Shop till it stops

 

As the coalition's payloads continue to service targets and sanitise areas in the ongoing asymmetrical warfare to liberate Afghanistan, Col David Opfer comes to mind. In 1975, David was a US Air Force press officer in Cambodia. A stickler for language, he had a way with words. After one routine target- servicing and area-sanitising, he rounded on reporters at a briefing. "You always write it's bombing, bombing, bombing. It's not bombing! It's air support," he said.

Thank you, David. Clarity is so crucial. We know the language of war, like the language of advertising, political ideology and corporations, is a jumble of jargon, euphemisms and downright lies. Nothing new in that - but the language of the current "war" (if indeed it is a war in the formal sense) has, like the language of all preceding wars, its own unique flavour.

Of course, classics such as "ordnance", "the free world" and the still-magnificent "collateral damage" continue to target-service and sanitise areas of public opinion.

But a rich new seam is being mined too. Famous for his "Bushisms", the US president predictably produced some spectacular verbal ordnance in the immediate aftermath of September 11th's mass murder in New York and Washington.

Indeed, so potent were the new Bushisms about "the folks" who carried out the attacks, that he was reined in shortly afterwards. For a brief period, however, the horse-opera idioms of "smoking out" Osama bin Laden and the "old poster out west" which stated "Wanted: Dead or Alive" transported many of us back to the Saturday matinΘes of past decades.

George W. followed up by announcing a "crusade" against terrorism, while his posse's inner circle tested out, using the entire world as a focus group, "Operation Infinite Justice" as a suitable brand name. The focus group decided that such language was not right for the product and services to be unleashed, pointing out that "crusade" has a rather negative image in the Islamic world and that "Infinite Justice" doesn't play especially well among people who believe Allah has the rightful franchise on such a dispensation.

So "crusade" became "campaign" and "Infinite Justice" transmuted into "Enduring Freedom". (An intriguing idea, that: does it mean lasting freedom or stoically putting up with freedom? Depends on where you're standing as the payloads descend, I suppose.) And what of "Ground Zero" - what does that mean? Why not call it simply "the site of the twin towers"? Anyway, with the language in place, David Opfer-style air support for the servicing of targets and the sanitising of areas could begin.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric of "good versus evil", "civilisation versus barbarism" and "the clash of civilisations" forced itself into the media.

While the West's language was being tested, amended and readied, words and phrases from the region to be serviced and sanitised by air support achieved powerful levels of brand recognition. "Jihad", "infidels" and "Great Satan" were followed by "al-Qaeda", "the Taliban" , "burqa" and other words and terms few of us had seldom, if ever, heard. These became part of daily conversation. Likewise, "the Northern Alliance", "Mullah Omar" and the tautological but strangely lyrical "Dr Muhammad Muhammad" .

More recently, "anthrax" (is "anthrax" the name of the disease as well as the substance?) and "Cipro" have barged into consciousness. And so it goes.

Why, for instance, is military information called "intelligence"? "This new war is not Rambo, it's The Godfather," an unnamed US general allegedly said last week. Catchy soundbite that, but by implication it rather widens the net to include organised criminals among the "intelligence community".

Enough said, I suppose.

As language was being mangled, ideas about how civilians could best wage "war" on terrorism grew terrifyingly bizarre. In the US, September 30th was designated "Shop for America Day" and it was reported that the governor of California, Gray Davis, even called shopping "modern-day patriotism". No doubt this encomium was endorsed by the great shoppers of the world - you know, the arch-patriots with huge bank balances stockpiled in tax havens and credit accounts in the likes of Sachs, Tiffany's and Cartier.

But that's what Gray Davis said: shopping is "modern-day patriotism".

Presumably, by that reckoning, states should erect monuments and hold solemn commemorations to honour the supreme selflessness and heroism of playboys and ladies who lunch. Clearly, the unfairly maligned Charlie Haughey was, like so many great individuals, simply ahead of his time. Next time the bank, building society or credit-card crowd get stroppy with you, remind them that you are shopping for Ireland and civilisation, and that as a true patriot you recognise no higher calling.

You could, of course, end up doing a stretch in the Joy, but that will only add to your patriot-cred and will likely attract vouchers for Brown Thomas, Richard Alan, Weir's and other hotbeds of patriotic fervour from admirers, who have neither your courage nor conviction. Every year, we should hold a parade of shopping veterans, labels and receipts recast in gold and pinned to the designer outfits cladding their noble chests. Such a sight would, of course, attract thousands of cheering lesser mortals on to the streets (presenting opportunities for them to buy flags and emblems) as these elite shopping veterans goose-stepped in Gucci to a gleaming Store of Remembrance.

There, the veterans could reminisce wistfully about legendary shopping campaigns using high-tech platinum and gold credit cards as they gathered at the Tomb of the Unknown Shopper in the Store of Remembrance. Let "Are you being served?" be your guiding inspiration as you set out to serve your country. Sure, such sacrifice is demanding a lot. But the true patriot must be prepared to shop at all times and under all conditions. Even if you buy in a pound shop rather than in a designer-label store, make sure you spend that extra pound.

Setting an excellent example, the US government has itself been shopping, buying up the "rights" to satellite pictures of serviced Afghan targets and sanitised Afghan areas. Ask not what your country can buy for you but what you can buy for your country. How mad is this mania to preserve consumerism and corporate culture?

It's understandable that governments, fearful for their economies, should encourage people to behave as usual, but the notion that "shopping is modern-day patriotism" is so Orwellian that, if it's not a designer fake, the world is far madder even than we might have feared.

Anyway, the madness continues. Yet there is, paradoxically, a clarity in the mangled language and absurd redefining of patriotism. It's clear, for instance, that the language itself is, as always in war - or even in "war" - a sanitising operation, designed to disguise the reality of butchery. It's equally clear that, in a time of crisis, when core values become paramount, shopping-mall culture is a core value. "I shop, therefore I am" becomes a philosophical rationale for contemporary Western morality.

Present-day colonialism is not solely carried out, as in previous centuries, by nations. Now, it is conducted by banks and corporations. That is what globalisation entails. Fair enough, a globalising project by extreme Islamic fundamentalism, with mosques replacing malls as putatively universal sacred sites, is probably even more alarming to the majority of humanity.

But as innocent people starve to death, is it really civilised to buy more and more unnecessary stuff to perpetuate an ideology which characteristically pretends not to be an ideology? Then again, when "don't think - shop" becomes so inculcated, can we even consider the cost of being assailed by such Orwellian guff? There are hidden costs to "patriotic" shopping that won't show up on your bank or credit card statements.

Certainly, the propaganda shows the resolve of the prevailing financial system to protect itself at all costs. The notion that people are encouraged to be consumers first and citizens second has reached the stage where consumerism is made synonymous with responsible citizenship.

Be in no doubt, this lunacy is no mere campaign, it is a full-blooded crusade. "Operation Enduring Shopping" is merely a prelude to the divine goal of "Operation Infinite Shopping" . Remember the goal as you set out to fight the enemy in the shops, in the stores and in the malls.

As the conflict has moved from initial concentration on internal to external propaganda, words and pictures are now following the bombs (sorry, air support) and food packets being rained down on Afghanistan.

Because so many Afghans are unable to read, leaflets using symbols and pictures are being showered upon them.

"It's not propaganda," said the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. "It's the truth," he told Fox News on October 9th. Recording that is not, by the way, propaganda. It's the truth.

That's exactly what Rumsfeld said. The legacy of David Opfer and his ilk continues.