Do our words march in step with Empire? or, Nuclear Weapons are not “assets”

A reflection by Susan Crane on words and how they work for power.

Philip Berrigan, reflecting on the struggle against high-ranking masterminds of mass murder wrote; “We were trying to argue with the Mad Hatter; we were attempting to reform Big Brother. Words had lost all meaning. Euphemisms and bureaucratese abounded: ‘We must destroy the village in order to save it.’ ‘We must prolong the war in order to bring about peace.’ ‘We must support dictators if we wish to promote democracy.’ ” (Dispatches from the Lamb’s War)

And here in Washington State, talking with Tom Karlin, I was reminded of these words of Phil. Tom and I were building a flip-over ladder in preparation for the MLK Day celebration at the  Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action. We thought someone might want to go inside Naval Base Kitsap which holds the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the US.

Tom Karlin had been in the US Navy in 1958, during the Formosa Crisis. He was telling me about being on the aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, in the South China Sea in the Luzon Strait off the Formosa shore.

As my understanding about this topic was more than a little weak, Tom explained: “Following the Chinese Japanese war in 1894, Formosa was ceded to Japan. At the end of WW II, Formosa was given back to China. Then in 1949 when Mao Zedong came to power, the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Formosa. The nationalists made an agreement with the US for protection, and for that reason, the USS Lexington was in the waters off the shore of Formosa.

“In the middle of the night, the ‘general quarters’ alarm went off that called everyone to their battle stations,” Tom was telling me. “I was assigned to the weapon handling crew loading fighter aircraft with air-to-air missiles and other munitions on the carrier flight deck. When I went to the flight deck, I saw, for the first time, an aluminum container that carried the special weapon. It was guarded by marines. It was huge: must have been 12-15 feet long, and 6 feet in diameter or more. It was ready to be loaded on a large Skywarrior bomber. These bombers, and other bombers on the carrier, were launched from a steam catapult. We remained at our battle stations from 2 am to 6 am, in readiness, waiting for the special weapon to be loaded. Then, at 6 a.m. the launch was called off.

“There was a conspiracy of silence, and so even though we knew it was an atomic weapon, we never said it out loud and we didn’t talk about it. The summer before the Formosa crisis I was stationed at Naval Air Facility Atsugi on a three month assignment, and I had gone to Nagasaki where I visited the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum. I saw the effects of the bomb on human flesh. I was young, and we were trained to believe that there was necessary evil and that the bomb had saved American lives. But still, I was shocked to see the “special weapon;” I didn’t even know we were carrying it. That morning, on the deck of the USS Lexington, seeing that we were ready to do that same horrendous destruction, this time to Chinese people, something happened to me. It was my call to conscience. Tom reflected, “I later found out that the “special weapon” was an atomic bomb that was going to be used to bomb Manchuria.”

A “special weapon.” that would be able to indiscriminately kill whole towns of people, and leave every child there with skin falling off, burned, destined to get cancer, and pass on mutated genes to their children.

A “special weapon” that was some kind of nuclear weapon: atomic bomb, plutonium bomb, or hydrogen bomb.

And today, when navy personnel talk about nuclear weapons, they continue to use words that obscure the reality of these illegal and immoral weapons by calling them “items” and “assets”.

So what does it mean to talk clearly so that our words work for us, instead of working for power? How do we  stop  our words from concealing  and protecting the domination system? How can we free up these words that have been captured by empire? Only by calling things what they are. Only by having the courage to speak the truth, by refusing to use euphemistic words and expressions and instead using the hard words that others don’t want to hear. And this is challenge is in our personal lives as well as our political lives.

Nuclear weapons are not ‘special weapons” or “items” or “assets”, but are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.

“Prisoners of war” are not “enemy combatants” but people who are supposed to be treated with dignity and have certain rights under the Geneva Conventions.

People and nations who use or threaten to use nuclear weapons are “terrorists.” not benign “superpowers.”

What’s called for is a change in perspective. We are all swimming in a river of violence and lies, fog is all around us and it’s  hard to figure out what is really happening. If we don’t take the time to use the right words, we won’t see what is going on around us.    We can choose to be tools of the empire and use language that conceals and protects  it,  or we can choose to stand apart, jump out of the river, and call illegal and immoral nuclear weapons exactly what they are, and begin to disarm, dismantle and abolish them.

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