Sunday, June 8, 2008

When to weigh one's words

In a recent comment thread to the post "Being There" at Duck of Minerva (see link at sidebar), I suggested it was inappropriate to refer to U.S. actions in Iraq as a "colonial counterinsurgency."

In response, one commenter said that arguing over the use of "colonial"or "colonialism" in this context is a "semantic quibble," that Iraq has no more "real sovereignty" than the Palestinians do, and he added: "I'm always amazed at the innocence of people in the IR [international relations] business." I'm not sure how insulting I should find this remark.

Iraqis have suffered enormously since the 2003 invasion, with some 2 million refugees, another 2 million internally displaced people, and a very large number of civilians killed, either intentionally in the case of suicide bomb and similar attacks, or unintentionally (but nonetheless sometimes foreseeably) in military operations. Of course, the suffering has not been confined to Iraqis: more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed, roughly 20,000 wounded, and also a significant number of British soldiers killed.

In view of this,
maybe it does verge on the ridiculous, or even the obscene, to quarrel over words. And yet, how we label or describe things does matter. The label "colonial counterinsurgency" suggests that what the U.S. is doing in Iraq is comparable to, for example, what the French were doing in Algeria from 1954-62. I was questioning the appropriateness of the comparison, without in any way seeking to diminish past egregious American errors or, in the case of the invasion itself, violations of international law.

Words are not ends in themselves, and there are some things, as Wittgenstein (among others) pointed out, that cannot be talked or written about. But one person's "semantic quibble" is another's substantive historical distinction. Tragic situations often call not for the dismissal of words, but for their careful weighing.

1 comment:

hank_F_M said...

I was busy fixing a computer crash at work so i couldn't add more than I did.

You were right on.

I just hate the use any word to mean what ever we want today philosophy.