As we approach the year of our Lord 1984, it would be good to remember that George Orwell warned us about all this. In his classic "1984," a novel about the totalitarianism of the future, Orwell described what would happen to words. They would become instruments of the state, weapons in the hands of the government, used to say one thing and mean another. It is a bit early, but 1984 is here.
And when I say here, I mean Washington. Orwell, of course, patterned his 1984 after what he saw emerging from the communist countries. A former radical himself, he knew that communists had a real talent for abusing words. "People" did not mean the people; it meant the small group that controlled the people. "Democracy" meant dictatorship and "liberation" meant something akin to enslavement.
But now we get the same sort of rhetorical legerdemain from our own government. Suddenly, the marines who were tragically killed in Beirut are, in the words of President Reagan, "heroes." They are not. They are victims. A soldier killed in his sleep is hardly a hero. He has no chance to be, no opportunity to do anything heroic.
The word "hero" obscures the fact that something went terribly wrong in Beirut. Never mind questions of policy. Never mind all those questions about why the marines were there in the first place. A unit that is forced to stay in the low ground, that is ordered to keep its weapons unloaded, that cannot take proper and routine action to protect itself, that fails even to barricade itself by using trucks or tanks, has not been well served by either its government or its officers.
George Orwell would have shaken his head knowingly when Reagan, in his speech, cited Marine Commandant Paul X. Kelley's visit to injured marines in a West German hospital. Reagan told how Kelley stopped by the bedside of a marine. There were tubes running in and out of the man and he could not speak. He was given a pad and on it he wrote, "Semper Fi"--"the motto of the corps," Reagan said. "Semper Fidelis. Always Faithful."
It was a moving event and no one could fail to be impressed with the spirit and spunk of that particular marine. But you would be remiss in not asking "always faithful to what?" Faithful to a policy that has wandered from interceding between the PLO and the Israelis, to guarding the airport, to aiding the Lebanese to form their own government, to thwarting alleged Soviet-Syrian plans to dominate the Middle East?
Should that marine be faithful to the failure of someone to secure the Marine base, to do what was done to the American Embassy in Saigon after the Tet offensive--make it impregnable? Even President Nixon had buses drawn up around the White House before a peace demonstration in Washington. Couldn't that much have been done for the marines in Beirut?
In the same way, words lose their meaning when it comes to Grenada. A chaotic situation there was portrayed as a blood bath. There was no government on Grenada, yet it threatened the students. The Grenadans said they would get the students out, yet we refused to take them up on this. The island was in chaos. Yet there was a 24-hour curfew and when our soldiers landed, they encountered troops who fought longer and better than expected.
At the same time, the administration virtually censored the American press. Reporters were held incommunicado. The Defense Department supplied film for television, ham operators were muzzled and the rationale for the operation, as in Lebanon before it, changed before your eyes. Now it is the Cuban threat we aborted. This is Orwellian double-speak, with the government, having excluded the press, doing all the speaking.
It could be that the Grenadan invasion was justified and it could be that there is no better cause than the marines remaining in Lebanon. But if that is the case, then it should be supported by truth and candor--not twisted words, slippery arguments, prior censorship of the press and news manipulation.
When George Orwell wrote "1984," it was a book. In two short months, it will be a year. But already, it seems, it is a policy.