War has a way with words;Opinion

21st May 1999 at 01:00
MY EARLIEST holiday memories are of the boarding house run by Meikle and Anderson, spinsters, at Cowal View, Bishop Terrace, Rothesay. My family went on holiday there because my mother had been evacuated to Bute with her primary class during the war, and had stayed in this house. Out in the bay (this was some years after the war) were anchored grey silent battleships, at rest. One year they vanished, off to decommissioning and the breaker's yard.

These images have returned during recent months, as counterpoint to a war (undeclared or not) fought in a very different way from those earlier this century.

A colleague, at the start of the war, found two second-year boys gleefully scanning the Sun's "Clobba Slobba" headline. Trying to impress on them the seriousness of the situation, that people died in wars, it became clear that for them it was an extension of the computer game. When "Game over" flashed you went for a cola from the fridge.

Our school has welcomed children from Bosnia earlier this decade, and their horrific experiences were dreadful to hear about. Their subsequent grave and gentle demeanour, their commitment to and aptitude for work, were a marvel. They have now moved on, some back to Bosnia, some to college, some to Sweden.

On the other hand, I know Serbs in Belgrade, one of whom studied with the British Council and so loved the work of George Mackay Brown that she completed a further degree on it. The chairman of our school board is a Serb - and the recent demonisation of all things Serbian seems at odds with the concern and seriousness of these people.

Modern studies teachers and English teachers especially cannot avoid reflecting on the language and management of news in time of war. If truth is the first casualty, then watching the euphemisms being deployed, the news being spun, the mutual exchanges of hyperbole, provides the teacher with endless material.

Each side calls the other "fascist". Words such as "offensive" and "degrade" are used with no sense of irony. Terms such as "collateral damage" and "permissive environment" mask the actions they describe.

Norman MacCaig has a poem, Smuggler, in which he warns:

"Watch him when he opens his bulging words - justice, fraternity, freedom" At times like the present people scarcely deserve the politicians who rule them. How different are the rehearsed, glib, political responses from the spontaneous gestures to raise funds and send help coming from school pupils moved by the plight of refugees.

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