Language in a time of war can be illuminating or obfuscating, depending on your perspective. Yesterday, in southern Iraq, U.S. troops provided an ironic example. They named two temporary refueling facilities Camp Shell and Camp Exxon.
A tad indelicate? Deliberately insensitive, given the criticism that the United States has undertaken the war to secure Iraqi oil? Neither, said a Pentagon spokesman, who explained that the camps are "basically gas stations."
To twist the cliche, the first casualty of war is language, "casualty" being an ancient euphemism for "killed" or "maimed" or "psychologically damaged beyond repair." War language can be especially monstrous in that it is designed to disguise, neuter and deflect the chaos it describes. As George Orwell once wrote, "When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer."
The Persian Gulf War popularized such Pentagrammatic phrases as "smart bomb" and "collateral damage," neither of which really was, exactly. The other side called that war "the mother of all battles," which it wasn't, and in any case makes this one, what, the grandmother or the daughter?
The current war brings us "surgical air strikes" and "strike package," which is a highly lethal group of warplanes but sounds like the Yankees' starting pitchers.
We're warned that our soldiers could be subject to chemical or biological weapons, an almost unimaginable prospect that has been reduced, jauntily, to being "slimed." As in, "If we get slimed, we're going up there" and fight back, Rear Adm. Chas. R. Kubic, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group, told the Los Angeles Times. It makes it sound almost like a stunt on Nickelodeon.
We're not certain if we should characterize the war as an invasion -- a phrase freighted with aggressive meaning -- or a war of liberation, which is much nicer. In fact, we don't know quite what to call it yet. (Operation Iraqi Freedom? Persian Gulf War II? March Madness?)
We have "shock and awe," a vivid phrase that seems to have traveled from war-gaming think tanks to Wolf Blitzer's lips in a flash of tracer fire. "Shock and awe" is shorthand for a fast, overwhelming, punishing strike that sows confusion and destruction within the enemy's ranks, theoretically promoting a quick surrender. For all its quasi-biblical overtones ("and the Lord did shock and awe they that blasphemed His name"), "shock and awe" has both a euphemistic and propagandistic value. As military strategy, it's not wholly different from what the German army did in conquering Poland and the Low Countries in World War II. Back then, it was known by a name with a different connotation: blitzkrieg.
"Warfare has always generated linguistic Novocain -- it's designed to numb," says William Lutz, a professor of English at Rutgers and the author of "Doublespeak." "Language works best when it paints a mental picture for us, when it palpably and vividly creates a reality in our minds. When you want it to do the exact opposite, you create a new language for that."
This has always been true, he says. To rally a society to kill requires more than just guns and jets; it requires an artful command of words conveying a shared mission.
The difference now, says Lutz, is that the jargon and unholy euphemisms move faster than ever. Thanks to instantaneous worldwide satellite transmission, the generals' latest catchphrases, or even the grunts', are being bandied about the water cooler, the shop floor and the soccer field within hours of their first utterance.
There's more cross-pollination than ever, too: military language long ago bled into jock talk (where a season became a "campaign," and a quarterback or catcher was "a field general"). But now sports gives back (on CNN, an American officer talks about "maintaining our focus" and "stepping up to the next level"), and the business world chips in with talk about "battlefield synergy" and "integrated strategy."
"Things are only what we label them," observes Lutz. "Your tax cut is my tax giveaway. Labeling tells us more about the person labeling than the thing itself."
Thus: "Coalition forces," which sounds so grand and official, until you notice that the vast majority of those in the coalition are from the United States. Nevertheless, "coalition forces" was sired by the Coalition of the Willing, a group whose members have still not been fully identified. Even more to the point, given their limited participation, most of the COTW apparently aren't completely willing.
Journalists are now "embedded" with the troops, which suggests an almost sexual level of media-military involvement. Although the media operate under many of the same restrictions as before, "embedding" conveys closeness and cooperation. In any event, it's really no different from the olden days, when reporters were merely "assigned" to travel with troops.
And, of course, there is the ostensible cause of the war, Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction."
The phrase -- hatched somewhere within the United Nations but popularized by President Bush -- may be the liveliest of all the new phrases. Since its use became widespread, it has been shorthanded to "WMD." It has also morphed, like a mutating cell, into "weapons of mass terror" and again (by President Bush, on the war's eve last week) to "weapons of mass murder."
This terminal terminology irritates Paul Fussell, the eminent war scholar. "A machine gun, properly fired, is a weapon of mass destruction," he sputters. "We're pretending that only awful and sinister people own weapons of mass destruction. We own them, too. We just call them something else."
But he recognizes the necessity of the distinction, and its corruption. Language "makes us amenable to being governed, in a sick way," he says. "People have gotten used to language doing nothing more than being amusing, like pop music playing in the background. Words have a significant cultural and political function. We've become blind to them."