Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 33, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

Language and War: Orientalism in the "Mother of all Battles"

Bob Hodge

Edward Said's classic study Orientalism [footnote 1] gives a persuasive history of Orientalism as an exemplary strategy for representing the colonised Other. Orientalism has indeed had an illustrious history, as 'the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage - and even produce - the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.'2 The 1991 war with Iraq shows, if proof were needed, that this discursive strategy has a future as well as a past. But where Said was more concerned to trace the circulation of Orientalist images and representations in the spheres of academic and artistic discourse, I want to look in another direction at the discursive networks through which Orientalism operates today: not upwards to privileged sites of intellectual and cultural production, but downwards, where Orientalism is powerful and productive in the mass media and popular culture, achieving hegemonic power within the language itself.

Other commentators have noted the success of the United States of America and its allies in the ideological offensive in the Gulf conflict, mobilising the latest resources in media technology to control images of the war (see eg Wark 1991).3 There is no doubt that the United States of America's military establishment has brooded long and effectively on the mistakes of the Vietnam war, where the mass media played a decisive role in the loss that really counted, in the ideological war. The legitimacy of imperialism sustained severe casualties from uncontrolled images of the war targeted by television into every household in the United States of America and its allies. This time they maintained an iron grip on information sources, and used the latest technology to good effect to construct an instant alternative world. But there is a danger in taking this image of whiz-bang technology at its face value, being dazzled by excessive claims for the novelty of the new as though it rendered all previous ideological forms and strategies obsolete. In fact the new technology merged effortlessly with the old ideology, which had prepared a place for this theme from the beginning. Technological superiority has been one of the strongest symbols of the West's right to rule over the East since Orientalism began.

In the rest of this paper I want to illustrate the mechanisms of this contemporary manifestation of Orientalism by looking at the life-cycles of just three phrases: 'collateral damage'; 'smart bomb'; and 'mother of all battles'. These phrases all achieved a wide circulation during the war, in the process becoming the focus for innumerable commentaries as topics in an everyday practice of metalinguistics. All three appeared in many contexts in public forms of discourse in politics and the mass media, and they had a subterranean life incorporated into jokes and other forms of popular discourse. All of them were coinages, new formations produced by this war and associated inextricably with it, and this enabled them to act metonymically to express, in a dense and complex form, the meaning of the war in the popular mind. They illustrate the remarkably rapid processes by which new ideological forms can become part of the language. However, this is not to ascribe a unity to these three phrases or to language itself. On the contrary, the three phrases between them stake out the trajectories of three distinct ideological strategies in contemporary Orientalism.

'Collateral damage' was one of many phrases used to minimise the loss of life and to sanitise the effects of the massive bombing which killed soldiers, women and children as well as men. There is nothing new about how this term works. It has the characteristics of what Orwell4 so influentially labelled 'Newspeak'.5 Linguistically speaking its human objects are deleted, transformed from human Others into items of property, accidentally 'damaged' (death being only a drastic form of damage) as a side effect of a target-bombing strategy aimed ostensibly at legitimate military targets. Since these human objects are Iraqis, this is an Orientalist linguistic form.

What is interesting about this phrase, 'collateral damage' is not the novelty of its form, but the conditions of its circulation. The phrase was selected out by a collective agreement to act as a metonym not for the war itself, but for a form of discourse about the war. It became a shorthand for all such phrases, the focus for a popular critique of the typical euphemistic language about war that had always worked so well before. It functioned not as a species of Orientalism but as a quotation of Orientalism, offering it up for scrutiny, disrupting its ideological effect by making it seem predictable but not inevitable. It inoculates discourse against this form of Orientalism. It was so successful at this that it forced the modern 'information managers' to come up with new forms of discourse to achieve the old effects.

'Smart bomb' has a very different effect. The phrase came from the informal speech of military strategists as they naively celebrated the technology which 'collateral damage' tried to euphemise. It is vivid and concrete where the other is vague and abstract. And where 'collateral damage' failed to disguise the dehumanising attitudes to the enemy, and thus exposed Orientalism to critique, the image of the 'smart bomb' recovered the lost ground by re-immersing Orientalist structures into a popular discourse.

