The Madness of Modern War

April 18, 2016

The dishonesty of words illustrates the dishonesty of America’s wars.

Since 9/11, can there be any doubt that the public has become numb to the euphemisms that regularly accompany U.S. troops, drones, and CIA operatives into Washington’s imperial conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa? Such euphemisms are meant to take the sting out of America’s wars back home. Many of these words and phrases are already so well known and well worn that no one thinks twice about them anymore.

Here are just a few: collateral damage for killed and wounded civilians (a term used regularly since the First Gulf War of 1990-1991). Enhanced interrogation techniques for torture, a term adopted with vigor by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of their administration (“techniques” that were actually demonstrated in the White House).

Extraordinary rendition for CIA kidnappings of terror suspects off global streets or from remote badlands, often followed by the employment of enhanced interrogation techniques at U.S. black sites or other foreign hellholes. Detainees for prisoners and detention camp for prison (or, in some cases, more honestly, concentration camp), used to describe Guantánamo (Gitmo), among other places established offshore of American justice.

Targeted killings for presidentially ordered drone assassinations. Boots on the ground for yet another deployment of “our” troops (and not just their boots) in harm’s way. Even the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, its label for an attempt to transform the Greater Middle East into a Pax Americana, would be redubbed in the Obama years overseas contingency operations (before any attempt at labeling was dropped for a no-name war pursued across major swathes of the planet).

As euphemisms were deployed to cloak that war’s bitter and brutal realities, over-the-top honorifics were assigned to America’s embattled role in the world. Exceptional, indispensable, and greatest have been the three words most commonly used by presidents, politicians, and the gung ho to describe this country.

Once upon a time, if Americans thought this way, they felt no need to have their presidents and presidential candidates actually say so—such was the confidence of the golden age of American power. So consider the constant redeployment of these terms a small measure of America’s growing defensiveness about itself, its sense of doubt and decline rather than strength and confidence.

To what end this concerted assault on the words we use? In George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” he noted that his era’s equivalents for “collateral damage” were “needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Obviously, not much has changed in the intervening seven decades. And this is, as Orwell intuited, a dangerous way to go. Cloaking violent, even murderous actions in anodyne language might help a few doubting functionaries sleep easier at night, but it should make the rest of us profoundly uneasy.

The more American leaders and officials—and the media that quotes them endlessly—employ such euphemisms to cloak harsh realities, the more they ensure that such harshness will endure; indeed, that it is likely to grow harsher and more pernicious as we continue to settle into a world of euphemistic thinking.

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