Iraq Bombings: The New Language of War

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WORDS ARE weapons of war too - sometimes heavily camouflaged and sometimes naked in their aggressive purpose. And with every war a new device is usually deployed for the first time, to confuse and alarm the enemy.

In the Gulf War most of us learnt the language of "collateral damage" for the first time, a way of saying "charred and dismembered civilians" which wouldn't disrupt the easy, bantering triumph of those locker-room debriefing sessions.

This time, the new arrival on the battlefield is "degraded and diminished", and it has already proved to be a hazardous piece of verbal ordinance, as likely to blow up in the user's face as to concentrate fire on the enemy. The mistake was to allow a moral ambiguity to be incorporated into what should have been a phrase of clinical and technocratic detachment. That is where "degrade" is borrowed from - from the world of the lab and the white coat. In chemistry it means to reduce a substance to a simpler molecular structure, in geology to wear down rocks, in physics to reduce energy to a less convertible form - all senses which no doubt register the desires of many people with respect to the current Iraqi regime.

Tony Blair has shown a preference for such scientific procedures over the B-movie heroics of other leaders. Where George Bush talked of "a line in the sand" over which Saddam had crossed, Mr Blair noted that the Iraqi president had failed to meet the UN "benchmarks" for "compliance", as if this was a matter of a dodgy imported kettle which wouldn't get its safety certificate. "Degraded and diminished" sounds as if it is part of this vocabulary, but it admits something unwanted with its moral overtones. Those who use it forget that if degrading yourself is bad, degrading others isn't much better, particularly if they simply have the bad luck to be standing next to your real target.

Destroy Saddam Hussein's weapons by all means, shatter his military system. He deserves it. But don't degrade them; the recoil from the phrase is too powerful to make it safe.