Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Deconfliction and Orwell's ghost: In Syria, U.S. and Russia might find common ground up in the air, and the language will go up to meet them

Listening on NPR to a pair of experts examine the respective stances of the United States and Russia on dealing with Syria, I was puzzled by a couple of words new to me: "deconflict" (verb) and "deconfliction" (noun). From context, I inferred these terms have to do with the problem NPR's reporter had identified minutes earlier: getting the two nations' militaries "to talk to each other so that they can stay out of one another's way."

George Orwell, guardian spirit of language
This may well be the only area of agreement and cooperation apparent as Syria continues to be violently riven and subject to an endless civil war in which the influence of the Islamic State — anathema to both the U.S. and Russia — continues to grow. My online dictionary finds "deconflict" to be military language for "reduce the risk of collision between aircraft, airborne weaponry, etc. in an area by coordinating their movements." As they attack ISIS from the air, both superpowers want to avoid death-dealing accidents involving their forces.

But hovering ominously like a drone over this term is a twofold problem: (1) The word's derivation hides its meaning and (2) it is a great candidate for linguistic mission creep, applying to policy at large as much as to military action. It's time to bring George Orwell's 70-year-old essay, "Politics and the English Language," into play.

Orwell attacked matters of style and slovenly thinking, in the main, and linked these age-old writing problems to political agendas. He offered at least one example that addresses my first point about "deconflict" above: "Pacification" as a term covering the destruction of villages, livestock, and the death and forced exile of inhabitants of the area being militarily "pacified". This is more than a grotesque euphemism; it also privileges the military's habit of applying a word to a whole process that should in fact be linked only to the result. Thus the difficulties, or at least complexities, of attaining the result are covered by the term used to describe them.

"Deconflict" is a particularly insidious application of this linguistic sleight-of-hand. "Conflict" is properly described as "a competitive or opposing action of incompatibles"; the prefix "de-" means "to remove (a specified thing) from." You can't be in "detox" unless a condition of toxicity exists from which you are being removed. Thus deconfliction should be the act of removing any competitive or opposing action of incompatibles. But such action cannot be removed before it is undertaken; there is no military conflict yet between the U.S. and Russia over Syria. Thus, in this case, the term refers simply to advance planning and consultation by both sides so that military conflict does not take place. It is anticipatory, and involves cooperation of crucial sensitivity and detail that the term "deconfliction" totally ignores.

The trouble is, if such planning does take place — and we have to hope it will — the incompatibles remain opposed. Those incompatibles are blatant in the quite contradictory accounts, summed up Sept. 28 by both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in their respective addresses to the UN General Assembly, of both the causes and potential resolution of the Syrian mess. I submit that the process issues avoided in the term "deconflict(ion)" will serve the purposes of obfuscation by being applied to veil the disparate policy objectives, whether expressed diplomatically or militarily, of the U.S. and Russia.

We have here a corollary to Orwell's strictures about the influence of politics on the English language. "Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness," Orwell states correctly.  Often this stems from a desire to confuse others or obfuscate an issue to achieve political aims.

With "deconfliction," we have achieved a new wrinkle in this use of political language. The term goes beyond purposeful cloudiness or mere slovenliness. It is, rather, a kind of agreement to confuse oneself as well as others. We don't want to know what "deconfliction" might mean applied to the whole Syrian situation, because nobody knows what the resolution of the Syrian conflict at the policy level would look like.

Thus, be on your guard for "deconfliction" to gain currency in discourse about Syria. Political language is not just a tool, we will learn, but can be adopted selectively and submitted to as a master. We can be its tool: a sacrifice even our best and brightest are willing to make in order to establish wishful thinking, self-delusion with a purpose. More of our powerful language habits than Orwell dreamed will be devoted to building castles in the air and furnishing them as though they were set upon solid foundations.

In that spirit, then, two cheers for deconfliction.