This phrase, 'Smart bomb,' may seem to be only about 'our smartness', not about any qualities of the Other, but that elision of the Other is its first ideological effect. Technically it is a paradoxical collocation which is almost ungrammatical in English since it transgresses the category distinction animate - inanimate. Only people are smart: bombs are machines. But such transgressions are well understood by speakers of English as regular and significant, in terms of the ideological functions that they serve. Popular genres such as science fiction carry the same meaning in their obsession with robots, cyborgs, and prosthetic forms of life. And the phrase 'smart bomb' encodes one of the most spectacular experiences of the TV war, the view from the bomb cam as it located its target and homed in, a prosthetic eye that linked the bodies of audiences with the events in the Middle East, controlling helpless viewers through the 'intelligence' of the plummeting bomb.

The phrase 'smart bomb' works by encoding a contradiction in so compressed a form that it seems to be resolved. As a paradox it relies on the opposition between animate and inanimate to be taken for granted at the very moment that it is euphorically transgressed. Where 'collateral damage' signifies a mystifying use of language from an elaborate register, 'smart bomb' uses colloquial language to signify popular pleasure in transgressive forms. But in other respects, they are two aspects of a common Orientalist theme. 'Collateral damage' turned people into a kind of property (theirs not ours, so we can happily waste it). 'Smart bomb' turns property (ours) into honorary people, as superior in intelligence as we are, symbols of our intellectual superiority over the 'property' that they unerringly destroy. The human qualities invested in the bomb are partly 'our' pleasure in destruction, but also partly taken from 'them', the others whose humanity has been denied.

This phrase appeared in a cartoon in a series published in a pro-war issue of Playboy (July 1991) celebrating the Allied victory. A bomb is hovering in mid-air outside a half-open door in which a man stands in a dressing-gown, his dog at his side. The bomb has a notice on its side saying 'smart bomb' (printed in crude lettering). The man gestures to the right, and says 'No! I'm Allen E. Smith. You want Allen A. Smith over in building C'.

The joke involves a number of transformations. The smart bomb is not so smart, and its function is apparently a menial task of peace, to deliver something to a man named Smith, a human being and typical American, not an Iraqi military target. But it gets lost, because it cannot distinguish among the excessive number of Smiths, in their indistinguishable flats in indistinguishable blocks of apartments. Its technologically boosted smartness cannot cope with the depersonalisation produced in the United States of America's society by its own technology. The dog knows very well the difference between the two Allen Smiths, thus implying a contrast between animate beings however lowly and technology however smart. The technology that drops bombs with precision on targets in Iraq has problems delivering messages in the United States.

As with popular uses of the phrase 'collateral damage', the joke form here destabilises the ideological effect of the original phrase by quoting it. In the logic of Orientalism, the ability of the West to produce superior technology over-rides the claims of the Other to possess civilisation and hence to be fully human. In the two-part structure of Orientalism, the Other is needed to bond all people in the West into a single entity as monolithic as the Other. But the people who build smart bombs are very smart people, not ordinary United States citizens, so that ordinary men and women are the suppressed Other within the category of the West.

The logic of the joke then replaces the Oriental Other with an Occidental Oriental (who is male in this joke, since this is Playboy after all), who now becomes the victim of Western incompetence not superiority. These bombs created to destroy the Other now point homewards, no longer smart but still bombs, still threatening us. To be strictly logical this identifies the real enemy as the American military establishment. But ideological forms do not remain consistent and logical, and this proposition is worked over by the structures of Orientalism to give an alternative meaning. The threat to ordinary Americans is identified as an American bomb, but it also expresses the continuing threat of the Iraqi Other. Just as We can legitimately dominate and destroy Them because we are smarter, by the same reasoning if we are much less smart than we claim (as the joke implies) then they might destroy us. So perhaps we had better bomb them now while we have the chance. Orientalism is always a paranoiac vision based on a double premise, claiming a superiority which it fears is a flimsy cover for intense guilt. The 'smart bomb' functions among other things as an image of the return of the repressed, the Other doing to Us what we have done to Them.

