Collateral Damage: A Terrifying Euphemism

kent state
What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground — would she be simply “collateral damage”?

W.J. Astore

The term “collateral damage” is a terrifying euphemism.  The U.S. military didn’t invent it, but it sure has embraced it.  The dictionary definition is “unintended civilian casualties or damage in a war,” which is about as anodyne a description as one could imagine.

In common usage, “collateral” is something we put up to secure a loan, so it often has a positive meaning.  (No worries: I have lots of collateral.) “Damage” is a neutral-sounding word: the book was damaged in shipping. Storm damage. And we also speak of “damages” when we sue someone. In sum, “collateral” and “damage” are impersonal and imprecise words.

Let’s think personally and precisely.  What is “collateral damage” in the “war on terror”? Bodies blown to bits. Blood everywhere. Skin burnt and melted by Willy Peter (White Phosphorous). Eviscerated children. Rotting corpses.

The military has a colorful saying: “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Maybe we need a new saying: “Don’t murder my child and tell me it’s collateral damage.”

In his latest mini-essay introduction at TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes how “collateral damage” has become a central and defining reality of America’s endless war on terror.  The main article (Burning Raqqa) by Laura Gottesdiener details U.S.-led air strikes in Syria that go horribly wrong:

By the beginning of May, the Abdos’ neighborhood was under almost daily bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition forces. On May 3rd, coalition warplanes reportedly launched up to 30 airstrikes across Tabqa’s first, second, and third neighborhoods, striking homes and a fruit market and reportedly killing at least six civilians. The following night, another round of coalition airstrikes battered the first and third neighborhoods, reportedly killing at least seven civilians, including women and children. Separate airstrikes that same night near the city’s center reportedly killed another six to 12 civilians. 

On May 7th, multiple bombs reportedly dropped by the U.S.-led coalition struck the building where Muhammed and Salam had taken shelter, killing them and their 12-year-old grandson. Three days later, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had fully seized control of Tabqa and the dam. The militia and its U.S. advisers quickly set their sights east to the upcoming offensive in Raqqa.

But for the Abdo family, the tragedy continued. Muhammed and Salam’s bodies were buried beneath the collapsed apartment building. It took 15 days before Wassim’s brother Rashid could secure the heavy machinery required to extract them.

“Nobody could approach the corpses because of the disfigurement that had occurred and the smell emanating from them as a result of being left under the rubble for such a long period of time in the hot weather,” Wassim told me in a recent interview. 

That same day their bodies were finally recovered.  On May 23rd, his parents and nephew were buried in the Tabqa cemetery.

Specifics such as these are generally not reported by the U.S. military or in the U.S. media.  Instead, we get headlines about militants or terrorists being killed, along with snippets about collateral damage, “regrettable” but framed as unavoidable.

Tell that to the families of the dead.

George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms.  As I wrote a year ago, words about war matter.  Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars.  They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.

15 thoughts on “Collateral Damage: A Terrifying Euphemism

  1. I can remember when we used noun phrases like “innocent bystander” and “negligent homicide” to describe the victim and the crime of sloppy slaughter, but these accurate and descriptive terminologies had to go since our corporate/military junta wished to establish the principle of “death sentence by presumption; innocence requires posthumous proof.”

    As the original Tonight Show host, Jack Paar, used to say: “I kid you, not,” fellow Crimestoppers. Enter the renowned community organizer and “Lecturer on Constitutional Law” from the University of Chicago to expound, definitively, upon his demented doctrine:

    Posthumous Jurisprudential Jive

    Obama has a law degree
    Or so we’ve heard it said
    So lawyers now in his employ
    Have said this to the dead:

    “If you don’t like us killing you
    And think we’ve been unfair
    Then come back from the afterlife
    And file a lawsuit. There!”

    You’re guilty by presumption and
    Your innocence not proved
    So that means it was “legal” to
    Have you, from life, removed

    Yet still, if by some miracle,
    You resurrect your bones
    And reassemble body parts
    Dismembered by our drones
    We guaranee your day in court
    So, ghost, let’s hear your moans.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortuneteller,” copyright 2017

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    1. And let us not forget (updated from five years ago):

      Felonious Military Age Muslims

      A boy of seventeen years old,
      A man of sixty-five,
      Makes you some kind of “militant”
      So why are you alive?

      Your gender, race, and age confirm
      To robot drones above
      That you and others of your kind
      Must perish from our love

      Our president can kill you now
      His list contains your name.
      Intended, or if by mistake,
      He’ll kill you just the same

      The bomb will kill the one it hits,
      As well as those nearby
      Who had no business being born
      Unless it was to die.

