Wednesday, August 01, 2007

From "war" to "battle", but still the same deal?

Emerging from its chrysalis-like cocoon state of raw energy and manliness, the visceral phase "war on terror" is mutating into something else. The BBC reports that Brown talks of terror 'struggle' in an interview on NBC, but there's no way a struggle gets the patriotic heart pumping like a good old war. Struggle is part of War, not the other way around, and while a Struggle can be a defining period, something to suffer, it just doesn't have the same active ingredient that War has. In Struggle, you persevere. In War, you overcome.

The BBC article also links to an old piece on the declining use of the 'war' phrase, from back in April. Hilary Benn posited that this was mostly to avoid feeding the fire, but it's down to Sir Ken MacDonald to realise that the language of war involves a sacrifice of values, and an embracing of fear.

So what's replacing the 'war' then? Well, Brown calls it a 'struggle' - at least on US TV - but not just any old struggle. It is, no less, a struggle for the soul of the 21st century. Yes, that's right. Whoever wins this battle (not a war, you see?) wins the entirety of he 21st century. Which is odd, really. Is Brown laying a claim to owning the 21st century? One might say that the "soul" of the 60s was free love and such, but in doing so one would implicitly accept a very Western - or even just American, or parts thereof - view of the 60s. Was there a soul of the 20th century? Perhaps industrial capitalism? cientific progress? Institutional control? All of these are still merely the outcome of the 20th century in a way - a historic perspective shoe-horned into a nostalgic re-definition of where we've just been. In many ways, the "soul" of the 20th century could easily be classed as nothing but very real, very gritty global war.

By attaching the idea of a "battle" to the next 100 years, Brown is doing something very odd. 100 years isn't a battle, it's most definitely a war, as we've seen before. A battle is a moment, a clash, an instant of violence that arises from other factors simmering up and meeting in conflict. A battle lasts a few days at most (else it turns into a siege, which is a different game altogether). By calling such a prolonged fight a 'battle', is attention being swiftly diverted from the longevity of these actions? Are phrases such as "long war", "cold war" and now even "war" so bad for the "reality" bubble that voting citizens are kept in that we have to re-define other words to take on what we really mean? Can we really be fooled into thinking that 50 years is no more a 'struggle' than 50 hours?

Or perhaps I'm just reading too much into an American TV interview and a rapidly-concocted piece of rhetoric. Still, with the 'war' on terror apparently deprecated over here - at least in linguistic terms - it's worth keeping an eye on what language takes its place. Rest assured, it'll contain some mix of expecting to fight, and expecting to fight for a long time. Language is Power.

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