The third of the three phrases, 'mother of all battles', had far greater salience in the popular mind. It encoded complex judgements and mobilised complex ideological and discursive processes so economically that it acquired status as the definitional signifier of the meaning of the whole war. Its life-cycle during the period of the Gulf war encapsulates the forms of contemporary Orientalism at work in a particularly potent way that repays close study.

The phrase 'omm al-ma'arak' spoken by President Hussein was immediately translated (by some Orientalist whose role was never duly acknowledged) and circulated as 'the mother of all battles' for the English-speaking press. As a phrase in English it was extremely effective as a propaganda device. It was quoted and parodied endlessly, always understood as a quotation that signified Hussein, himself a metonym for the Iraqi people as the Enemy, as a species of the Other. Where the first two phrases constructed the Other by using standard forms within English that have many other ideological uses and purposes, this phrase directly encoded an Orientalist theory and use of language, a folk theory of Arabic language, culture and thought that plays a crucial role in articulating Orientalism in everyday discourse.

To illustrate the way in which the phrase circulated, I will take two later uses of it:

'Hands up for the mother of all surrenders'

(Sunday Times Perth, 3 March 1991: caption to front page photo of a large column of Iraqi prisoners with arms above their heads.)

'Abdul's white flag emporium - celebrate the mother of all surrenders.'

(Playboy July 1991, placard in a cartoon showing an Arab trader in front of a small booth in the desert.)

Both sources of these texts explicitly declared their pro-war stance. Alongside this headline the Sunday Times carried another Gulf story headlined 'Medals for all Aussie forces in Gulf', and the feature article of this issue of Playboy was a celebration of 'our' returning heroes.

Clearly both phrases operate as quotations of the original phrase, and part of their meaning is this intertextual relationship. This relationship is a double transformation which might be represented as follows:

[figure to go here]

The two phrases a) and b) transform the same word in the original phrase, substituting 'surrenders' for 'battles'. The obvious point of this is to gloat over the defeat. But gloating over the humiliation and defeat of an enemy tends to be alienating; 'bad form' as the British would say. What both phrases do is to co-opt Hussein to announce his own disgrace in the same excessive way that he had prophesied his triumph. At the same time it shows an easy familiarity with the alien forms of the language of the Other, which 'we' can use against him, speaking the meanings that he could not articulate, the truth of his own inferiority.

In the discursive transformation of the newspaper article, President Hussein is transformed into the new supreme commander of these defeated troops, who can speak on his behalf. In the Playboy cartoon, Hussein the military commander is replaced by 'Abdul' the opportunistic trader. These two options seem exactly opposed to each other (the powerful, American political - military establishment versus an ordinary representative of Iraqi commercial practices) but they express the two halves of the Orientalist construction of the Other, who is incorporated into us when we exercise power on his behalf (as in conceding defeat) but is represented as trivial and venial when he exercises power in his own way among his own people.

Another way of putting this is to say that the set of possible jokes with 'Mother of all battles' expresses the logic of Orientalism, and is a form by which Orientalism circulates and becomes a taken-for-granted part of the language itself. We could state this almost as a formal rule: this phrase can only be attributed to a substitute Iraqi, someone who can be classified or reclassified as an Iraqi by mobilising one or more components of the orientalist definition of Iraqiness. This 'rule' or understanding allows the phrase to perform its primary ideological function, using the otherness of the enemy effortlessly against him, while making people from the United States of America, of high and low degree, instantly fluent in Media-Iraqi, the language of the enemy.

This trick, by which the phrase was able to signify both Otherness and familiarity, was partly achieved by mere weight of circulation, but it was aided by another very different property of the phrase: the fact that it encodes forms of language and ideology that are familiar to all English speaking people. For although it is a marked form in English, it is also similar to a set of colloquial phrases, such as 'the father and mother of a hiding', and 'the daddy of them all', in which father and/or mother signify size by reference to the ideology of the patriarchal family. 'The father and mother of a hiding' means 'a big or severe hiding', the connection between size and importance being nicely fused in this well-motivated sign. This is a severe hiding which is administered by the legitimate authority, the father of course as the proper one to do so on behalf of his wife and himself. In relation to this intertextual reference, Hussein's phrase is fully comprehensible, but as an aberrant version of patriarchal authority. 'Mother' should not be a signifier of power, presiding over such masculine activities as battles. Hussein is perceived then, as not only invading Kuwait, but threatening the ideology of the family itself.

