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Keyword: Pacification

Front cover of Nancy Cunard, L’Ethiopie trahie (1936).
Fig. 1. Front cover of Nancy Cunard, L’Ethiopie trahie (1936). Photo courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

A couple of years ago, I published a book that worried the quantitative conception of information, by suggesting that “information” constituted a problem not because it lacked ways of being defined, but because it could be defined at once in so many competing and oftentimes contradictory ways. In the book, I was concerned specifically with radio broadcasting and the wartime literary field; but also, at a methodological level I was not entirely aware of until late in the composition process, with how forms of mediation and needs for remediation had created conditions in which the political charge of description and classification was suddenly, if also temporarily, to the fore. I tried to get at how this seemingly primary issue of definition is, in fact, the product of acts of and disputes about classification through which the “data of culture,” in Lisa Gitelman’s phrase, are put into meaningful sequences and mobilized, used, and managed—a in short, how they are put in formation.[1]

Coming out of that work, I keep returning to questions of classification. In our world of marketing influencers and robust metrics and deep-diving analytics gurus, the work of classification could not be more pertinent, even as it so often is obscured and banished from consideration or critique. For this reason, the relationship of libraries, information, and propaganda is one of increasingly pressing concern. This sense of things is not entirely a matter of knowing where to go and what to look for, but rather a misgiving about how protocols of sorting and the connections that derive from them enable all kinds and manner of communication. Where Raymond Williams could write powerfully and with acuity on “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” I find myself more often at the other end of the so-called knowledge economy, at what feels like the mouth of a sewer pipe, wondering about means of reception: their forms and modes, but also their structuring institutions and channels.[2] Williams had succinctly framed this issue earlier in his career in the book Communications:

I mean by communications the institutions and forms in which ideas, information, and attitudes are transmitted and received. I mean by communication the process of transmission and reception. . . . The emphasis on communications asserts, as a matter of experience, that men and societies are not confined to relationships of power, property, and production. Their relationships in describing, learning, persuading, and exchanging experiences are seen as equally fundamental.”[3]

In this regard, the library might stand as an exemplary place, an institution of specialization dedicated to sponsoring novel intellectual formations, which are nevertheless not obliged or expected to reproduce that specialization or the interests to which it gives rise. In what follows, then, I would like to refine what this means in something of a bleaker key, by looking at a case study of euphemism and knowledge production. I will touch on a number of relations that, on their face, are quite familiar from, almost mainstays of, the field of modernist studies, in both its conventional (or “old”) and “new modernist” guises: questions of autonomy and intervention, of translation and untranslatability, of the relationship of coterie or vanguard groups to an audience or reception community. In writing on the “keyword,” Williams had noted that the “problems of its meanings seemed to be inextricably bound with the problems it was being used to discuss.”[4] What I would like to suggest here is that the library functions as an institution critical to checking the process through which such “problems” are euphemized out of our communicative interactions. That said, the library will appear only toward the end of the piece.

Change Agents

It begins, however, at the Washington offices of the RAND Corporation, where a four-day symposium on counterinsurgency was held in April 1962. Organized under the auspices of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the symposium brought together a group of practitioner-theorists of what would come to be known as counterinsurgency doctrine in order to share tactics for confronting revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles. In the introduction to the proceedings RAND published the following year, the point of the gathering is couched unmistakably in terms of practical application:

The basic rationale in undertaking the Symposium was that, rather than approach the problems of guerrilla and counterguerrilla warfare theoretically and academically, it might be useful to draw on the knowledge of men of recent and direct experience in counterinsurgency, with a view to assembling a large body of detailed information and judgment on the multifarious aspects of this inadequately explored form of conflict. It was hoped that such a pragmatic approach would not only provide fruitful insights into earlier struggles but would, above all, yield valuable lessons for the future.[5]

The list of symposium participants reads like a “who’s who”—or rogues’ gallery—of counterinsurgency strategists, among them: Edward Lansdale, the American claimed as the model for both Pyle in The Quiet American (likely erroneous) and Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American (likely not); Frank Kitson, who served in almost every British counterinsurgency campaign from Kenya to Belfast and whose writings emphasize the central role of intelligence gathering and manipulation in all “hearts and minds” operations; and David Galula, whose career in the French Army is all but synonymous with pacification, as I will shortly relate.[6] This was an international group, whose martial experience stretched across several continents and theaters of operation. Still, when looking back from the late 1970s at this landmark gathering, Kitson could write:

