Words about War Matter


W.J. Astore

In my new article for TomDispatch.com, I argue that words about war matter.  A clear sign of America’s post-democratic military is the language our leaders use when they talk about war.  Specifically, words, euphemisms, and expressions that muddle or obfuscate meaning while excluding most Americans from the debate.  Acronyms like VUCA and 4GW and COIN, moreover, create a specialized language that suggests war is beyond the understanding of regular folk.  Meanwhile, euphemisms and rhetoric hide the truth about war.

In a democracy, how are proper decisions to be made about war if the truth is deliberately cloaked or hidden?

The entire article is here at TomDispatch.com; what follows is the last section of my article, featuring a strong contribution from Mike Murry, a regular contributor here at Bracing Views.

The proliferation of euphemisms, acronyms, and neologisms has no end.  You might start with “defense” instead of “war” department, followed by “homeland” security, the “PATRIOT” act, and on and on.  I still recall Ronald Reagan’s christening of the MX nuclear missile, with its multiple warheads capable of unleashing city-wide genocides, as the “Peacekeeper.”

The United States may be losing our many “overseas contingency operations,” but when it comes to manipulating words, it’s truly “mission accomplished.”

The Truth About “Progress” in America’s Wars

These days, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter often resorts to cancer imagery when describing the Islamic state. “Parent tumor” is an image he especially favors — that is, terrorism as a cancer that America’s militarized surgeons need to attack and destroy before it metastasizes and has “children.”  (Think of the ISIS franchises in Libya, where the organization has recently doubled in size, Afghanistan, and Yemen.)  Hence the proliferation of “surgical strikes” by drones and similarly “surgical” Special Ops raids, both of which you could think of as America’s equivalent of white blood cells in its war on the cancer of terrorism.

But is terrorism really a civilizational cancer that can be “cured” via the most aggressive “kinetic” treatments?  Can the U.S. render the world cancer-free?  For that’s what Carter’s language implies.  And how does one measure “progress” in a “war” on the cancer of ISIS?  Indeed, from an outsider’s perspective, the proliferation of U.S. military bases around the world (there are now roughly 800), as well as of drone strikes, Special Ops raids, and massive weapons exports might have a cancerous look to them.  In other words, what constitutes a “cancer” depends on one’s perspective — and perhaps one’s definition of world “health,” too.

The very notion of progress in America’s recent wars is one that a colleague, Michael Murry, recently critiqued.  A U.S. Navy Vietnam War Veteran, he wrote me that, for his favorite military euphemism, “I have to go with ‘progress’ as incessantly chanted by the American military brass in Iraq and Afghanistan…

“We go on hearing about 14 years of ‘progress’ which, to hear our generals tell it, would vanish in an instant should the United States withdraw its forces and let the locals and their neighbors sort things out. Since when do ‘fragile gains’ equate to ‘progress’? Who in their right mind would invest rivers of blood and trillions of dollars in ‘fragility’?  Now that I think of it, we also have the euphemistic expression of ‘drawdown’ substituting for ‘withdrawal’ which in turn substitutes for ‘retreat.’ The U.S. military and the civilian government it has browbeaten into hapless acquiescence simply cannot face the truth of their monumental failures and so must continually bastardize our language in a losing — almost comical — attempt to stay one linguistic step ahead of the truth.”

Progress, as Murry notes, basically means nothing when such “gains,” in the words of David Petraeus during the surge months in Iraq in 2007, are both “fragile” and “reversible.” Indeed, Petraeus repeated the same two words in 2011 to describe similar U.S. “progress” in Afghanistan, and today it couldn’t be clearer just how much “progress” was truly made there.  Isn’t it time for government officials to stop banging the drums of war talk in favor of “progress” when none exists?

Think, for instance, of the American-trained (and now re-trained) Iraqi security forces. Each year U.S. officials swear that the Iraqi military is getting ever closer to combat readiness, but much like one of Zeno’s paradoxes, the half-steps that military takes under American tutelage never seem to get it into fighting shape.  Progress, eternally touted, seems always to lead to regress, eternally explained away, as that army regularly underperforms or its units simply collapse, often abandoning their American-supplied weaponry to the enemy.  Here we are, 12 years after the U.S. began training the Iraqi military and once again it seems to be cratering, this time while supposedly on the road to retaking Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from its Islamic State occupiers.  Progress, anyone?

In short, the dishonesty of the words the U.S. military regularly wields illustrates the dishonesty of its never-ending wars. After so many years of failure and frustration, of wars that aren’t won and terrorist movements that only seem to spread as its leaders are knocked off, isn’t it past time for Americans to ditch phrases like “collateral damage,” “enemy noncombatant,” “no-fly zone” (or even worse, “safe zone”), and “surgical strike” and adopt a language, however grim, that accurately describes the military realities of this era?

Words matter, especially words about war.  So as a change of pace, instead of the usual bloodless euphemisms and vapid acronyms, perhaps the U.S. government could tell the shocking and awful truth to the American people in plain language about the realities and dangers of never-ending war.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular.  He blogs at Bracing Views.


