Wartime wordplay shocks and appalls

March 28, 2003|By Clarence Page

NEW YORK - Along with death and destruction, every war brings us new euphemisms to make death sound less deadly.

The purpose of this doublespeak is to dumb us down and numb us down, making the other side's deeds sound more ugly and evil, while our side's actions are made to seem more pristine.

The first Persian Gulf war popularized the term "collateral damage," a banal euphemism for the unintended killing of innocent bystanders. Many of us later were appalled, although we should not have been all that surprised, when gulf war vet Timothy McVeigh used the term to describe the children who died at a day care center in the federal office building he blew up in Oklahoma City.

That's the problem with such weasel words of wartime. They make it too easy for some people to live in deep denial about the horrors that war inflicts, whether to our own troops or to somebody else.

This war has given us "shock and awe," which sounds like a video game or a hyperactive law firm. Actually, it is a not-very-catchy military term for an explosively sudden and bewildering assault by overwhelming force aimed at wearing down your enemy's will.

If our military leaders were perfectly candid about such matters, they would call "shock and awe" by what it sounds like: "something that will scare you witless if it doesn't kill you." As described in the 1996 book Shock & Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, by military strategists James P. Wade, Harlan Ullman and L. A. Edney, the atomic bombs that America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were shocking and awesome, big time. But, they also ended World War II, saving many other lives, especially on our side, so they weren't all bad. Such are the judgment calls that one must make in real-world war.

Still, Mr. Ullman recently told a reporter that the term was intended for use in the National War College and other military circles, not by the general public. "It's not entirely house-trained," he told The Washington Post.

Too late. Reporters heard the term and quickly embraced it, as if all warfare were not shocking and awesome.

In fact, once you take away the spin, "shock and awe" is nothing new. When our enemies do it, we call it by its original name: "terrorism."

But rather than call a terror tactic what it really is, the Bush administration sends a mixed message. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld tried to assure us on television last weekend that referring to "the bombing of Baghdad" was not accurate, since all of the bombing of Baghdad up to that point was quite precisely aimed at military targets. We scrupulously avoided the civilian areas of Baghdad whenever possible, he said.

Indeed, despite the shocking and awesome bombing, the city's lights could be seen on live TV still burning brightly amid the "shock and awe."

Nevertheless, a week earlier, Mr. Rumsfeld's department conspicuously tested its latest barrel of horrors, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB, a 21,000-pound bomb that's so big and dumb it has to be shoved out of the tail of a slow-moving transport plane.

With the explosive force of a small tactical nuclear weapon, minus the radiation, MOAB is nicknamed "the Mother of All Bombs." Call it what you will, it's anything but precise.

Among other interesting new euphemisms, we have "embedded journalists," which sounds like something that the top military brass would like to do to nosy reporters - plant them in the ground.

Actually, it refers to journalists allowed to accompany fighting units into Iraq combat, as long as they do not wander off on their own. Reporters who wander around independently are called "unilaterals," often with condescension.

Yes, "unilateral" is also what a lot of people call the United States for going to war without U.N. consent. The White House argues back that, no, we have a "coalition of the willing," which sounds to me like a few arms had to be twisted first.

Some skeptics here and abroad quickly labeled our coalition for killing a "coalition of the billing," for all of the billions the United States was offering to Turkey and others if only they would join in.

At least one British peace marcher carried a sign that denounced Mr. Bush's "coalition of the shilling."

Perhaps someday soon, the war will end and we can form a new coalition for the healing. Not shocking. Just awesome.

Clarence Page is a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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