Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Is it still too late to ban this term from serious political discourse? I ask because - well, you know, because of everything, but because of this in particular. It is one of the worst articles I've read in some time, and I read the Telegraph. Everything that is wrong with a particular kind of journalism, the kind that accrues awards and moral approbation, is present. Sentimental kitsch ('...in a country that no longer exists called Yugoslavia, people were begging for help. And we did nothing'), nationalist trivia ('"Someone told us the Americans are coming." Then they turned desperate, grabbing my hands, begging for help, to send a message to a relative, to get them medicine, money, food, a radio, wood to burn, a newspaper, a way to feel that they were not enduring living hell. "Is it true? Is it true? Are they coming to save us?"'), moral imposture (every word), narcissism ('I am often accused of being boring about the war in the Balkans. It's over, move on, people tell me. I'm glad I am a bore'), and casual factual inaccuracy (a quarter of a million people did not die in the Balkans wars of the 1990s, and 'we' did not do 'nothing').

This is the story: some cynical foreign policy wonks who outrageously want grants to produce their work do not think it right to 'intervene' to save anyone from murder or rape, but she (Janine Di Giovanni, an American-born writer who styles herself as one of Europe's most respected journalists) has seen the suffering first hand and knows too well the cost of such indifference. Only someone with military experience can understand her outrage. That's it. That's the entire article. Largely to my relief, I am unfamiliar with this particular journalist. But I recognise the genre. Journalism on the Balkans is replete with this kind of horseshit and publishers lap it up because they know that most of those who pick up a journalistic book about Yugoslavia and its break-up have no intention of actually learning anything. In one sense is mood music for the American empire - the world is afflicted, and only yankee supermen (with suitable auxiliaries in tow) can save it. In another, it appropriates suffering for narcissism. In the mere act of encountering another's suffering, meditating on it and irresponsibly calling on an imperial hyperpower to do something about it, one becomes virtuous and loveable. I do need to say that I despise these people, and I could not say how much.

However, to return to what is motivating this tirade, can we not do away with 'intervention', at least in this context, as a gross abuse of the language? Can we not finally force people, at gunpoint, to say what they mean? Calls for 'intervention' typically involve a plea for a major military power to deploy some of its troops and hardware in zones of conflict or humanitarian disaster (notwithstanding any complicity that power might have in that catastrophe or any concurrent one of equal or greater calamity). They usually call upon the American state to invade, or bomb, or overthrow the government of another society. In light of what can reasonably be expected to be among the outcomes of such a venture, the term 'intervention' is even more furtive than 'enhanced interrogation technique', 'collateral damage', and a thesaurus of similar euphemisms. I suggest the following alternatives in future: conquer, subjugate, annexe, vanquish, overthrow, subdue, destroy, crush, bombard and attack. There are probably hundreds of vocables that would pithily express a call for the global projection of violence, and 'intervene' isn't among them.