USC Students for Justice in Palestine

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Z Magazine Article: The role of language in defending the indefensible

Posted by uscsjp on April 16, 2007

By Ronald Osborn

The mendacity and criminality of the U.S. war on Vietnam are matters of historical record, yet easily forgotten is the role that so-called objective, balanced, and responsible language played to defend the indefensible. With today’s Washington planners attempting to disburse billions of dollars in “development and reconstruction aid” to Iraq in the midst of a heated war, the village of Ben Suc in Vietnam serves as a prescient reminder of what “aid,” “development,” and “humanitarianism” can mean in the context of an ongoing foreign invasion. Ben Suc also points toward an unsettling kinship between debased language, social sciences, and pathologies of technocratic control. 

The use of technocratic doublespeak as a mask for violence is perhaps nowhere more incisively analyzed than in George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”: “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification,” Orwell wrote in 1946. “Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called rectification of frontiers. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Orwell identified four ways that truth is shrouded in cocoons of debased speech by the perpetrators of deadly political action: pretentious diction, verbal false limbs, dying metaphors, and meaningless vocabulary…

The war in Vietnam, “A Program of Action for South Vietnam” reveals, was conceived by its architects from an early stage as being critically linked to “development,” with “economic projects” explicitly “designed to accompany the counter-insurgency effort” in a complementary and parallel fashion. There was no contradiction in the minds of the Washington planners between gray broadcasts, Ranger raids, and napalm bombing, on the one hand, and the construction of hospitals, schools, and agricultural pilot-projects, on the other. Both were essential means to the same end: victory over the Communists and integration of Vietnam into the U.S. sphere of influence and control. At the same time, architects of the war found it necessary to distinguish between humanitarianism and violence, both to themselves and before the public. Development is referred to in the Pentagon Papers as “the other half,” or “winning hearts and minds”—euphemistic phrases that suggest both a clear division of labor as well as a sense of moral clarity. Development was in some sense related to the war—it was its other half—yet it was also fundamentally different from it. In a small, rice-farming village located in a meandering loop of the Saigon River in 1967, these distinctions were bulldozed to shambles. 

The lessons of Ben Suc have not been learned by today’s new Washington planners who speak again about “winning hearts and minds,” “humanitarianism,” and “development” as the “other half” of the insurgency war in Iraq. Or, it may be, the lessons have been learned all too well. History offers little hope that “aid” and “development” will not continue to be corrupted by their proximity to coercive power. It is left to honest women and men to find the linguistic practices necessary for resistance. (full link)


Ronald Osborn is a writer and guest lecturer. He is with the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California.

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