted the direct intervention of a foreign nation.

Obviously, all wars are not only dirty but also local, and always about what people mean when they utter the word "home". The lessons to be drawn from Feitlowitz are, therefore, invaluable, for hers is the type of book that should remain timely as long as men kill in order to force their ideas and vocabulary on others.

She makes a list of words in daily usage in Argentina by the military junta - such as "patriotism," "sacrifice" and "honour". Not much really changes in this account if one replaces "General Videla" with "President Milosevic". Her list is crowned by the most ubiquitous of terms, a signature to the infamous era - desaparecido, the noun "disappeared". So full of echoes is this expression in Spanish that other Western tongues have adopted it in an untranslated form. Strictly speaking, desaparecidos are also the hundreds of thousand of Kosovo Albanians unaccounted for since the Serbian war broke out.

Each war has its own vocabulary, but in truth, they are not so different from one another. Perhaps the most forceful chapter of A Lexicon of Terror is the last - "The Scilingo Effect", subtitled "the past is a predator". It centres on the retired navy captain, Adolfo Scilingo. In early 1995, he confessed on a popular TV news show - thus creating an international uproar - to have taken part in the so-called "death flights", in which the enemies of the state were sedated and then thrown into the open sea from military aircraft. This is a haunting section, but Feitlowitz highlights its effects by reflecting on how wars are never fought only in the present - but in the past too, through remorse and nostalgia.

Similarly, the insistence of President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair not to submit to Milosevic's strategy until he agrees to the repatriation of the displaced Albanians is courageous, yet shortsighted. Where are the refugees to return to? Has not the place they call "home" been burned and destroyed? Have many of them already been "repatriated"? And how will they cope with the terrible shocks of memory? The past is a predator, indeed - and so is the present.

Ilan Stavans

The reviewer teaches at Amherst College in Massachusetts and is the author of `The Hispanic Condition' (HarperCollins), and editor of `The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories'