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The language of (the Iraq) war

By Anabelle Lukin - posted Monday, 30 November 2009

Tucked away on page 8 of the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, November 20, was an official notice from our Department of Defence. “NATIONAL PARADE TO MARK END OF OPERATION CATALYST”, it said. For those for whom “Operation Catalyst” just did not ring a bell, the word “Iraq” was inserted afterwards in brackets, to jolt our memories. It’s a sign of the whole arrangement under which the Howard government involved Australia in the Iraq invasion that at the phoney “conclusion”, the name of the country we invaded ends up in brackets.

Given the arbitrary nature of the ending, what would the parade be for? What exactly did we “achieve” in Iraq?

At the beginning of 2009, the UNHCR were reporting a total population of concern, including internally displaced people, and those who have fled Iraq, at a little under five million. In the month preceding the so-called “withdrawal” of American troops (note this interesting use of the term “withdrawal”, where it does not actually mean American troops have left Iraq), al Jazeera reported 437 Iraqis were killed.


Who cares? “Please bring water, hats, sun block and suitable clothing” instructed the notice. The Iraqi death toll went unmentioned in Prime Minister Rudd’s speech on the day, but the DoD was not going to have anyone get sunburned or dehydrated on this important occasion.

Ever wondered how many Iraqi civilians were killed in the invasion, or the violence since? Check out It provides a conservative estimate. The death toll of this adventure remains hotly debated - figures range from more than 100,000 to in excess of one million. What is significant is that the governments who invaded Iraq have never made any attempt to tally up the Iraqi dead - and have attacked those who have.

Would you say Iraq was stable and rehabilitated? I admit, it has clawed its way back from no. 2 on the US-based Failed State Index in 2007, to number 6 in 2009. It was apparently the Australian Defence Force’s contribution to “the stabilisation and rehabilitation of Iraq” which was being celebrated with this parade, which promised a “fly past” and “static displays of equipment used during Operation Catalyst”. The navy website announced the parade would “feature Australia’s Federation Guard, the Band of the Royal Military College of Australia and the Royal Australian Navy Band”. How jolly!

“In our name, and under our flag, they risked their lives to provide others with a better future,” said the PM. Actually, they risked their lives to feed American oil dependency. Do I sound cynical? I’m taking my lead here from former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, who commented in 2007 “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil”.

On and on went Rudd, in language that began the process of laying down “Operation Catalyst” (brackets “Iraq”) into Australia’s glorious war history. “This grateful nation, Australia, salutes you, as you conclude another chapter in the proud history of ANZAC.”

It was weird enough that the speech had almost no past tense in it. And that Iraq was was barely mentioned, as that distant place, from where the troops were “brought safely back to our shores”.


But Rudd’s use of “ANZAC” is quite unparalleled. Typically, people speak of “the ANZACS” as a collective noun to refer to people, i.e. the Australian and New Zealand troops who had the misfortune to find themselves at Gallipoli. Or they use it as an adjective, such as in talking of “ANZAC Day”.

Rudd, perhaps desperate to take the opportunity to make his mark against the years of Howard’s expansive jingoism, appears to have coined a new usage: “ANZAC” as abstract, uncountable, noun.

It’s hard to know exactly what it means. Try and rephrase it, and you will see what I mean. Let’s hope it’s a coinage that withers and dies.

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About the Author

Dr Annabelle Lukin is postdoctoral research fellow in the Centre for Language in Social Life, at Macquarie University. She is writing a book on the ABC reporting of the invasion of Iraq.

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All articles by Anabelle Lukin

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