Like 'smart bomb' this phrase is a collocation that combines incompatible categories. 'Mother' is human, female, positive (nurturant) whereas 'battle' is abstract, masculine, and negative (destructive). Used in this sense, 'mother' (meaning 'big') is the transform of an adjective to a noun, whereas 'battle' is the transformation of a series of actions, organised around verbs, into a noun. Analysed in this way we can see that the phrase attempts to manage a large number of oppositions, and this helps to account for how and why it came apart in this case.

However, the failure is only relative. This phrase, precisely because of its contradictions, might in other circumstances have been an ideological triumph for Hussein, linking abstract and concrete, nurturance and destruction, feminine and masculine into a single seamless, contradictory whole. And as we have seen, the 'mother of all battles' is neither alien nor 'ungrammatical' in English. It is simply an ideological form inserted into a context that reverses its fusions and destabilises its overelaborate syntheses. In this way its effect is similar to 'collateral damage', which is grammatical and ought to have been ideologically effective, but was deconstructed by being subjected to the quotation-effect. The inversion in the case of 'mother of all battles' is similar to what TV exposure did to another Hussein ideological gesture, when he stroked the hair of an English child hostage to 'instantly become a devious pederast' to British TV viewers.6

From a syntactic point of view this phrase has the form 'x of y' that is common in English (see Kress and Hodge 1979). 'Mother of all battles' is roughly equivalent to 'very very big battle', but the two forms are built up differently. 'Big' modifies 'battle', then 'very' modifies 'big' and so on, and the phrase is interpreted as the trace of something built up as 'battle -> big battle -> very big battle -> very very big battle' etc. The order of the words signals the order of the processes of classification transparently. This is not the case with the order of words in 'mother of all battles'. The sequence of classification operations here seems to go something like this: 'battle -> big battle -> the mother of battles -> the mother of all battles'. The plural -s attached to battle is inserted after the noun, and 'all' is inserted before it, at a later stage of the process. Since the word order does not encode the processes by which the phrase was constituted, it is harder to deconstruct it into its components. The phrase becomes more cohesive, since the lines of cleavage are less marked. Complexity and cohesion are part of the meaning of the phrase 'mother of all battles'. It is pre-adapted to becoming a clichŽ, in which the association of the elements and what they signify seems to be inevitable, and therefore true but meaningless (Hussein's meaninglessness, which we can see through).

There is something paradoxical about the ideological achievement of this phrase. It could do the work that it did because as a phrase in English it is both strange (signifying otherness, readily identifiable as the speech of someone who does not speak English) yet also fully comprehensible, fully grammatical, so that its strangeness is something that is accounted for within the linguistic (and therefore ideological) systems familiar to English speakers.

This phrase is a translation whose forms and conditions as we have analysed them imply a curious theory of translatability, one which is Orientalist in its account of language and difference. This theory has some interesting parallels with what is called the Whorfian hypothesis. The Whorfian position7 has three strands: linguistic reflectionism (language encodes culture, mind, thought), linguistic determinism (language so understood determines thought) and cultural relativism (difference is absolute). The Orientalist theory of translation that we have looked at adopts a form of the first (a single phrase encapsulates the essence of Iraqi cultural difference) but equivocates with the second and third: Iraqi difference is totally comprehensible and familiar, an absolute limitation on 'them' but not on 'us'.

Whorf may be dead, but the Orientalism that his work grew out of is alive and well, still treated as the most sophisticated attitude to other languages, especially the language of Others. It is often used as a check against the assumptions of linguistic imperialism, that different languages are totally transparent and can be translated without loss. In this form it is a safeguard against one form of Orientalism. But it easily lapses into a full-blown form of Orientalism that silences all non-experts within the West (because they could not possibly understand this ineffable language) and all native speakers of the language (because they cannot understand its incommunicable essence without the mediation of the Orientalist expert).

