The War of Words: What is an Insurgent?

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The War of Words: What is an Insurgent?It is said a picture is worth a thousand words, but a well chosen word can make an otherwise clear picture, quite obscure.
This became very evident for me recently as I read an Associated Press article1 about how 76 insurgents were killed in fierce fighting. For some time now, I have been asking myself, what on earth is an insurgent? It sounds like one of those euphemistic expressions, seen so often in print, intended to make cutthroat terrorist look less terrifying. They become even less terrifying when later in the article they are referred to as mere “suspected insurgents.”1

Calling terrorists “suspected insurgents” strongly suggests that our troops are killing innocent people. Such language implies that a courtroom-like-investigation has to be carried out to determine whether a suspected terrorist is really a terrorist or just a Muslim that happens to like wearing a bomb around his waist and a rifle over his shoulder.2

Explanation of the Talismanic word

Using the word “insurgent” in the place of terrorist would not mean much to me had it not been for the study, Unperceived Ideological Transshipment and Dialogue,2 by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.3
This treatise first appeared in print in the mid-sixties when heated debates about communism were common. In this masterful study, Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira showed how the use of the word “dialogue” in the place of a sharper word such as “debate” was instrumental in dissolving the differences between opposing sides of a philosophical debate. Thus, a fiery anticommunist could be “transshipped” into one who wants only to make compromises, concessions, and retreats.”4

The ability of the word “dialogue” to influence psychologically and imperceptibly the public gave the word a talismanic or “magical” quality. Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira thus labeled such terms as “talismanic words.”
Today, talismanic words continue to be very useful tools in altering people’s perspectives.5
As homosexuals become “gays” and illegitimate relationships become “alternative lifestyles,” the resistance to a sinful life is hampered. Abortion no longer kills a uniquely magnificent, genetically distinct pre-born baby but a de-individualized “fetus.” Those who support the elimination of a “fetus” are no longer pro-abortion but defenders of “choice.” Anyone attempting to uphold morality runs the risk of being branded “insensitive.”
The power or magic of the talismanic word comes from its elasticity. They are resistant to definition. It is therefore by defining words such as “insurgent” that we can strip them of the power they have to influence.
There are three ways we can do this.6

Dictionary Definition

The most logical way would be to see what Webster’s has to say. Under the main entry, an insurgent is: “a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government; especially : a rebel not recognized as a belligerent.” Videotaped recordings of gruesome decapitations carried out by Iraqi “insurgents” are well beyond the concept of belligerent.7

Like the minutemen a true insurgent rises up against an established tyranny
Like the minutemen a true insurgent rises up against an established tyranny

Those concerned about the Geneva Convention and the insufficiently air- conditioned jail cells in Guantanamo might appreciate a more legalistic definition such as that provided by a New York law dictionary. An insurgent is: “One who is concerned in an insurrection. He differs from a rebel in this, that rebel is always understood in a bad sense…insurgent may be one who justly opposes the tyranny of constituted authorities. The colonists who opposed the tyranny of the English government were insurgents, not rebels.”
The colonial reference used here is very important because the understanding of words often extends beyond etymology and encompasses their historic usage.8

Historical Examples

A second way to understand insurgent is to cite historical examples.
In the fifteenth century, for example, Albanians who resisted the Ottoman Empire and the tyranny of Sultan Amurath II were commonly referred to as insurgents. In fact, they carried out such an effective insurgency that the Sultan kidnapped young Catholic boys and incorporated them into his army as an elite force called the janissaries
One such boy was nine-year-old George Castriota, son of Prince John of Castriota.

He was given the Turkish name of Alexander the Prince or “Iskender Bey” and later came to be known among the Albanians as Scanderbeg. Upon escaping from the Turks, he led the Albanians in a successful insurgency that became so noteworthy that history often refers to him simply as the “Sword and Shield of Christendom.”9
A more recent example is the Lithuanian insurgents at the end of World War II. As part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union swallowed up this Catholic country known as the “Land of Mary.” Fr. Pranas Dauknys describes how, “the Catholic Church immediately lost its legal rights as the Soviet Communist government gradually introduced Soviet Russian laws concerning religious denominations …Arrests, tortures and executions, the sudden disappearance of leading personalities in public life without a trace became an everyday occurrence.”
Mass deportations were carried out in June of 1941. In that month alone 40,000 people were shipped off to labor camps in Siberia. Lithuania was rapidly becoming a mere colony of Russia and her desperation was matched only by the nobility of the reaction that followed.
After Germany attacked Russia later that same month, Father Dauknys tells how “a spontaneous and general revolt against Soviet rule [occurred] … and the insurgents succeeded in taking full control of chief cities and provincial towns.”
The inhabitants of the Land of Mary were thus temporarily spared from further atrocities due to a group of people aptly defined as insurgents. When the Soviets regained their control over Lithuania after the war, insurgents continued their just struggle against this cruel oppressor.10

“Remember the Alamo”

Two more examples strike closer to home. In the twenties and thirties, the Mexican cristeros forcibly resisted an anti-Catholic government which, like the Soviets in Lithuania, persecuted the Church. These irregular forces are also referred to as insurgents. Sympathetic Americans who traveled there to assist them were similarly labeled insurgents.11

At home, Texas experienced the tyranny of Mexican military dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna. This is given as yet another historic example of an insurgency. You don’t have to be Texan to appreciate the bravado of Colonel William Travis who courageously faced overwhelming odds.