When I arrived the symposium had already been in progress for several days and the conference room was full of an extraordinary variety of people. . . . Although we came from such widely divergent backgrounds, it was as if we had all been brought up together from youth. We all spoke the same language. Probably all of us had worked out theories of counter-insurgency procedures at one time or another which we thought were unique and original. But when we came to air them, all our ideas were essentially the same.[7]

The published proceedings—which take the form of a paraphrased transcription of their discussions—do not affirm this feeling in every detail, yet the military, judicial, and political record of the years since the symposium grimly bears out this remarkable sense of validation.

Although the use of “pacification” had a long history in military planning and statecraft, its full canonization as a euphemism for a method of popular coercion was achieved at the RAND Corporation. The think tank had been founded as the Air Force’s principal advisory organization in 1946, when it was charged with research and development (hence RAND) of technological improvements and innovations for the defense sector. The corporation’s work remained within its initial purview to study intercontinental warfare, yet it benefitted from an ever-widening definition of national security. In this advisory capacity, RAND was one of the “idea brokers,” the role in which it became the paradigmatic instantiation of the military-industrial complex and an essential part of what C. Wright Mills named “the power elite.”[8] While many of its first staff members were mathematicians and engineers working to produce operational knowledge (such as missile guidance systems), the corporation was soon bringing in economists and social scientists to augment this work with studies of morale, motivation, cultural attitudes, and the specifically political quality of limited or asymmetrical warfare. This political basis for insurgency necessitated what was explicitly recognized as the “interdisciplinary character” of the research being done into forms of armed conflict other than total war. This shift to systems analysis from operations research allowed RAND to position its mandate as less bound to external exigencies and therefore distinct from the applied social science research being done at major American universities.[9] Like other postwar think tanks, RAND was in fact often thought of as a “university without students,” an institution whose members were freed from instructional service and could therefore pursue “pure” research. In this way, its research mission enabled the agency to disavow but in no way abandon “applied” forms of knowledge, and as such to remain “close to yet somewhat aloof from the centers of power” (Smith, The RAND Corporation, 299).

In other words, the corporation could simultaneously assert its pragmatic functionality and its analytic autonomy, its current relevance and its innovative vision. One marker of this posture as a “change agent” can indeed be seen in how and to whom RAND distributed its many publications (302). One set of them remained classified and directly bound to the national security state, while the other, larger set was distributed to the public. And while RAND posed as an institutional rival to both university and library in its “brokering” function, and was a powerful claimant to authority over communications in its own right, it also relied on universities and specifically on libraries in a fundamental and “infrastructural” manner, since it had arranged for all its nonclassified works to be held at depository libraries throughout the country.[10]

Usage and Euphemism

Fig. 2. Cunard’s inscription to the Lockwood Memorial Library at Buffalo on the inside cover of L’Ethiopie trahie. Photo courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

It was a classified RAND report that effected the full movement of “pacification” as an English word to the ranks of euphemism: this was Galula’s Pacification in Algeria, which was first published in 1963.[11] Billed as a “memorandum,” this 324-page text details his experience as a captain in the French Army during the middle years of the Algerian revolution, when his superiors had ordered him to “pacify” an area of the Kabyle region, but offered no directives on what exactly this order entailed. Caught between the “warriors” (or those who advocate for unsparing physical domination and whom the military system awards with medals) and the “psychologists” (or those who favor propagandistic and psychological operations and who hold a monopoly on Army journals), Galula holds to the middle, ultimately distilling what he learns of imposing and enforcing law and order to one phrase: “the objective is the population” (xxiv). This end is to be achieved by purging areas of insurgents, controlling space and monitoring its inhabitants, collecting as much low-grade intelligence as possible, selecting local leadership partners, and engaging in “civic actions,” such as running medical clinics, schools, and “programs of information.” This armed social work is “pacification.” And while he recognizes this form of warfare as political by definition, he shows little interest in what drives insurgency and finds civilian officials and rear-echelon commanders (as well as the “left-wing” press) to be all but contemptible for their misunderstanding of regimental experience.