      A free-fire-zone we called this dodge,
      All over Vietnam,
      Which meant to shoot just anywhere.
      Who gives a bloody damn?

      Obama’s body counts reveal
      Upon his magic map
      Some “progress” after eight years spent
      Repeating Dubya’s crap.

      But Democrats now think him “tough”
      And cheer at each new kill.
      Republicans, of course, do not,
      And never ever will.

      And so the country lurches right
      As scapegoat Muslims fall,
      And fascist brownshirts thrill to see
      Obama “standing tall.”

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2012-2017

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      1. “I think no commander ever is going to come out and say ‘I’m confidant that we can do this.’ I think we say you assess, we believe this is, you know, a reasonable prospect.” — General David Petraeus, Commander of the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan (since promoted to head of the CIA and then defrocked for freelance frolicking), regarding his mission objectives and his prospects for achieving them.

        “The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism.” George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

        The Inflated Style as Euphemism

        The general has started talking funny
        Like, never stating what we can achieve.
        Instead, he babbles jargon for the money
        Which means he never plans for us to leave.

        We’ve been there now so long that few remember
        How many times we’ve heard the same old song.
        Our plans, those scruffy foreigners dismember
        While we proclaim that we’ve done nothing wrong.

        The president has donned his bomber jacket
        To have his picture taken with the troops:
        For conquerors, cheap tools that serve the racket;
        For statesmen, simple patriotic dupes.

        Our presidents and generals have blundered
        And now can only stall for yet more time
        While citizens back home whom they have plundered
        Refuse to see the nature of the crime.

        We went to “war” with tax cuts for the wealthy
        And exhortations to consume and spend.
        Now broke and begging from the thieving stealthy,
        Our leaders promise this will never end.

        Our presidents and generals stage dramas
        And wave the bloody shirt while spouting gas
        To keep us safe from peasants in pajamas
        And poppy farmers smoking hash and grass.

        We did this once before in Southeast Asia
        As names upon a granite wall attest.
        The country, though, prefers its euthanasia:
        The laying of all memory to rest.

        So let us listen raptly to the latest
        Inflated euphemism coined to quell
        The slightest thought that we might be the greatest
        Bullshitters of whom history can tell.

        Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2010

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      2. Dear Michael,

        “Who had no business being born Unless it was to die.”

        Thank you for your words and poems. It helps that you understand so well the reality and that you can summarize, arrange and articulate our empire’s absurdity, hypocrisy, violence and malfeasance. Thank you for giving voice to those that can no longer speak and to those who can’t find such words for their anger, their sorrow and their guilt.

        And on a personal note, those words I singled out above, as I read them this morning struck me as words that I’ve been searching for since those first experiences in Iraq, confronting the exposed blood, bones, skin and organs of shattered and lifeless human beings, and even now, 13 years later, I still cannot write a coda to finish that thought…

        Again, thank you for your poems and your words.

        Peace brother.

        Matt

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  2. A Shameful Silence: Where is the Outrage Over the Slaughter of Civilians in Mosul? https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/07/24/a-shameful-silence-where-is-the-outrage-over-the-slaughter-of-civilians-in-mosul/

    Consider this the people of Iraq have been in a state of war since for most of time since the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 and in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979. None of this murder has made the slightest impression on the American People and the West as whole.

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    1. What silence? What slaughter? As George Orwell explained in his famous essay Notes on Nationalism (1945):

      “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

      “A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.”

      “The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged, and the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.”

      I recommend making a copy of this essay — along with three others by Orwell: namely, “Politics and the English Language,” “The Prevention of Literature,” and “Why I write” — as essential reading if one wishes to understand politics and “journalism” (i.e., “click-bait” media) as practiced by the Corporate/Militarist Oligarchy currently working the levers behind the Rube Goldberg contraption calling itself the United States of America. Nationalism demands a credulous unanimity among its devotees, which we can see currently operating in all its Russophobic awfulness among America’s political and media “elites.” As Orwell made clear:

      “Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

      The United States does, of course, contain a minority of patriotic individuals who prefer their way of life well enough but have no designs upon power or longing for “full spectrum dominance” over other people or nations. Unfortunately at present, the “governing” electoral demographic in America (i.e., right-wing Republican “Culture War” in league with right-wing Democratic “Identity Tribalism”) manifests a resentful, seething nationalism more closely resembling a madly spinning collection of identical cogs in a murderous machine than a democratic assembly of informed and engaged individual citizens.

