Friday, March 16, 2007

The Language of War

also in this post:

Britain & Global Warming
Men, Women and Cars
A Night of Noir

Sometimes, when you’re listening to the news, or a radio program, TV show or film, someone says something and it immediately catches you, and you want to save that sentence, that gathering together of words, forever. If you’re like me, you’re driving when it happens, and there you go, groping around for a pen to scribble the words down on the back of an old receipt. I’ve been in the movie theater when my ears have been teased by dialogue in a film, and there I’ll be, nudging my husband and whispering, “Got a pen?” having just heard that must-save phrase.

Just a few weeks ago, we were watching the BBC news, and the anchor, Katty Kay, was interviewing Darfur’s foreign minister. She was pushing him, in her very clipped, incisive manner (those eyes flashing as she pressed her point), because she wanted him to say out loud why the carnage was still going on, why the government was supporting the militia, when he said – out of the blue – “No-one is clean in Africa.” My husband and I looked at each other, and I said, “Did he just say what I think he said?” Yes. No-one is clean in Africa.

It’s not that we didn’t already know that, if we’ve been paying attention, but those kinds of comments aren’t often said out loud by a person in a politically privileged position.

The same thing happened yesterday, as I was listening to the news that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, having admitted to planning the 9-11 attacks and to killing journalist Daniel Pearl, had said, “The language of war is its victims.” It brought up, once again, so much of what we have written about here at, and I think it will bear a few more reflections before we’ve done chewing on that particular bone. The thing is that the comment came hot on the heels of a book I’d just finished reading - actually, it’s not been published yet, I was reading an advance review copy. The book is called, “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance,” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a terrific writer – you may have read his essays in the New Yorker. Essentially, the book came out of his personal quest to be better at what he does, and to that end, he looked at medicine in different situations, countries, etc – and not only in the best hospitals, either, but in shabby run-down centers in rural India, for example. In one chapter, he looks at the challenges facing doctors in war zones, and the feats they pull off every single day to save lives. And he gives examples of the patients. At the end of the chapter entitled “Casualties of War,” he writes: “But if mortality is low, the human cost remains high. The airman lost one leg above the knee, the other at the hip, his right hand, and part of his face. When I met him, he was insistently upbeat. ‘I’m doing well, sir,’ he said. How he and others like him will be able to live and function remains an open question, however. His abdominal injuries prevented him from being able to lift himself out of bed or into a wheelchair. With only one hand, he could not manage his colostomy. We have never faced having to rehabilitate people with such extensive wounds. We are only beginning to learn what to do to make a life worth living possible for them.”

The language of war is its victims. Here are a few more sentences in that language.

The men, women and children killed and maimed in Iraq.
The children around the world crippled by land mines.
Those who are terribly wounded in terrorist attacks in Spain, in London, or those caught up in fighting in Lebanon, in Gaza, in Israel.
The child soldiers in Africa who are drugged up to kill, and kill again. No one is clean in Africa.

“The language of war is its victims.” That one will stay with me for a long time.

The Brits and Global Warming: And now something to celebrate. The government of the British Isles – a landmass responsible for 2% of carbon emissions worldwide – has gone out on a limb and said that it will cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050, with many initiatives taking effect almost immediately. Every aspect of life in the UK will be impacted, from the way houses are built and remodeled, to recreation, driving – the list goes on. They underlined this “push” by saying that they want to set an example to the rest of the world, particularly the biggest offenders and most significant contributors to global warming, the USA and China. Interesting – to me anyway – was footage of a “captain of industry” being interviewed on TV about the measures. There he was, standing in front of a huge photograph of a melting glacier, and he says, “Well, we’ll have to see what impact all this is going to have.” The unspoken tail of that comment was, “on industry.” As we are known to say in Britain, “What a plonker.”

Men, Women and Cars: When I was single, and my car needed to go in for repair, I’d call my friend, Kas, who would follow me down to the shop, wait while I checked my car in, then she’d give me a ride home. And later on in the day, she’d take me down there to pick up my car when it was finished. And I would do the same for her. Never, in all the times we did this favor for each other, did one of us turn to the other and say, “So, what makes you think you need new brakes?” Or, “Don’t let them sell you an air-filter, they always want to do that, so you just tell them, you only want the oil change.” Or even, “And who reckons it’s an oxy-sensor? Are you sure that’s what it is?”

