Saddam And Bush: The Words Of War

Should the Americans become embroiled, we will make swim in their own blood, Allah willing.



Saddam's war rhetoric is like the gold-braided uniform he has recently donned: formal and imperial. He wants to evoke the golden age of Arab conquest, the Abbasid Empire of the ninth century. It was the territorial high-water mark of the Muslim world, which stretched from Morocco to the Khyber Pass, with its capital in Baghdad. Saddam borrowed his ghoulish threat to make the Americans "swim in their own blood" word for word from Al-Tabari, the Herodotus of the Arab world who chronicled the jihads of the Abbasid Empire. These tales are not merely ancient history to Iraqis. When Saddam vowed, "We will burn the ground under their feet," Iraqi schoolboys understood immediately that he was referring to a battle depicted in the Koran, when Arabs drove back an infidel army by hurling huge fiery stones from on high.

The battlefield evoked by Bush has yard markers and goal posts at either end. To Westerners, war has long been seen as rather sporting. At the Battle of the Somme in World War I, British officers went over the top kicking a soccer ball as they charged into the German machine guns. In America, sports and war cliches have become so thoroughly confused that "Monday Night Football" sounds like "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," as quarterbacks throw bombs and dodge blitzing linebackers. Bush is well versed in the argot of sports. White House aides report that he has lately been reading "Friday Night Lights," H. G. Bissinger's account of the high-school football mania in Odessa, Texas, where Bush lived for a decade after he graduated from Yale. To be sure, Bush's football metaphors can be somewhat quaint. When Bush accused Saddam of "stiff-arming" his diplomatic overtures, he was thinking of an offensive weapon last used with effect when they played with leather helmets in the Yale Bowl.

War leaders once used more exalted language. In Abraham Lincoln's speeches could be heard the cadences of the King James version of the Bible, while Winston Churchill on the floor of Parliament was Shakespearean in the richness and elegance of his metaphors. American generals have at times reached for high-flown rhetoric. Dwight Eisenhower called D-Day "The Great Crusade, this great and noble undertaking." But Adm. William (Bull) Halsey's rhetoric was more typical. On a large sign on the damaged bow of the cruiser Honolulu' Halsey had painted: KILL JAPS. KILL JAPS. KILL MORE JAPS.

During World War 11 George Bush was a 20-year-old naval aviator on a carrier in the Pacific trying to carry out Admiral Halsey's orders. Like other callow young Ivy Leaguers, he had to learn how to talk like a salty sailor, which meant to swear. Profanity is the lingua franca of fighting men. Without the word "ass," wrote historian Paul Fussell in "Wartime...... military discourse would be virtually dumb." When a mechanic working on a bomber in World War 11 threw down his wrench and cried, "F --- !The F --- ing f --- ers f --- ed!" his buddies understood perfectly that he had stripped a bolt and skinned his knuckles.

True, Bush has approached Churchillism at moments. "This will not stand!" he vowed when Saddam first invaded Kuwait. Bush is said to be reading Martin Gilbert's biography of Churchill at war, though White House aides say he's only through the first 50 pages. More often, Bush sounds like one of the country-and-Western tunes he likes to hum along to as he nibbles pork rinds. Bush's declaration to Saddam, "I've had it!" sounds more like a marital spat than Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech at Agincourt.

Bush probably sounds no different from his own troops. In a democratic age, the true rhetoric of war is fashioned by those who actually have to fight. The ground soldiers who slog through combat are young and not necessarily literary. In World War II, GI's favorite reading material was the comic book. In the Saudi desert, young American soldiers echo the culture they come from: Friday-night football, MTV, Saturday afternoon at the mall. They express themselves in the modern American way: by the T shirts they wear. Macho T shirts are sprouting all over the gulf, on sale in bazaars and PXs from Dhahran to AlKhobar. The themes, predictably, revolve around rock and roll and sneaker commercials, with a morbid twist. One shirt is patterned after the ubiquitous Hard Rock Cafe insignia, a round, yellow escutcheon that says: KUWAIT, HARD LUCK CAFE. Another is patterned after the Nike shoe ads. In the script of the Nike logo, it says: NUKE IRAQ: JUST DO IT. Not all that funny, perhaps. But then neither is war.