      So the nationalist machine goes on murdering because cogs in a machine don’t “see” anything that the machine does. The gears and levers don’t want to see. So they don’t.

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      1. Thanks, Mike. Not only was Orwell a brilliant man, but he expressed himself clearly, writing for the educated public, the informed reader, not just for intellectuals and academics. His writing is powerful, accessible, clear of jargon, and penetrating. And that’s a rare thing …

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  3. Mike, I found this passage in the Orwell link: >>Political or military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties. << Side Bar – Going back to the Vietnam War and up until today the "Experts" that are with the regularity of an Atomic Clock, pronounce some new strategy to win. The fact the strategy may have failed before is of no consequence a new spin will be attached. It is like putting more chrome or different color scheme on a Yugo Automobile, and saying now it will run reliably.

    Orwell goes on:
    The following are the principal characteristics of nationalist thought:
    Obsession. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. Side Bar – American Exceptionalism.

    Indifference to Reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. Side Bar – This happened after WW 1, from Finland down into the Balkans new countries were created out of the ruins of the Austrian, German and Russian Empires. No such "liberation" happened to the dismantled Ottoman Empire, new countries were created and became de-facto colonies of France and the UK, with puppet dictators installed. Today, the same indifference to reality applies. Virtually all of my electronics is Made in China, I bought two shirts last Thursday Made in Vietnam. China and Vietnam are both dictatorships. Yet, our politicians can become agitated in the extreme about Cuba and give China and Vietnam a human rights pass.

    With the emergence of Trump, and his mirage of reality (Two plus to Two equals Five) Orwell has become somewhat more popular in some circles to point out only the Trump regimes alternative facts.
    The Iron Curtain like control by our McMedia-Wall Street-Security-Military-Industrial Complex on AmeriKa cannot and will not be exposed, let alone mentioned.

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  4. Mike Murry and Monotonous Languor: Your comments on nationalism are very important. I’d like to use them in my next article. Citing you both, of course. And with your permission. If you don’t want me to, please let me know. As ever, thanks for your comments at the site.

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  5. Matthew Hoh,

    Thank you for your kind words. Thank you as well for your letter of resignation from the state department which I have copied and saved for frequent reference. In it, you articulate many of the thoughts that I’ve had rolling around in my head since the day I came home from the southern part of Vietnam at the end of January, 1972. I admire the way that you have turned bitter experience — “anger, sorrow and guilt,” as you say — into necessary work for peace. You have done the only thing that one can do with indelible memories: you have put them to creative use. You have made them work for you instead of letting them work on you, which they will surely do unless you find better employment for them.

    Many years ago when I started getting angry and frustrated at just about everything following the U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq and Afghanisan (or Vietnam II and Vietnam III) my Taiwanese wife told me: “Turn the pain into power.” When I went looking for ways to do this, I came across Internet references to Veterans Poetry Workshops. That sounded like a good therapy, but I knew of no veterans groups here in Taiwan where I have lived since 2004. So, I bought some books on poetry and went looking for good examples to try and emulate. Early in my research, I came upon How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom (2000), probably one of the most influential books that I have ever read. Professor Bloom helped me to get started with this:

    “Only rarely can poetry aid us in communing with others; that is a beautiful idealism, except at certain strange moments, like the instant of falling in love. Solitude is the more frequent mark of our condition; how shall we people that solitude? Poems can help us to speak to ourselves more clearly and more fully, and to overhear that speaking. … We speak to an otherness in ourselves, or to what may be best and oldest in ourselves. We read to find ourselves, more fully and more strange than otherwise we could hope to find.”

    I began writing poetry as a means of dealing with those other voices in the basement of my own mind. If it should happen that others, overhearing this interior conversation, come away with a word or phrase that resonates within them, then a rare and beautiful idealism has momentarily become manifest in the world outside my own solipsistic solitude.

    Thanks again for the kind words, brother. Keep up your good and necessary work.

    Mike

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    1. And of course I’m thrilled my blog provides a venue for people to come together and converse about difficult and challenging subjects. It’s not just about me putting my writing out there; it’s about creating a community (however small) in which we can exchange views and learn from each other. Heck, maybe even help and inspire one another.

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      1. Thank you both for your responses and sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I really appreciate you both taking the time to respond as you did, as well as all the time you are taking in this sphere, on this blog and elsewhere; it matters quite a bit.

        Mike, thanks for the words and the inspiration, as well as the information on Bloom. Also, too, thank you for the earlier recommendations for the Orwell essays: timely and important reading for me.

        Again, thank you both for your writing, your work and your fellowship.

        Peace,
        Matt

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