That is the sort of conversation I have with my husband. And it’s not as if I am some klutz with a car – I am pretty good at problem diagnosis, which is to be expected after over thirty years of car ownership. This was brought home to me on Wednesday. I was driving up to the Bay Area, my trusty Volvo loaded up with my bag, my senior citizen dog and various bits and pieces I needed with me for the week, and (at 80 mph, I might add) one of my tires shredded. So, I pulled over to the side of the road, fortunately it happened just limping distance from an exit ramp in Santa Maria, and I called AAA. I can change a tire, but I had the dog with me and I wanted to keep an eye on her seeing as we were right next to very busy traffic, and what the heck do I pay AAA for anyway, if I have to change my own tire at the side of the road? So, the tow truck arrived and my spare tire was put on the car, and I asked where the nearest tire dealer was so that I could get a new tire on the wheel and get that silly looking little mint-sized spare tire off my car and back into its cave underneath the dog’s bed.

On the way to Wayne’s Tires, I called my husband. Big mistake. Should have called afterwards. You’d have thought I had never bought a tire before. “Don’t let them rip you off, you don’t need an alignment and all that stuff, and they’ll try to sell it to you, so you just tell them all you need is a tire.” Don’t worry, hon, I know what I’m doing. If I don’t want an alignment, believe me, I will not get one.

So, guys, this is just to let you know that womenfolk, in general, are just as savvy around automobiles as men. And there are a lot of clueless men out there, when it comes to the inner workings of the internal combustion engine, and don’t we all know it!

And moving on, for anyone in the Bay Area this evening, I’ll be at the Mechanics Institute (how apt) in San Francisco (50 Post Street) where Eddie Muller – SF’s “Czar of Noir” – will be introducing the 1947 British noir classic, “They Made Me A Fugitive,” after which I will be joining Eddie and my good friend, Tony Broadbent (the Cary Grant of mystery, who wrote The Smoke and Specters in the Smoke, set in WW2 London), in a panel discussion. It should be great fun. More info at:

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  1. Great post, Jacqueline!

    I've always worried about the human cost of the war. Yes, my English mother-in-law rants about the cost to tax-payers about supporting the over 22,000 men and women wounded and maimed for life in Iraq, but I think about the innocents caught in the crossfire over there as well. I think about the adults who just want a stable life in their home in Iraq but risk death, capture, maiming, not knowing whether family members will still be with them the next day, next week, next year because the whole populace is caught in the mournful crossfire between a dictatorship now replaced with an alien occupation force trying to plug a leaking ship; and now caught in a power struggle between warring religious factions who have no reticence in killing innocents to 'prove their point or social morality high ground'. It's all so disgusting. I've been in the military, I know what it's like to follow orders that just don't make sense, or be in a situation that you can't dig yourself out of - how a soldier/airman/sailor must follow orders, because that's what they do. Support the govenment at whatever cost, because the government isn't supposed to give you a bum steer or neglect your needs - and besides it's what you signed on to serve. You have no choice. It's that fact that has caused the governments around the world to suppress suicide rates among serving members. I've heard so many civilians over here say things like, 'well, they should get together and stand up to their superiors, or something - tell them they're not going to do it' and I just shake my head. In war - even a war on 'terror' - you can be courtmartialled and possibly executed for mutiny and treason, depending on the size of the offence. People don't get that this isn't a movie with happy ending. Nobody wins. And the victims last a lifetime.

    I'm glad now that there is increasing media coverage of the victims and physical cost of this war and other atrocities around the world. People need to get their heads out of, sand... and take a good hard look.

    Re the global warming thing: I'm still getting used to the fact that America is still 10-15 years behind Australia and England in control and restriction of greenhouse gas emissions from cars, industry, etc, replanting of trees, public transport, recycling, and eduction of the people. It's just scary.

    Anyway, I think I've ranted long enough. I'll hand over the soapbox to the next, amateur orator. :-D


  2. I, too, collect those remarkable lines from movies, conversations, and radio discussions. There was one, though, that I remember writing down because of the language, not the sentiment. When Bush spoke to the nation about the Challenger disaster, the radio announcer declared him "the poet laureate of our pain."

    Hmmm ... on second thought, maybe he wasn't so wrong after all. He's a pretty good embodiment of the pain in this country.

    And my own emergency repair kit in the car consists of duct tape, WD40, a spare alternator and spark plugs, a wire hanger, and an old John D. McDonald paperback to reread while I'm waiting for AAA, because none of the aforementioned stuff worked.

  3. from Jacqueline

    Marianne, thank you once again for your eloquent straight-from-the-heart (and experience) response to one of our posts. Your comments are always so welcome, especially given your experience in the military.

