Joseph R.


August 17, 1999


If the truth is the "first casualty of war," then the honest use of language must be "collateral damage." George Orwell rather famously dealt with some of the details in his essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1945). My topic is different insofar as I deal with the American language.

That there is an "American language" is subject to argument, I suppose, but I note that my copy of Larry McMurty's world-famous Weg in die Wildnis (Lonesome Dove) states that it is translated "aus dem Amerikanischen" – "from the American." The incomparable H. L. Mencken certainly thought there was an American language, or he wouldn't have written The American Language and its two full-scale supplements.

Another bit of evidence: I was living in West London in the exciting months when the Soviet bloc's problems with rational economic calculation and political legitimacy were leading to a spectacular collapse. (Did anyone wake up Juergen Habermas, the left-liberal authority on "legitimation crises"?) I kept seeing editorials in the British press to the effect that we had better get in there and teach these foreigners decent English before the Americans show up! Clearly, they thought there was an American language.

Now the American language, such as it is, has taken a few blows on the road to Empire ("greatness thrust upon" us, as one flag-waving historian memorably put it). Writing of English-English, Orwell made up an example of conscious political distortion of meaning. Thus: "While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement." In plain English, Orwell says, this would read, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so."

This reminds me quite a lot of Mr Jamie O'Shea, the Goebbels or Vishinsky of the recent NATO "lie-ins" or press briefings during the non-war/non-peace in or over Yugoslavia. Hearing him reminded me of the Cockney scholar interviewed in Robert McNeill's television series, The Story of English. He said that Cockneys love to use grand-sounding words, as in "'E does all that wif IMPUNITY." Unfortunately, the ever-alert media informed us that Mr O'Shea speaks South London English, which ruined that theory; and just as well, as Americans are rather fond of Cockneys after all those sentimental movies. ("The miss-aisle rydes foll minely on Belgryde."1)

Of course Orwell was parodying Stalinist writing, an art form which doesn't so much die as shift its shape over time, like that foreigner on Deep Space 9. Its analogues are everywhere. In Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1958), Dwight MacDonald highlighted the phenomenon with scary examples from The Nation and the New Republic (which was born evil and seldom gets above its raisin'). MacDonald characterized these journals' war-time, Popular Front, Stalinoid style as "totalitarian liberalism." A good showpiece is the New Republic editorial (May 7, 1945) which explained that forced labor imposed, by say, the Soviet state is not "slavery," since real slavery could only exist in the wicked private sector.

Conservative historian John Lukacs remarked years ago on the bureaucratization of American English, which he attributed to Central European influences and the rise of Pentagonese. (The Capitol Steps' song, "Maxwell's Silver Grammar," makes the point.) The last two wars for the American Empire, the Gulf War and the late business over Kosovo ("eight miles high, and when you drop bombs, you'll find that it's safer than Nam"), have given us all sorts of clever new expressions. Among these are such gems as "collateral damage," "human shields," "humanitarian disaster," "mistakes," "willing executioners,"and "sanctions." This kind of "discourse" (as the trendies like to say) leans on passive and impersonal constructions in which things "are done," – but apparently not by actual human beings who might bear responsibility. Things just kinda "happen" to people at the hands of somebody-or-other.

I suggest saving the time of the general public, parliaments, trade unions, special interests, oppressed minorities, and world-saving bomber pilots by means of an American Imperial/NATO Cliche and Rationale Maker (it slices, it dices, it never tells the truth). In its simplest form the CRM consists of three columns. The first consists of noun phrases like "Secretary Albright and Sandy Berger," "Starkravian Freedom Fighters," "Free world leaders," "Neo-fascist particularists," "UNSCUM," and so forth. The second column contains limp verbs – impersonal and passive: "were launched," "were encountered," "was said by," "were made," "was learned today," etc. The third column has all the direct objects, passive subjects (so to speak), dodgy and dishonest modifiers, and the rest.

One has to be very careful in building such a program. Trial-runs of one program produced unfortunate sentences like "Secretary Albright and Sandy Berger/ were precipitated/ into the hands of the KLA" and headlines such as "NATO peace-keepers fail to exdigitate while Kosovo burns." Well, all I can say is that mistakes "were made" – "by parties unknown." I hope those working on the CRM get it together before we suffer the indignity of seeing headlines such as "Kosovo Quagmire Deepens, Clinton Says 'What Me Worry?'"

But, hey! – the point is saving time, our time, but most importantly the precious time of our thrice-blessed New Class managers. I mean, there are So Many Interventions and So Little Time. If our Kindly Shepherds can get the word out in little fragments that convey a mood but never come up to the level of an idea, wouldn't that be good? Then we could go about our business, subject only to detailed and constant oversight by legions of Bolshevized lawyers and bureaucrats, and leave unpleasant topics like foreign policy and killing-large-numbers-of-foreigners-more-or-less-all-the-God-damned-time to the experts and those who really love that kind of "work," that is to say, our own Auswaertiges Amt, KGB clones, Colonial Office, JFK Counter-Insurgency Legions, Schutz-Staffel G. H. W. Busch, or – to put it to the tune of "The Green Berets": "Fighting preppies from the East, come to tame the savage beast, we'll tell them to get in the groove, or we'll bomb whatever moves." (And lest I slight the humanitarian side of the imperialists' burden, why not "Help, Rwanda, Help, Help, Rwanda" to the old Beach Boys tune?) We can safely leave it all to those who "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" – and by God they don't, though unlike the British imperialists ours can barely think about next Tuesday, much less the long run. One example: the same people who think "we," that is, the US elite, can bomb everyone who does wrong until they do right, often believe that we can, with no inconvenience, invite these same people to live among us as newly minted motor-voters and "citizens" – in their zillions – and, then, these same people, whose relatives the US has bombed, will settle into peaceful, productive habits and make our part of the Global Economy go. This seems problematic, but I suppose it could all work out....

