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.

Euphemisms and the Banality of Evil

George Orwell
George Orwell

W.J. Astore

I teach a course on the Holocaust, so I’ve had ample opportunity to confront the use of euphemisms by the Nazis to cloak their murderous intent.  The most infamous euphemism was “the final solution to the Jewish question,” which of course refers to the mass murder–the extermination–of all Jews everywhere. But there were many other euphemisms, to include “evacuation” and “resettlement” for the shipment of Jews to death camps in Poland.

Such coded language was intended in part to deceive the Jews, but it was also an exercise in self-deception (or self-desensitization, perhaps).  The Nazis, in other words, deflected some of the horrors of their murderous activities by thinking of them in banal terms.  The banality of language helped to make possible the “banality of evil” exercised by Nazi functionaries like Adolf Eichmann.  He was just “removing” and “resettling” Jews, or so he may have preferred to think (when he thought at all).

Comparisons between Nazism and other systems are always difficult and often tendentious. Godwin’s Law suggests that Internet debates often degenerate to name-calling in which Nazi analogies, carelessly applied, are trotted out in an attempt to triumph over one’s opponent.  It’s a good law to keep in mind.

Yet it’s remarkable to me the proliferation of euphemisms in U.S. military and political discourse. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” for torture. “Extraordinary rendition” for kidnapping. “Collateral damage” for the death of innocents (often children) in combat operations. Guantanamo Bay as a “detention camp” for “detainees” rather than a prison (or concentration) camp for prisoners.  Even the “global war on terror” was rebranded in 2009 as “overseas contingency operation,” as if one can deny the deadly realities of war simply by changing the name.

George Orwell warned us about the political uses of language in his famous essay from 1946.  We ignore his warning at our peril.  Cloaking violent, even murderous actions in banal language may make a few functionaries sleep easier at night.  But they should make the rest of us profoundly uncomfortable.

Banal language facilitates and helps to actuate the banality of evil. As Vaclav Havel noted in his essay “A Word About Words” (1989), “The point is that all important events in the real world–whether admirable or monstrous–always have their prologue in the realm of words.”

The more we invoke euphemisms to cloak harsh realities, the more we ensure that harshness will endure; indeed, that it will grow harsher, more pernicious. Even worse: that it will become banal, even “normal.”

Torture is torture.  Kidnapping is kidnapping.  Dead infants are dead infants.  War is war.  And extermination is extermination.

Employing euphemisms is not just an exercise in banality of language; it’s often a betrayal of humanity.

The Temptations of Drone Warfare

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A recent article at NBC News is unusual in that it highlights the awfulness of war even when the killing is “surgical” and done by drones.  Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator for the Air Force, suffers from PTSD and feels that killing by drone caused him to lose respect for life, that he became like a sociopath.  Especially upsetting to Bryant was when his commander gave him a “diploma” (most likely an award citation) that stated he had contributed to the deaths of 1,626 people.

Drone strikes are basically extra-judicial death sentences from the sky.  For Americans, they seem unproblematic because we’re not exposed to them and because our government tells us only “militants” and evil-doers are being killed.

But the temptations of drone warfare are considerable, as I wrote in an article for Truthout in August 2012.  Here’s what I said back then:

What happens when we decouple war’s terrible nature from its intoxicating force? What happens when one side can kill with impunity in complete safety? General Robert E. Lee’s words suggest that a nation that decouples war from its terrors will likely grow too fond of it. The temptation to use deadly force will no longer be restrained by knowledge of the horrors unleashed by the same.

Such thoughts darken the reality of America’s growing fondness for drone warfare. Our land-based drone pilots patrol the skies of foreign lands like Afghanistan in complete safety. They unleash appropriately named Hellfire missiles to smite our enemies. The pilots see a video feed of the carnage they inflict; the American people see and experience nothing. In rare cases when ordinary Americans see drone footage on television, what they witness is something akin to a “Call of Duty” video game combined with a snuff film. War porn, if you will.

Many Americans seem happy that we can smite foreign “militants” at no risk to ourselves. They trust that our military (and the CIA) rarely misidentifies a terrorist, and that “collateral damage,” that mind-numbing euphemism that obscures the reality of innocent men, women, and children obliterated by missiles, is the regrettable price of keeping America safe.

But the reality is that sloppy intelligence and the fog and friction of war combine to make seemingly antiseptic drone warfare much like all other forms of war: bloody, wasteful, and terrible. Terrible, that is, for those on the receiving end of American firepower. Not terrible for us.

There is a real danger that today’s drone warfare has become the equivalent to the Dark Side of the Force as described by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: a quicker, easier, more seductive form of terror. It is indeed seductive to deploy the technological equivalent of Darth Vader’s throat-constricting powers at a safe distance. We may even applaud ourselves for our prowess while doing so. We tell ourselves that we are killing only the bad people, and that the few innocents caught in the crosshairs constitute an accidental but nonetheless unavoidable price of keeping America safe.

In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.

W. J. Astore