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William J. Astore: What’s the Meaning of Failure?

A Dictionary of Euphemisms for Imperial Decline.

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Image from Flickr user DVIDSHUB.

By William J. Astore
By arrangement with TomDispatch

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 US 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 US 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.

Less familiar words and terms continue to be used within the military not to clarify tasks at hand but to obscure certain obvious realities even from those sanctioned to deal with them.

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.

The Emptiness of Acronyms

In the future, some linguist or lexicographer will doubtless compile a dictionary of perpetual war and perhaps (since they may be linked) imperial decline, focusing on the grim processes and versions of failure language can cloak. It would undoubtedly explore how certain words and rhetorical devices were used in twenty-first-century America to obscure the heavy burdens that war placed on the country, even as they facilitated its continuing failed conflicts. It would obviously include classic examples like surge, used in both Iraq and Afghanistan to obscure the way our government rushed extra troops into a battle zone in a moment of failure only ensuring the extension of that failure, and the now-classic phrase shock and awe that obscured the reality of a massive air strike on Baghdad that resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians (“collateral damage”), but not the “decapitation” of a hated regime.

Don’t think, however, that the language of twenty-first-century American war was only meant to lull the public. Less familiar words and terms continue to be used within the military not to clarify tasks at hand but to obscure certain obvious realities even from those sanctioned to deal with them. Take asymmetrical warfare, the gray zone, and VUCA. Unless you spend time in Department of Defense and military circles, you probably haven’t heard of these.

Asymmetrical warfare suggests that the enemy fights unfairly and in a thoroughly cowardly fashion, regularly lurking behind and mixing with civilians (“hostages”), because that enemy doesn’t have the moxie to don uniforms and stand toe-to-toe in a “kinetic” smack-down with US troops. As a result, of course, the US must be prepared for underhanded tactics and devious weaponry, including ambushes and IEDs (improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs), as well as a range of other “unconventional” tactics now all too familiar in a world plagued by violent attacks against “soft” targets (aka civilians). It must also be prepared to engage an enemy mixed in with a civilian population and so brace itself for the inevitable collateral damage that is now so much the essence of American war.

Instead of honest talk about war in all its ugliness and uncertainty, military professionals of our era have tended to substitute buzz words, catchphrases, and acronyms.

That groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) would choose to fight “asymmetrically” should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever been confronted by a much bigger and better armed kid in a schoolyard. Misdirection, a sucker punch, a slingshot, even running away to fight another day are “asymmetrical” approaches that are sensible indeed for any outgunned and overmatched opponent. The term is a truism, nothing more, when it comes to the realities of our world. It is, however, a useful way of framing matters for those in the Pentagon and the military who don’t want to think seriously about the grim course of action, focused significantly on civilian populations, they are pursuing, which often instills anger and the urge for revenge in such populations and so, in the end, runs at cross purposes to stated US aims.

The “gray zone” is a fuzzy term used in military circles to describe the perplexing nature of lower-level conflicts, often involving non-state actors, that don’t qualify as full-fledged wars. These are often fought using non-traditional weapons and tactics ranging from cyber attacks to the propagandizing of potential terror recruits via social media. This “zone” is unnerving to Pentagon types in part because the vast majority of the Pentagon’s funding goes to conventional weaponry that’s as subtle as a sledgehammer: big-ticket items like aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, main battle tanks, strategic bombers, and wildly expensive multi-role aircraft such as the F-35 (now estimated to cost roughly $1.4 trillion through its lifecycle). Much of this weaponry is “too big to fail” in the funding wars in Washington, but regularly fails in the field precisely because it’s too big to be used effectively against the latest crop of evasive enemies. Hence, that irresolvable gray zone which plagues America’s defense planners and operatives.

The question the gray zone both raises and obscures is: why has the US done so poorly when, by its own definition, it remains the biggest, baddest superpower around, the one that outspends its non-state enemies by a factor so large it can’t even be calculated? Keep in mind, for instance, that the 9/11 attacks on American soil were estimated to have cost Osama bin Laden at most a half-million dollars. Multiply that by 400 and you can buy one “made in America” F-35 jet fighter.

If the gray zone offers little help clarifying America’s military dilemmas, what about VUCA? It’s an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, which is meant to describe our post-9/11 world. Of course, there’s nothing like an acronym to take the sting out of any world. But as an historian who has read a lot of history books, let me confess that, to the best of my knowledge, the world has always been, is now, and will always be VUCA.

For any future historian of the Pentagon’s language, let me sum things up this way: instead of honest talk about war in all its ugliness and uncertainty, military professionals of our era have tended to substitute buzz words, catchphrases, and acronyms. It’s a way of muddying the water. It allows the world of war to tumble on without serious challenge, which is why it’s been so useful in these years to speak of, say, COIN (Counterinsurgency) or 4GW(Fourth-Generation Warfare).

The latest 4GW jargon may not help win wars, but it does sometimes win healthy research grants from the government.

Much like its most recent enthusiast, General David Petraeus, COIN has once again lost favor in the military, but Fourth-Generation Warfare is still riding high and sounds so refreshingly forward-looking, not like the stale Vietnam-era wine in a post-9/11 bottle that it is. In reality, it’s another iteration of insurgency and COIN mixed and matched with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong’s people’s war. To prevail in places like Afghanistan, so 4GW thinkers suggest, one needs to win hearts and minds—yes, that classic phrase of defeat in Vietnam—while securing and protecting (a definite COINage) the people against insurgents and terrorists. In other words, we’re talking about an acronym that immediately begins to congeal if you use older words to describe it like “pacification” and “nation-building.” The latest 4GW jargon may not help win wars, but it does sometimes win healthy research grants from the government.

The fact is that trendy acronyms and snappy buzz words have a way of limiting genuine thinking on war. If America is to win (or, far better, avoid) future wars, its war professionals need to look more honestly at that phenomenon in all of its dimensions. So, too, do the American people, for it’s in their name that such wars are allegedly waged.

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 US 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 US 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 US 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 fourteen 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 US 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 US “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 US 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, twelve years after the US 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 US 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 US 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.

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