The problem with Orientalism as a theory of cross-cultural communication is that it turns difficulties that would require hard work and goodwill on both sides to be overcome into impossibilities that must be handed over entirely to experts. There is one key assumption at the base of this position that we need to contest: that English and the language of the Other are homogeneous systems about which all speakers mysteriously agree by virtue of their membership of the culture. But English is not like this. It is polysemic and heteroglossic,8 crossed by many different discourses of class, region, gender, and ethnicity. The unity and transparency of English is as much a fiction as is the supposed monolithic opacity of the language of the Other. Orientalism poses the problem of communication with the Other by constructing a pseudo-dialogue in which Orientalists speak to themselves on behalf of the Other. An anti-Orientalist strategy must be provisionalist, ad hoc and above all dialogic.

In Australia as in Britain and the United States of America there are small communities of intelligent and critical speakers of Arabic who were never consulted by the mainstream media as experts on Arabic language and culture during the Gulf war. I was fortunate to have access to some of these people in Australia, who kindly answered my questions about the meanings of the phrase 'mother of all battles' for speakers of Arabic. Their comments were not expert in the Orientalist sense. Rather, they were the sort of comments that ordinary citizens could hope to hear in the course of conversations with representatives of the Other, speaking as though they are normal human beings who know a great deal about their own language and culture, and can talk eloquently about it if they choose to.

The phrase 'omm al-ma'arak' I was told is literally 'mother-the-battles', and it indicates a big or important battle. 'Omm', 'mother', is the centre of the ideological meaning of the phrase in Arabic as in the English translation. All my informants agreed that this phrase is new in Arabic as in English, a coinage by Hussein, though the use of 'omm' to signify a superlative is not itself new. A phrase that is literal but had, I was told, an intertextual relationship to Hussein's coinage is 'omm al-shuhada', mother of martyrs. This referred in the first place to a historical woman whose sons all died on the battlefield in the heroic days of Islamic expansion, but is also used of other women who lose their sons on the battlefield. In a more metaphoric mode, 'omm al-footooh', 'mother of opening' refers to Andalusia when the Arabs 'opened up' that country in the era of the second Umayyed caliphate.

But these intertextual connections are subordinate to the same process as in English whereby an ideology of gender relations overdetermines and is expressed through intertextual associations. The dominant ideology of Arabic countries is strongly patriarchal, and although there are distinct forms and contradictions within different parts of the Arab world, these differences are not such as to make the ideological complex itself incomprehensible to people from Anglo-Saxon cultures, whose own gender ideologies are contradictory and distributed asymmetrically throughout the society. For all the differences of detail, both cultures claim to value women highly but discriminate against them.

One informant made the following comment, contrasting this phrase with another that he said was also possible: 'abu al-haroub' (father of wars). While 'abu' is used in combination with nouns as a straightforward superlative, 'omm' has an underlying suggestion of fertility in that expressions like 'omm al-ma'arak' can also connote not only the 'greatest' but also the 'first of many' battles. 'Omm' can have this underlying sense of 'seed'.

This informant contrasted 'ma'arak' with 'haroub', as feminine to masculine nouns, so that the combination of 'abu' and 'haroub' would have suggested a masculine form of heroic struggle. He also explained the point of this coinage, as against 'jihad': 'jihad' has direct connections with Islam, which Hussein would not want to encourage, since his regime espouses a secular form of nationalism akin to socialism, not Islamic fundamentalism.

It is important to note that other informants did not agree that 'omm' means 'seed'. Far from such disagreement being a problem or an embarrassment that sends us back, chastened, to the experts to resolve it, it is a salutary reminder that meanings are not fixed in a language and common to all speakers. We do not have to choose between the two, declaring the first speaker wrong because others do not agree with him, any more than we can accept that this first speaker is giving us 'the' meaning of the phrase. The disagreement locates the site of a fissure, one of many in the language, which is as significant as sites of consensus and agreement.

In the case of 'omn al-ma'arak' the fissure seems to concern gender. Most of his analysis is already implicit in the basic structure of meanings associated with 'omm', who precedes her child, her 'seed', just as a seed precedes a plant and thus includes firstness in its meaning. But in terms of a patriarchal ideology of motherhood the kind of firstness associated with seeds would be incompatible with the firstness of mothers. For this reason the equation of mothers and seeds made by this speaker might become a forbidden, 'ungrammatical' collocation. In the same way 'smart bomb' offends against a basic collocation rule of English, but can be easily produced and understood.

