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Words Divide and Conquer: Political-legislative Language in International Arms-Dealing

In 2015, the US State Department signed a deal to sell Saudi Arabia 532 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, 48 Harpoon Block II Missiles, and 188 Block II Rolling Airframe Missiles. By law the agreement had to be approved by Congress. Facilitating such approval is the function of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, an arm of the Department of Defense. So on October 20, 2015 DSCA made public a description and defense of the deal. “This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security goals of the United States,” they asserted, and “support strategic objectives of the United States.” DSCA also assured Congress that the “proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”

This language is political-legislative boilerplate and has appeared over and over in DSCA’s rationale for past arms sales. Do the words have any meaning beyond boilerplate? Consider the phrase “not alter basic military balance in the region.” One “military balance in the region” is a stalemated civil war in Yemen, begun in 2011. In the two years after 2015 alone, over 5,000 Yemeni civilians were killed and up to 50,000 starved to death in the famine caused by the war—a war in which the Saudi regime used bombs and missiles purchased from the US against the Houthi revolutionaries who are trying to overthrow the incumbent Hadi government. The Saudis also targeted buses, marriage ceremonies, schools, and hospitals. What kind of “balance” is that?

History helps answer the question.

“Balance” in 19th Century New Zealand

Go back two centuries. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, Europe was aware that New Zealand had a climate suitable for growing most European crops and raising most European farm animals. In short, it was ideal for European settlement. Unfortunately, both the North and South Islands of New Zealand had long been settled by Maori tribes. How best could colonialist settlers replace indigenous settlers? The answer, though never spoken aloud by Europeans, perhaps not even foreseen by them, turned out to be sale of military arms to the indigenes.

In 1820, Hongi Hika, chief of an especially belligerant northern Maori tribe called the Ngapuhi, found passage to Britain. Officially there to help translate the Bible into Maori, Hongi had another object in mind. He wanted European weapons so his tribe could conquer neighboring tribes. Britain was surprisingly cooperative. George IV gave Hongi a case of expensive gifts, including at least one musket. He also gave him a medieval suit of armor.

Then at Cambridge, Hongi met Baron Charles de Thierry, one of the most successful con men of the nineteenth century, whose ambition was to rule as king in some pagan land. Hongi promised the Baron 40,000 acres in New Zealand, and in exchange obtained swords, daggers, gunpowder, ammunition, and some 300-500 muskets (accounts differ). He also got a double barreled percussion pistol, his most prized weapon. He picked all of this up in Sydney, where he traded the gifts of George IV that had no military value for more muskets.

Back in New Zealand with these arms, Hongi led his tribe in campaigns against rival Maori tribes. The tribes responded by obtaining their own European weapons. Women captured as slaves were turned into prostitutes for whalers, who paid with more muskets, musket balls, and powder. It was a relentless civil conflict that disrupted and undermined Maori culture in major ways. The so-called “Musket Wars,” Maori against Maori, lasted until 1845. An estimated 20,000-40,000 died. Venereal disease—another European weapon given by the whalers to the Maori—helped further reduce the indigenous population.

Their civil war so weakened the Maori that when they finally recognized their true enemy and began fighting the British colonists (the “New Zealand Wars,” 1845-1872), the outcome was foregone. Britain had declared New Zealand a British colony in 1840.

Intended or not, Britain’s “strategic objective” to take over New Zealand had been used before by political states and would be used again. Provoke or exacerbate a civil war in the target land by selling arms to one side or, better, to both sides. With good luck, the natives will destroy each other to the point that the land can then be occupied with ease. If the strategy doesn’t work, at least there is the profit from the sale of arms. And all along, there is always language to cover up the unsavory reality, perhaps to call an obscene civil war in one of the world’s poorest countries “a basic military balance.”

Political-legislative Language and Responsibility

Today the outcome of Yemen’s civil war remains to be seen. In May, 2017, Donald Trump announced an agreement with Saudi Arabia on a new arms deal he said was worth $110 billion, later approved by Congress (the figure has since been thoroughly debunked). This year, as Truthout reported on October 9, civilian deaths in Yemen are increasing. US authorities—and profiting arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Gruman, General Dynamics, and Raytheon—still refuse to admit their responsibility, beyond the employing of abstract, euphemistic, and misdirecting terms such as “national security, “strategic objectives,” and “military balance.”

So current political-legislative language continues its contradictory way of furthering human atrocities and covering them up.

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