7 thoughts on “Words about War Matter

  1. Orwell called UK colonial empire a “democracy” (in his propaganda piece aka preface to AF) . Not the best authority on lies and misusing words from my POV.
    And, of course, the problem with USA imperialism (and its colonial wars) is not that it is “dishonest”, but that it is an imperialism. Lies are just a must for imperialist crimes.


    1. For a much deeper grounding in George Orwell’s thoughts on fascism, communism, and democracy, I suggest reading Orwell’s “book within a book” from 1984, namely: “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” as well as the Newspeak index to 1984>. Then, too, I would recommend Orwell’s classic essays, “Politics and the English Language,” “Notes on Nationalism,” “The Prevention of LIterature,” and “Why I write.”

      Animal Farm does a good job of exploiting allegory for literary effect, but it hardly stands with Orwell’s best work when it comes to criticising propagandistic language, which he knew intimately from his own service in the BBC durng the second world war. Orwell had many criticisms of “democracy,” since he considered himself a “socialist,” and he deplored imperialism, which he saw first hand as a government employee of the Colonial Burmese police. See his essay, “Shooting the Elephant,” for a good example of his anti-imperialist feelings. But above all, when it came to the survival of his country, Orwell made no bones about doing whatever it took to ensure Great Britain’s continued existence. He believed in a genuine, defensive patriotism, not bellligerent aggressive nationalism, but he definitely rejected the label of “pacifist.” A complex and subtle man, but one of immense intellectual gifts and genuine humane qualities. Hands down, the greatest writer of the 20th century, in my opinion.


  2. Speaking of Orwellian euphemisms and/or the destruction of language itself so as to make critical thought impossible, consider the time-dishonored, typical practice of U.S. government officials, both political and military, namely:

    Flogging a Flawed Figure of Speech
    (From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley)

    The ghosts of Vietnam return once more
    To goad the greedy grasping globalists
    With all the slogans that we used before

    To dig a labyrinth of turns and twists
    To make a maze both meaningless and mad
    Of phrases gerrymandered of their gists

    Desultory “debate” a futile fad,
    Concocting crap from muddled metaphors
    No better than the other ones we’ve had

    Which couldn’t tell the ceilings from the floors;
    As in a vicious vortex venom flows
    And seeps in through the windows and the doors:

    Those “flypaper” and “oil-spot” “dominoes”
    In “final,” frantic, flailing, failing “throes.”

    Sage pundits, though, see nothing here amiss
    Like lawyers they can argue either way
    Like snakes that think to rattle or to hiss

    And then do both and neither in a play
    Of words like knee-jerk whips that wildly work
    To stampede, swindle, stun, or simply sway;

    That tug on heartstrings with a yank or jerk
    Bypassing mammal cortex thought to get
    Below the surface where the lizards lurk

    Primordial and primitive but yet
    Still dominant in domiciles where dupes
    Sit mesmerized before the TV set

    Or wired in undecided focus groups
    Reactive reptiles; mindless monkey troupes

    Our commentators, Orwell said, survive
    Much like astrologers connecting hopes
    Mistakes they make aplenty yet they thrive

    Dispensing dime-store drivel to the dopes
    Who wish for confirmation of their dreams
    While pummeled to a pulp upon the ropes

    By government that only lies and schemes
    Protecting power for the Party’s sake
    Impervious to mounting moans and screams

    Intent upon their own share of the take
    The Nanny Press pontificators ply
    Their frauds: fantastic, fabulous, and fake

    While foreign folk and our own soldiers die
    Our scribblers scrawl much less than meets the eye

    They sniffle: “we are there” as if that sends
    A cut-off note to stop debate in need
    Of “turning points” and “lights” at tunnel-ends

    In arguments as slender as a reed
    Non sequiturs, red herrings, and canards:
    The simple, sloppy, shabby straw-man screed

    Divining “fortune” in some Tarot cards
    Predicting future “blood baths” if we leave
    Ignoring bloody inches, feet, and yards

    In which we bathe the natives while they grieve
    A fluffy fable’s faulty fife and flute
    A tortured tune of losses to retrieve

    From disquisition damned to render moot
    Discussion of just where to place the boot

    “We’re there,” they say, “because we’re there because
    We’re there because we’re there because we’re there”
    Nor must we for a single moment pause

    To note the lawyer’s trick meant to impair
    The power of the jury to reflect
    On flimsy, flabby, flatulent hot air

    A bogus case that reason would reject:
    A monstrous question begging to conclude
    Its self as “proven” by what it had wrecked

    The chance to utilize an interlude:
    An interregnum of intelligence;
    A rare rest where some thinking could intrude

    To tame a truculent intransigence:
    A bloody lust for brute belligerence

    Caught in the cyclone’s circularity:
    A threadbare tautological typhoon;
    A humbug hurricane’s insanity

    Reducing logic to a senile swoon
    All thought into reaction thus compressed
    An empty endless “war” against the moon

    With nothing known but only something guessed
    Which sounds all right if no one looks too close
    At what amounts to fascism repressed

    Which seethes beneath the rhetoric verbose
    Exploiting while disguising that which ails:
    Conflicted, crass conundrums comatose

    Like dogs that chase their disappearing tails
    A dialectic dodge that seldom fails

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006-2010


  3. Brilliant! Please keep up your excellent writing thank you.

    From iPhone. Pls excuse any Siri typos


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