“To the People of Texas and all Americans in the world” he wrote, “I shall never surrender or retreat…Victory or Death!” Their heroic resistance at the Alamo in San Antonio is responsible for buying sufficient time for General Sam Houston’s arrival which ultimately won Texas its independence.

It is exactly the resiliency displayed by these Texan insurgents which drives Americans when placed in difficult circumstances, like September 11, to cry: “Remember the Alamo.”

A Trip to the Mall

My third way to understand the term insurgent is to ask others.
What has been said so far could easily be considered a subjective opinion of a person who has a hang up with a word. It was for this reason that I conducted my own miniature public opinion poll at a local mall near York, Penn. What better place to find a cross section of the American public than a mall. Although the fifteen people I interviewed would not get a notice from Gallup, the consistency of the responses was more than noteworthy.
My initial hesitation in this undertaking was whether people would feel comfortable talking about terrorists in the midst of the delightfully non-threatening environment of an American mall.
All fears were put to rest as I approached two elderly men sitting on a bench engrossed in conversation. My only problem with them was getting them to stop talking. One of them, a 61-year-old retiree from York, said insurgent was a “misleading word” meant to present terrorist as “people who are not bad.” He went on to add that it was a clearly “deceptive” word which leads the person to believe “these people are fighting for a just cause.”
Keith Kefauver, a 45-year-old retired Air Force sergeant, went straight to the point. Referring to terrorists as insurgents was “the media’s way to portray the bad guys.” The impression given by the word insurgent, he commented, makes them look like “freedom fighters.”12

An English teacher from Hanover was happy to comment on the value of words and understood that, although an insurgent is defined as someone who takes part in an armed rebellion, it has been historically used to define those who rebel against a tyrannical regime like “those who fought in the American Revolution.” She, like most people I spoke with, had a sense that an insurgent is more commonly understood as someone fighting for a noble cause.

All those questioned considered that, of the two terms, terrorist is the more negative or sharper word. One elderly man said the word terrorist, “struck a cord with me” alluding to the fact that it was a frightening term. “I am a soldier”, he continued, “and I never heard the term [insurgent] before.” He was obviously not old enough to have fought in the Revolutionary War.

The most interesting person I interviewed, however, was 36-year-old Kathy Pavoncello. She is a freelance writer with the Hanover Sun newspaper and obviously free enough to give an unbiased opinion. She admitted that the idea she had of an insurgent “changed over the years” because of the way they are being consistently portrayed. She was quick to point out the irregularities of the current “insurgents” in Iraq. To begin with, most of those fighting in Iraq are foreigners. They do not wear uniforms and systematically avoid engaging the “invaders” in combat. They prefer rather to use suicide bombers who kill innocent civilians, including women and children on a daily basis.

The Battle for Hearts and Minds

It would be very difficult to find a more heated debate than the one surrounding national security. It dominated the debates which propelled President Bush into a second term. Americans felt safer with a president who was not afraid to declare a “war on terror.”

At the center of this debate is the war in Iraq and a well-chosen word capable of swaying public opinion. When a terrorist becomes an “insurgent,” the resolve to fight is severely weakened. Nothing is more useful for the opponents of the war than the use of such a powerful talismanic word.

There is no better example of this than the tragic bombings in London, so similar to those in Madrid last year. In all the news coverage of this most recent act of terrorism, one word was very conspicuous for its absence. The word insurgent was not used a single time. Reporters called them exactly what they are: terrorists. Yet what is the difference between those who bombed innocent civilians in London and those who are killing innocent civilians in Iraq? In the former case the terrorists faced only frightened civilians in the latter they face determined soldiers.

Those with a declaredly liberal mindset have a serious problem not only with the war in Iraq but war in general and the military specifically. In the post-September 11 world, however, to make a frontal assault against our military is tantamount to being un-patriotic.

Proof of this was the tsunami of indignation which recently engulfed Sen. Dick Durbin and forced him to apologize “to our fine men and women in the military” for his inflammatory and unjust remarks. He compared the treatment we give our prisoners at Gitmo to the slaughter carried out by a genocidal maniac like Pol Pot.

Our soldiers who fight terrorists in the Middle East did not choose the field of battle yet fight with a nobility that is often overlooked. They deserve our undying respect and gratitude but unfortunately what they are getting in the press back home is word manipulation which can only be seen as deceptive.

The word “dialogue” was arguably a useful tool in weakening the anti-communist resistance in the 60’s. The word “insurgent” is an equally useful one to weaken the resistance of Americans in the struggle we wage against terrorism.

Alongside the deadly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan there is a more important struggle being waged right here at home. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of Americans. With the widespread use of a talismanic word, it appears obvious that some people are visibly uncomfortable with our desire to win these wars.


  3. He was quick to point out however that such a method was only effective in so much as it predisposed a person to explicit forms of Marxist preaching in such a way as to make them favor communism’s tactics and doctrine.” It is therefore an implicit action with “a characteristic and essential note…that those influenced by it do not perceive that they are undergoing a psychological action.”
  8. The Resistance Of The Catholic Church In Lithuania Against Religious Persecution, Summary of a Doctoral Dissertation by Rev. PRANAS DAUKNYS at Pontifical university of St. Thomas in Rome where he obtained after public defense the degree of Doctor in Sacred Theology.
  11. These suicide bombers are commonly referred to as “kamikazes” in the Italian media, another talismanic word which implicitly ennobles those who kill themselves.

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