    And Louise - Bush the poet laureate of our pain? I'd never heard that one - probably just as well! And onto the car issue - years ago everyone said that if your fan belt went, the best thing was a pair of women's stockings. I remember the fan belt breaking on our old Morris, when I was a kid, and my father saying to my mother, "Get those stockings off, I need them." To which she responded, "Not bloody likely, they're brand new!"

    I tend to make sure I have a pair of good walking shoes in the car, a flashlight, and water - plus a well-charged cellphone in working order.

  4. Oh, man, I am so bummed that I won't be in town tonight. I would've loved to come to the Mechanics Institute. It's a great venue and the event sounds like worlds o'fun.

    And, as usual, great post ;-)

  5. When I was young, my dad made me take care of my cars, including changing the oil and the spark plugs. Do cars still have spark plugs? I could probably change a tire but getting those lug nuts off is a bear.

    Anybody remember the lyrics from the Edwin Starr song:

    War, huh, good God
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Listen to me

    Ohhh, war, I despise
    Because it means destruction
    Of innocent lives

    War means tears
    To thousands of mothers eyes
    When their sons go to fight
    And lose their lives

    War, it ain't nothing
    But a heartbreaker
    War, friend only to the undertaker
    Ooooh, war
    It's an enemy to all mankind
    The point of war blows my mind
    War has caused unrest
    Within the younger generation
    Induction then destruction
    Who wants to die
    Aaaaah, war-huh
    Good God y'all
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Say it, say it, say it
    War, huh
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing

  6. from Jacqueline

    My dad made sure I knew how to change a tire, change the oil, and a spark plug - all the basics. Do dad's do that sort of thing anymore? Mind you, years ago, if you were a teen with a new driver's license, you were lucky to have a car - and even then, it probably limped along with a shudder and a belch. The kids I see driving all appear to have brand new expensive cars! I sold my Beemer to a 22-year old who seemed to have no interest in my advice to never forget the oil changes, because the car's a classic and if you look after it ... and he was gone, screaming up the road. But I had the bank draft in my hot little hand.

    And how could anyone forget that song, with its thumping beat and in-your-face lyrics - thank you for that, Patty.

  7. Oh, I forgot. Bob and I bought our first car together back in 1999. I'd been driving about ten years longer than he - he started late - and had owned at least three on my own. One of them was real clanker, and required all sorts of things to keep it going and me from getting stranded. When we purchased our new little Saturn, I had an audience around the car when I was hitting the Saturn salesman with queries like "Where's the fuel filter? It doesn't matter how cheap it is costwise, it's the labour to remove and replace it. If the thing is buried beneath a heap of stuff in the engine compartment, it could cost mucho grando in labour to remove the stuff around it to replace that simple little thing." And other questions to that effect. :-D Needless to say, the audience learned a lot. :-D I was a bit embarrassed - not used to holding the floor like that.

    Oh, and in the driving test to get my military service licence: I and the instructor got into a two tonn truck and he directed me to a huge sandfield. It was two laps of the pit, and if I got bogged, I dug the truck out. Urp. That was motivational! I threw the wheel over, kept a moderate speed, and cruised that sucker. No dig out for me! I got back to the section shaking like a leaf in reaction.

    Always nice to share 'war stories'. :-)


  8. One of the most infamous statements made during the Vietnam war was "We had to destroy the village in order to save it," which has been attributed to varied sources, including journalist Peter Arnett.

    A phrase I did not realize was also from that era is "the light at the end of the tunnel," first used by Lyndon Johnson in a November 1967 speech.

    One blogger [] reports that "Johnson himself remarked to his press secretary, Bill Moyers (who probably coined the phrase), 'Light at the end of the tunnel? We don’t even have a tunnel; we don’t even know where the tunnel is!'”

    As Elvis Costello sings, "History repeats the old conceits/The glib replies, the same defeats..."

    Wonderful post, Our J!

  9. Marianne - thank you for that picture of you driving a two-tonner through the pit!

    And Cornelia, that phrase earns the Michael Caine-like response: Not a lot of people know that! Thank you.

    Lyndon Johnson and the light at the end of the tunnel - well, I never. And there never was a tunnel. Sounds all too familiar. The only power these politicians have to start wars is the power we gave them. So sad, so dreadfully sad and terrible. War is easy to get into and hard to get out of. How come we made it so easy for them? And how come we do it time and time again? Ah, if only we'd let history teach us its lessons, instead of us having to come to those lessons anew with mind-numbing regularity.

  10. Great, heartfelt post.

    And who was it who said...sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train?

  11. Might have been JFK, Paul, considering....