Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Service in the United States military involves exposure to derogatory generic terms for “the enemy,” ranging from “gook,” “dink,” and “slope” during the Vietnam era to “towelhead,” “haji,” and “camel jockey” in the Global War on Terror. With their vague and mysterious content, such terms count as semi-propositional representations (Sperber 2009) that adopt a very particular ontological stance: they tend to evacuate the humanity, the existence of mind and subjectivity, of the people referred to, invoking conditioned responses that supersede careful inferential thought. Beyond such qualities, enemy generics have a political dimension to their circulation. The United States military, for instance, tends to officially renounce such terms, but informally endorse them in practice to desensitize service members to combat. And in some cases, enemy generics highlight subtle political differences in ideologies of what kind of meaning one circulates with these terms. In the year 2000, for instance then-Senator John McCain was criticized for referring to the North Vietnamese who held him captive and tortured him for five years as “gooks.” From his “Straight Talk Express” bus, he tried to clarify that he was referring only to his interrogators, rather than using the term in a generic sense to refer to all North Vietnamese. Yet with this defense McCain unwittingly invoked a cleavage between the political left and right when it comes to the “straight talk” some perceive in generic forms. This talk explores some of the cultural politics involved in American military uses of enemy generics.