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.

The Language of War

language

W.J. Astore

The language of war fascinates me.  I was reading President Obama’s response to Donald Trump on whether Obama “gets it” when it comes to the threat of terrorism and came across this passage:

“Someone [Donald Trump] seriously thinks that we don’t know who we are fighting? If there is anyone out there who thinks we are confused about who our enemies are — that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.”

That’s such a curious phrase: “terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield.”  As if the United States has simply evacuated them or relocated them instead of killing them.

I think the distancing effect of air power has something to do with this euphemistic language.  The U.S. military “takes people off the battlefield” rather than killing them, blowing them up, and so on.  Obama’s personality may also play a role: a rational person, he’s been compared to the Vulcan Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” in his coolly logical approach to war.

Perhaps that coolly rational side, and not his preference to avoid terms like “radical Islamic terrorism,” is what gets Obama into trouble.  Many Americans would prefer more directness, more passion, even though such directness and passion is often the approach of posturing chickenhawks.  Consider the language of Bush/Cheney and all their blustering about “wanted, dead or alive” and “the axis of evil“ and “you’re either for us or against us.”  Bush/Cheney talked as if they had just walked off a Western movie set after a gunfight, but both avoided the Vietnam War when they were young men, with Cheney famously saying he had other, more important things to do with his life.  (Bush flew in the Texas Air National Guard, apparently gaining a slot after his father pulled some political strings.)

So, what should Obama have said in place of “we’ve taken them off the battlefield”?

Why not be honest and say something like this?  “I’m well into the eighth and final year of my administration, during which I’ve approved drone strikes and air raids that have killed thousands of suspected and confirmed terrorists.  Sure, we’ve often missed some targets, killing innocent people instead, but hey — war is hell.  I’ve approved Pentagon budgets that each year approach $750 billion, I’ve overseen the U.S. dominance of the international trade in weapons, I continue to oversee an empire of roughly 700 overseas U.S. bases.  Some have even called me the assassin in chief, and they’re right about that, because under my command deadly drone strikes have increased dramatically.  Meanwhile, we’ve already made some 12,000 air strikes against ISIS/ISIL.  So don’t tell me, Mr. Trump, that I don’t know who the enemy is.  Don’t tell me I’m not willing to murder terrorists whenever and wherever we find them, even when they’re U.S. citizens and teenagers.  Don’t tell me I don’t get it.”

Those words would be honest – though they’d really just scratch the surface of the Obama-led efforts to secure the “Homeland.”  But instead Obama speaks of “taking” terrorists “off the battlefield,” cloaking his administration’s violent actions in a euphemistic phrase that would be consistent with angels from on high coming down to lift terrorists off the battlefield to some idyllic oasis.

Odd, isn’t it, that so few Americans criticize Obama for his murderous actions in overseas wars, but so many will criticize him for not bragging and boasting about it.

Well, if America is looking for a braggart, someone willing to boast about himself, they have their man in Donald Trump.  If they’re looking for a new assassin in chief, they have their woman in Hillary Clinton.  And if they’re looking for fresh ideas, a new strategy, a way to end our seemingly endless wars, they’re simply out of luck this election season, unless you go to a third-party candidate like Jill Stein.

In these over-heated times, the chances of a third-party challenge with substance are somewhere between nada and nil.  In the United States in 2016, war and weapons sales and imperial expansion will continue to find a way, even as our leaders cloak their violent actions using the most anodyne phrases.

C’est la guerre.

Words about War Matter

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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.

 

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.