The Language of Reconstruction


Language is a powerful tool. The English language is made up of well over half a million words, each with a precise definition and conveying a very specific meaning. The choice of the proper words to use in a given circumstance is what enables effective communication. But what happens when words are misused as a matter of course?

The improper use of language leads to a confusion of ideas and misunderstandings. It leads people to reach faulty conclusions. When done purposefully, it constitutes deception. Though there are myriad examples of language misuse in government-speak, the warped language being used to tell the tale of Iraq 's "reconstruction" interests me, if only because it is especially brazen.

Shortly after the 'War on Iraq ' began, the media started reporting on the costs of rebuilding infrastructure in Iraq . Many of our major media outlets began using a common phrase to explain the state of disrepair in the nation: ' Iraq 's electrical system and other key infrastructure were all but ruined after years of neglect under Saddam Hussein's rule.'

The use of the word 'neglect' has definite connotations.

We can probably all agree that Iraq 's infrastructure is in terrible shape: there isn't a reliable source of electricity or water in many areas, sewage is left untreated, oil is no longer flowing, and health care facilities, schools, and roads are all horribly damaged. Significantly, the word 'neglect' implies not only a state of disrepair; this word also allocates blame. It implies that Iraqi infrastructure is in this state due to dereliction of duty by those responsible for maintaining it, presumably Saddam Hussein and his government.

But by all reports Iraq 's infrastructure was relatively modern and highly functional until 1991. It was during the first Gulf War that the U.S. forces targeted civilian infrastructure in an attempt to force capitulation. During a 43 day bombing campaign, allied forces destroyed 18 of 20 electricity-generating plants, devastating the country's capacity to both generate and transmit electricity. The effect of the campaign on sewage and water treatment was even more disastrous, as one article originally printed in the Herald noted:

During allied bombing campaigns on Iraq the country's eight multi-purpose dams had been repeatedly hit, simultaneously wrecking flood control, municipal and industrial water storage, irrigation and hydroelectric power. Four of seven major pumping stations were destroyed, as were 31 municipal water and sewerage facilities - 20 in Baghdad , resulting in sewage pouring into the Tigris . Water purification plants were incapacitated throughout Iraq .

This is certainly not a case of neglect, of things degrading over time due to lack of care. This is a case of bombing. But what of the intervening 12 years? Was there an element of neglect in the lack of repair since then? In reality, U.N. backed sanctions have been responsible for blocking many of the items necessary to rebuild what was destroyed. Through the Security Council's 661 Committee, the United States has had virtual veto power over almost all goods entering Iraq . The U.S. has used this power to block many items essential to the repair of critical infrastructure, including things like generators needed to run sewage treatment plants.

So perhaps instead of 'neglect,' we should be saying 'systematic destruction by American and allied forces.'

But disregarding the issue of who or what caused the damage to Iraqi infrastructure, there has been a relative consensus on the fact that the infrastructure must be repaired (though not by whom it must be repaired). This has lead to a discussion in the U.S. government and media of the proper American role in rebuilding Iraq . Of the $87 billion that Bush requested in his special address, approximately $20.3 billion is intended for "reconstruction" in Iraq .

The use of the word 'reconstruction' has definite connotations.

Money is being allocated so that things can be constructed, of course. But use of the word 'reconstruction' implies that we are simply building things that were there before. Few would argue that use of this term implies that things must be exactly as they were before; a power plant that replaces an old power plant may be called 'reconstruction,' though it differs in design. However, such interesting expenditures as setting up ZIP codes, automated letter-tracking systems, wireless networks, air-traffic controller training programs, and public information centers hardly fall under this category. These are not things that are being constructed again, but things that are being constructed for the first time. These are not aspects of infrastructure that are being rebuilt in Iraq , but aspects of the infrastructures of the U.S. and European nations that are being implanted.

So perhaps instead of 'reconstruction' we should be saying 'reconstruction and westernization.'

And finally, just recently the news broke about how the U.S. Congress has decided that it will not allow U.S. funds to simply pay for all of this "reconstruction" of Iraq 's "neglected" infrastructure. According to recent news stories, "the White House on Friday signaled a new openness to congressional demands to loan the $20.3 billion to Iraq rather than grant the money outright."

The use of the word 'loan' has definite connotations.

Senator Lindsey Graham noted that 'It's very hard for me to go home and explain that we have to give $20 billion to a country sitting on $1 trillion worth of oil.'

A sensible person might view that statement from a different perspective and question why it is necessary to force the American taxpayers to front a loan for a country that is sitting on $1 trillion worth of collateral. The answer turns out to be relatively simple: it's not a loan.

To 'loan' money to Iraq would imply that we will give Iraq money that they will eventually pay back. But (setting aside the actual prospects for repayment) Iraq will never receive any of this money. The money will actually be going to the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is led by the United States , and will be allocated to projects based on CPA recommendations and requests. Money is not being lent to Iraq to rebuild. Rather, money is being appropriated from people in the United States to be given to another arm of the United States government to fund projects in Iraq designated by the United States , which Congress would then like Iraqis to repay.

So instead of "loan," perhaps we should be saying 'force Iraqis to pay for United States government projects in Iraq .'

So when they say: 'The United States is loaning Iraq money to pay for the reconstruction of infrastructure that is in a state of disrepair due to neglect.'

What they really mean is: 'The United States is forcing Iraqis to pay for United States government projects in Iraq , including the reconstruction and westernization of infrastructure that is in a state of disrepair due to systematic destruction by American and allied forces.'

But they mean the same thing, right?

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Lara Hawrylchak's picture
Columns on STR: 5

Lara Hawrylchak is currently living in the wasteland of governmental credit expansion (Silicon Valley) in an attempt to relive herself of a sick fascination with politics by bludgeoning herself over the head with taxes and tomfoolery.  It is a rehabilitation more expensive and painful than a Betty Ford Center.  She writes to avoid overpressurization from buildup of excess sarcasm.