Surely some of why Galula could so flagrantly dismiss his superiors is that Pacification in Algeria was “born English” and would not be translated into French until 2008. (Galula’s Counter-Insurgency Warfare, the shorter, abstracted trade publication counterpart to the RAND memorandum, was also written in English and appeared in 1964.[12]) For this reason, his work has been much more influential in the Anglophone (and especially American) sphere of counter-insurgency doctrine than in the French context. This composition and reception history demonstrates how the already euphemized sense of the French pacification is carried over into Galula’s English-language work, which the RAND imprimatur in turn sanctioned and institutionalized. This is not to say that the euphemism had not existed in English: for example, Orwell mentions “pacification” in “Politics and the English Language” (1946); Chinua Achebe ends Things Fall Apart (1958) with the District Commissioner sketching the outline of a work titled The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger; and everyone at the RAND symposium was familiar enough with the usage to employ it occasionally in the course of those four days in April 1962. But Galula’s RAND memorandum canonizes the usage in a doctrine, a set of texts, and a sense of belief.

Why is this important? Although “pacification” in English had been discredited and lost face in Vietnam, Galula’s work assumed fresh “relevance” during the American-led counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that began in the first decade of this century. With renewed dedication among planners to the techniques described in the memorandum—a point perhaps most evident in Galula’s strategic centrality to the US Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency (2006)—RAND released the work in a version freely available online, forty-three years after its composition. It seems clear that part of the rationale behind its declassification and republication was to insist that “pacification” had not been wrong, but only misapplied.

Counter-Usage and Communication

To conclude, I would like to turn back to two counter-usages of “pacification” from the more properly modernist period, both found in examples of Nancy Cunard’s activist work in the 1930s now held at the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries at SUNY-Buffalo. This return to the modernist scene necessarily entails coming back to the library and its social function as a potential check on the euphemisms of coercive authority. The first counter-usage comes from Negro: An Anthology, where Samuel Beckett’s translation of the Surrealist Group’s polemic he calls “Murderous Humanitarianism” provides a scathing rebuke of colonial violence and imperial rhetoric. Among other things, the title is itself a de-euphemization of “pacification,” one that denounces from within the ambit of the French political field a practice of domination honed during the 1910s and 1920s in Morocco. Here, the colonial state could rely on the mass dissemination of a kind of language that replaced the largely Christian idiom of salvation with what Beckett renders as “counterfeit liberalism.” It is a form of demagoguery that frames active decisions as desired but also necessary outcomes, as compassion and assistance serve as cover for organized brutality: “With his psalms, his speeches, his guarantees of liberty, equality, and fraternity, [the colonial official] seeks to drown out the noise of his machine guns.” In the piece, this point is most forcefully made when he makes bitterly literal what is at once an actual practice and its rhetorical disavowal: “War, that reliable colonial epidemic, receives fresh impulse in the name of ‘pacification.’”[13]

In light of subsequent history, Beckett’s transposition into English of this French euphemism is all the more poignant because the French source-text of “Murderous Humanitarianism” is now lost, thus leaving the Surrealists’ furious rejoinder available only in this English rendering. In its way, Beckett’s translation or transposition aligns with Cunard’s activist intentions in curating the anthology, which was meant adamantly to refuse to reproduce dominant categories of value in the face of other modes of creating and classifying intellectual, social, and political authority.

The second counter-usage comes in a form that is both ephemeral and unique, but is itself a negative instance of usage: indeed, the euphemism is not used at all. As something of an appendix to the Negro anthology, Cunard privately printed and published a booklet in the summer of 1936 called L’Ethiopie trahie: unité contre l’impérialisme (Ethiopia Betrayed: United Against Imperialism).[14] With its yellow paper cover, this small folio of sixteen pages collects her dispatches from the final session of the General Assembly of the League of Nations, when its delegates listened to Haile Selassie deliver his famous appeal for aid, but then acquiesced to the Italian invasion of the African nation. Details and incidents in the booklet accord with those in Cunard’s reporting from Geneva for the Associated Negro Press, the black American news service that operated until 1964, with one significant difference: her reports were written in English, while the text of the booklet, as its title indicates, is in French. Cunard would later translate and auto-translate during World War II, and it stands to reason that the booklet is an earlier example of the latter practice. Given what she is reporting on and her unabashedly partisan intent in doing so, what strikes me in the present context is that the word pacification never appears in her French text, for she instead names the events happening in Ethiopia for what they are.

