Collateral Damage: A Terrifying Euphemism

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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.

Trump and the Rewriting of History

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W.J. Astore

George Orwell’s 1984 is filled with wisdom.  Perhaps my favorite saying from that book is Orwell’s statement about history and its importance. He said, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

If you have the power, in the present, to rewrite history, to redefine the past, enshrining your version of history as fact while consigning all the bits you don’t like to oblivion (“down the memory hole”), you can define people’s sense of reality as well as what they believe is possible. You can limit what they see, their horizons.  You can limit how and what they think.  You can, in a major way, control the future.  Add the control of language to the restriction and re-definition of history and you have a powerful means to dominate meaning, discourse, and politics in society.

Donald Trump and Company are brazen in their rewriting of history, notes Rebecca Gordon in her latest post at TomDispatch.com.  They make no apologies and take no prisoners.  They simply claim lies to be true, repeating them over and over until some people come to accept them as truth.  The examples she cites include the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd (“Bigly!”), the reality of global warming (“Chinese lie!”), and why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey (“He hurt Hillary!”).

Another example of the big lie is the whole concept of “Trumpcare,” the recent revision to Obamacare as passed by the House.  They sell this as a health care plan instead of what it really is: a health coverage denial plan and tax cut for the rich.

As the Congressional Budget Office reported:

The GOP health care bill would insure 23 million fewer people than current law after a decade, while potentially impacting many with pre-existing conditions, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bill would spend $1.1 trillion less on health care and use the savings primarily to finance large tax cuts for high-income earners and medical companies. Overall, it would reduce deficits by $119 billion over ten years.

I know one thing: that’s not a health care plan.

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George Orwell

Returning to language, a big theme of Orwell’s 1984 is how language will be simplified, or dumbed down, stripping away meaning and subtlety and substituting unreflective obedience and coarseness in their place.  Think here about how Donald Trump speaks. Orwellian expressions like “doubleplusgood” are not foreign to a man who speaks in glittering generalities to sell his ideas and hyperbolic superlatives to extol his own virtues.

In his introduction today to Rebecca Gordon’s article, Tom Engelhardt quotes Trump’s recent graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy, during which Trump did what he does best — sell himself with lies (“alternative facts!”):

I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time as president. Jobs pouring back into our country… We’ve saved the Second Amendment, expanded service for our veterans… I’ve loosened up the strangling environmental chains wrapped around our country and our economy, chains so tight that you couldn’t do anything — that jobs were going down… We’ve begun plans and preparations for the border wall, which is going along very, very well. We’re working on major tax cuts for all… And we’re also getting closer and closer, day by day, to great healthcare for our citizens.

One thing Trump does know is how to manipulate language — in short, to lie — to his own benefit.

In this age of Trump, a sense of history has rarely been more important. We have to fight for the richness, the complexity, as well as the accuracy of our history and our language. The very existence of the American republic depends on it.

The Language of War

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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.

“Unquestionably Syme Will Be Vaporized”: Lessons from Orwell’s 1984

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W.J. Astore

Syme is a minor character in George Orwell’s “1984.”  A philologist, Syme works on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, “the definitive edition” according to him.  What’s fascinating is Orwell’s description of the intent and main functions of Newspeak, as given by Syme in this passage:

“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”

“Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

This brilliant passage by Orwell sends chills up my spine.  There will be no thought.  Orthodoxy means not thinking.  Is this not in fact true of many people today, content to express unquestioning and unwavering obedience to “the Party,” like the people who support Donald Trump simply because he says he’ll make America great again?

After Syme’s oration on Newspeak, Winston Smith, the main protagonist of “1984,” thinks to himself: “Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.”

A couple of pages later, Syme makes another penetrating observation:

“There is a word in Newspeak … I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.”

To this observation, Winston thinks to himself: “Unquestionably Syme will be vaporized.”

Why?  Orwell notes that Syme is a Party zealot, a true believer.  But what he lacks, Orwell makes clear, is unconsciousness.  Syme is too self-aware, and speaks too plainly, therefore he must go.  And indeed later in the book he does disappear.

(As an aside, I like Orwell’s reference to some of Syme’s fatal flaws: that he “read too many books” and “frequented … [the] haunt of painters and musicians.”  Yes: books and the arts are indeed the enemy of unconscious orthodoxy in any state.)

The other day, a reader sent to me the following unattributed saying:  We build our houses out of words, then we live in them.

In “1984,” the Party sought total control over language, over words, as a way of dominating people’s consciousness.

One of my favorite sayings of Orwell, also from “1984” and one I always shared with my students, goes something like this: Who controls the past controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.

I think you could add to that: Who controls the language, the very words with which we communicate and think, controls the present.

Language is the key, a point Orwell brilliantly makes through the character of Syme in “1984.”

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.