This brings me to another pet project of mine, the New World Order Building Code. It defies logic and reason that one does not exist, when the benefits are so overwhelmingly clear. It is obvious to me that for the greater convenience of US/NATO, every building (hereinafter defined as "structures" larger than 6 cubic feet – sorry, that should have been metric) in any country likely to become the subject of US/NATO attentions should be required to have a sending device which makes targeting automatic. I don't know, frankly, whose buildings would be covered by this innovation in international "law," but I guess that if you took a map of the world and colored all the targets red, the red area would be very large. In fact, the non-target areas would only take in Euro-Lackeys, the US, and possibly all those wombats down there who let us listen to everything from Alice Springs. New Zealand is a bit iffy, because they get so irritable about our nukes parking in their waters – do they think they are a sovereign nation, for God's sake? – but they may just get on the short list. Then again, they may be in need of a coup. Oh, yes, the New, happy, and prosperous South Africa may make the short list. We may need a special clause for Chinese embassies, or more map seminars.

Which brings me back to George Orwell. After serving on the side of the Left in the Spanish Civil War he wrote Homage to Catalonia to express his shock at how the Stalinists had cared as much about killing off their "fellow" leftists – Trotskyites, anarchists, and republicans – as they did about defeating the reactionaries and fascists. (I make that distinction because Franco was a Catholic reactionary and never an ideological fascist: my contribution to Accuracy in Media.) During the recent bout of "rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air" – as well as on top of civilians in Serbia and Kosovo (simultaneously destroyed and saved), a number of militarist left-wing intellectuals – the Frogs in particular – allowed that the exercise was "their" Spanish Civil War. Quite right, old Frogs, it is indeed your Spanish Civil War and you, poor Froggies, are the Stalinist fellow-travelers of the piece. You've sent us your Levi-Strauss (who wasn't much of a tailor), your incomprehensible Derrida, and your Louie Half-Hussar, and we've earned the right to tell you to shut up. ("We," the actually existing American people, not the American state.)

I don't know what my very distant collateral relation, Francis Scott Key, would think about all this. Certainly, the bombs and rockets in that unsingable song of his were weapons of rather wimpy destruction and, for once, someone was throwing them around besides the Americans, and, worse luck, at the Americans. The bomb-throwers of 1812-14 were the footmen and lackeys (Cockneys again?) of our mentors and teachers in the arts of Empire, the Anglo-Norman elite – in business since about 1171, when Strongbow invented the Irish Problem – and whose advisory role Mr. Tony Blair is even now reinventing. (And isn't it interesting how the Brits could run the world without ever dealing with those issues just next door? Sound familiar?)

If things don't get better soon, I aim to find the words to "Anacreon in Heaven," from which cousin Scott Key, innumerable times removed, took his melody. Under present circumstances, they're bound to be more palatable than his and might well serve well enough at patriotic occasions. Just avoid that high note, unless you've had voice lessons with Slim Whitman. Even lefty Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" isn't all bad, especially in bluegrass arrangement, and Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers of America" has its moments, but would need a little ideological reworking. There is also some promising material in the works of Hank Williams, Jr., but the most obvious alternative national anthem is still "America the Beautiful." Who the Hell ever suffered "collateral damage" or even a flesh wound from an amber wave of grain or purple mountains' majesty?

We are rapidly reaching the point where we need a reason to even like this country. I suggest geography – spacious skies and fruited plains – even if that is reportedly the least studied subject in our so-called schools, ignorance of which affects even those who run the place. The rulers can learn, however. In 1945, they didn't know where Korea was, but soon managed to get us into a war there. Any day now, they'll work out that there is a significant difference between Switzerland and Sweden aside from the last several consonants. I'm not sure how remedial geography lessons for the overlords will affect the "rules of engagement" and cruise miss-aisle schedule, since, as persons with no sense of place, the overlords slide easily from the notion of "place" to that of "target."

To be honest, I was partly kidding just now. There are a great many reasons to like and even love this country. It's just that almost none of them are in the reclaimed bit of swampland which Virginia and Maryland foolishly ceded some two hundred years ago. In that cession, "mistakes" – for once – actually "were made."

As for Mr. O'Shea, one can only hope that 'e runs into quoite a bit of rine on his next trip to Spine. 'Oo knows, 'e moight 'ave to give up loying for a few dyes, and that would be a real chynge.

[1] This – and other songs cited in this essay – are available in The Kosovo Occupation Song Book and Ammo Box, vol. I (1999).

Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Tuesday on

Archived Columns:

Please Support

A contribution of $20 or more gets you a copy of Justin Raimondo's Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans, a 60-page booklet packed with the kind of intellectual ammunition you need to fight the lies being put out by this administration and its allies in Congress. Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086

or Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form


Back to Home Page | Contact Us