Perhaps as important, however, is the particular copy in Buffalo. WorldCat lists only a handful of copies held in libraries today, but the item in Buffalo is also unique. When Charles Abbott, the director of the University Libraries and founding curator of the Poetry Collection, first solicited authors in the mid-1930s to send their worksheets and wastepaper to him in order to establish the collection, Cunard was an extremely enthusiastic respondent, as Jeremy Braddock has eloquently documented.[15] This booklet was among the items she dispatched to Buffalo. Although such material was not necessarily what he had asked for, the booklet became part of the library’s collection. From the handwritten inscription on the inside cover, Cunard nonetheless seemed to have anticipated its accession: “To the Lockwood Memorial Library / University of Buffalo / Wishing it the maximum / of success in its pursuit / of learning, / and of its gift / to humanity / Nancy Cunard / 1937.” Having sought to foster alternative norms of understanding, communication, and use in her own work, Cunard here recognizes a kindred worker, less in Abbott than in the subject of her dedication: the library itself. For as her inscription makes plain, and as the booklet’s presence in the Poetry Collection literalizes, this institution did not validate and enforce the separation of valued forms of knowledge production from those that are devalued, undervalued, or decreed to be altogether without value or application. For us today, reading her inscription serves as an enjoinder: in order to defend this pursuit of learning from pacification, we must first defend the institution.


[1] Damien Keane, Ireland and the Problem of Information: Irish Writing, Radio, Late Modernist Communication. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014); Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

[2] Raymond Williams, “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” in Problems of Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), 50–63.

[3] Raymond Williams, Communications, rev. ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966), 17, 18.

[4] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed. (London: Fontana, 1983), 15.

[5] Stephen T. Hosmer and Sibylle O. Crane, Counterinsurgency: A Symposium, April 16–20, 1962, (1963; Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2006), vii.

[6] Laleh Khalili describes the participants as a “who’s who” in  Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgency (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 33. For Lansdale, see David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972; New York: Penguin, 1983), 155–56; for Kitson, see Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, Peacekeeping (London: Faber and Faber, 1971); for Galula, see Armand Mattelart, The Globalization of Surveillance, translated by Susan Taponier and James A. Cohen (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 79–97. In addition, see Ann Marlowe, David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2010).

[7] Frank Kitson, Bunch of Five (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), 200. This passage is quoted approvingly in the forward to the republished version of Counterinsurgency: A Symposium.

[8] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). On postwar think tanks, I have drawn on Paul Dickson, Think Tanks (New York: Atheneum, 1971); R. Kent Weaver, “The Changing World of Think Tanks,” PS: Political Science and Politics 22, no. 3 (1989): 563–78; James Allen Smith, The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite (New York: Free Press, 1991); and Andrew Rich, Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[9] Bruce L. R. Smith, The RAND Corporation: Case Study of a Nonprofit Advisory Corporation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 13.

[10] “For reasons of security, many of RAND’s publications are classified. They go to the military services, to other federal agencies, to industry, and to members of the scientific community with a need-to-know. But a much wider distribution is given to unclassified writings—which compose more than half of the total—through publication in learned journals, through commercially published books, and through limited free distribution of RAND reports. The last category of distribution is achieved largely through deposit libraries—42 in the United States and 7 in foreign countries—each of which has about 2000 RAND publications. Some 800 libraries have RAND’s 850-page Index of Selected Publications, which lists unclassified items; and they may borrow publications from the deposit libraries.” The RAND Corporation: The First Fifteen Years (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1963), 32. 

[11] David Galula, Pacification in Algeria, 1956–1958 (1963; Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2006).

[12] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1964).

[13] Surrealist Group in Paris, “Murderous Humanitarianism,” trans. Samuel Beckett, in Nancy Cunard, ed., Negro: An Anthology (London: Wishart, 1934), 574–75.

[14] Nancy Cunard, L’Ethiopie trahie: unité contre l’impérialisme (Paris: privately published, 1936).

[15] Jeremy Braddock, Collecting as Modernist Practice (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 226–28.