Syntactically the phrase is perfectly regular for Arabic, a construction noun - plus - article - plus - noun to indicate a relationship that can be described as a 'genitive' construction, which would normally be translated as 'X of Y' in English. In this form, in modern vernacular Arabic, word order alone signifies the relationship. Use of word order as a major syntactic resource is frequent in English, as in the construction of noun-head phrases. In Arabic as in English, there is a cluster of meanings signified by this form. In this case the relationship between 'mother' and 'battles' is not strictly one of possession but (in a way that is similar to the possession-model in English) a form of classification which is analogous to a relationship of possession.

But there is something curious about the form of this particular phrase, as we can see if we compare it with the more straightforward 'omm al-shuhada', mother of martyrs. In Arabic, the first word is normally the head-noun, and the second is the classifier, so that in this case the woman is classified as a mother who is distinguished by having given birth to martyrs. With 'omm al-ma'arak', although the phrase is about battles, the head-noun is the element 'mother', not the element 'battles', which classifies this mother. So the phrase records a complex transformational process, whereby 'battle' is transformed to 'mother', and then the element 'battle' reappears to classify the 'mother', and is then pluralised, to signify size or importance. Compared to the English translation, the phrase displaces the focus more strongly away from 'battle', or more precisely, it equivocates with a strategy of displacement, so that the syntactic form of the phrase carries a meaning which contradicts the literal meaning of the phrase, understood as referring to battles not to mothers. Compared to the English, it invokes an ideology of motherhood more strongly, and mystifies the fact that this is a battle, not a woman, to a greater degree.

As analysed in this way neither the Arabic phrase nor its translation fit the Orientalist scheme, where two incommensurable universes of meaning confront each other in helpless incomprehension until mediated by the Orientalist expert. The original phrase was a highly recognisable if complex and innovative instance of ideological work, which no Arabic speaking Australian had any difficulty in seeing through or describing to me. The translation took the phrase out of its context, thus achieving a quotation effect similar to that of 'collateral damage', demystifying the ideological process. This popular deconstruction of Hussein's phrase may have missed some of its cultural and historical resonance but it showed a sound grasp of its basic ideological force. But where the other two phrases we have looked at expose the strategies of Orientalism, in this case Orientalism was lying in wait to recuperate the ideology, which is attributed to the Other as symptom and proof of his deviousness. Those English speakers who were taken in by the phrase were trapped by the ideological cunning of what they only imagine to be Arabic. Or rather, they were trapped by the assumption that they must be superior to these Arabs, so that if they can see through the ideology it must be because it is not what ideologues of the West would use.

In this discussion I have wanted to avoid any implication that there is any one meaning or effect that these phrases have, and that is perhaps the most important point to make about Orientalism itself. It is the central premise of Orientalism that no dialogue with the Other is possible except under exceptional circumstances. This impossibility is not the starting point of Orientalism but what it has to construct as its goal and reason for being. But it is important to add that Orientalism on its own is never enough. To keep up the illusion of the Otherness of the Other, the Pentagon was well aware that it also needed to manage the construction of the war from day to day through such bodies as the Joint Information Bureau, using its monopoly of news sources to coerce media organisations to conform to its picture of the conduct of the war. The Orientalist construct of linguistic and cultural difference had to be supplemented by a whole series of other less high sounding devices, such as misinformation and propaganda via a controlled media. And even then its effects became less and less predictable as it circulated in discourse, like smart bombs that did not always hit their target, causing ever more unintended collateral damage.


I wish to express my thanks to Dr Michele Drouart for her help in collecting some of the material for this article, and for her insightful comments on an earlier draft.

1 Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).

2 Said, p.3.

3 M. Wark, 'News Bites: War news in the Gulf' Meanjin Vol 50 No. 1 p. 5-18.

4 George Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, eds. S. Orwell and I. Angus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968).

5 Robert Hodge and Roger Fowler, 'Orwellian Linguistics', eds. Fowler et al Language and Control (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979).

6 Wark, p. 9.

7 B. Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1956).

8 V. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (New York: Seminar Press, 1973).

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