Euphemisms for War are Deadly

Image of a sign reading "Stop War".

Image by Markus Spiske.

How we talk about war matters. When the U.S. Navy conducts “freedom of navigation exercises” in the Taiwan Strait, cloaking what is actually military aggression in wads of useless verbiage, it deflects public attention from the navy’s true activity. Both sides in the current global struggle between the U.S. and NATO on the one hand and China and Russia on the other deploy euphemisms to muddy the rhetorical waters. The concern here is with devious locutions used by the conflict’s western half, not the legalistic terminology of Moscow’s “special military operation.” If one side, say the West, spoke more honestly about what it does and how it provokes violence, that would instantly improve the discourse about war, which might ultimately remove the nuclear sword of Damocles currently hanging over our heads.

If we called the war in Ukraine something else, something that it also indubitably is, namely “the West’s war on Russia,” pace to those so aptly dubbed the fascist Left by CounterPunch contributor Rob Urie, and if we referred to the hot mess the dodos in Washington created in the South China Sea as “the U.S. effort to provoke bloodshed with Beijing,” we might wrench American public opinion back toward reality. These of course are not the only Orwellian phrases bandied about by our military and their stenographers in corporate media. Author and professor David Vine recently launched a summary of such jargon, entitled Words About War Matter: A Language Guide for Discussing War and Foreign Policy, and an associated website, www.wordsaboutwar.org . According to Vine, the guide “aims to change how people discuss war, to discard sanitized language that so often enables state violence.”

Among Vine’s terms to avoid is “casualty,” the better substitute being “killed and wounded;” “collateral damage,” which he replaces with “civilian killing, civilian deaths, civilian murders;” “to drone,” should be “to assassinate.” Vine would also replace “the fallen” with “the dead,” “intervention” with “war or invasion,” “neutralize” with “kill, “overseas contingency operation” with “war” and so forth. You get the idea. My own complaint about a bit of deceptive parlance is the “department of defense,” which is really the “department of war.” That in fact used to be its name, and given all the slaughters that department has committed over the past 70 years, it’s far more appropriate. God only knows what two million Vietnamese peasants, murdered by U.S. troops, had to do with American defense; certainly, it’s beyond mere mortals endowed with common sense to figure out. For that matter what do Russia’s border security concerns and its invasion of Ukraine have to do with U.S. defense? Nothing. These are fights we picked or deliberately provoked – more accurately called wars.

One infamous phrase mentioned by Vine deserves special note: “enhanced interrogation.” When first introduced by the Bush regime, its promoters encountered resistance, snide remarks and guffaws. But over the years that reaction faded, so that now, on the rare occasion when the Bush policy of torture is referenced – instead of so carefully forgotten – you may hear “enhanced interrogation.” You shouldn’t. That prevarication should be ditched once and for all. For years, when the U.S. invaded, bombed and murdered the citizens of three Middle Eastern countries and then Libya, seriatim, it also captured people and tortured them. Indeed, if you can believe what you read on Twitter, the US. STILL tortures prisoners in Guantanamo. (That’s bad enough, without getting into the many thousands of incarcerated Americans subjected to the torture of solitary confinement for years on end here in the so-called homeland.)

So the U.S. is a very violent place, and the first step in coming to grips with that is to call things what they are. By their names. And not to muffle and distort the ugly truth with deceitful language. Washington’s proxy war against Moscow turns hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers into corpses and tens of thousands of Russian ones into corpses. It’s about blood, brutality and gore – not freedom and democracy. Similarly, the war Washington aims to provoke over Taiwan will scorch and kill tens of millions of people with radiation, maybe hundreds of millions, and it risks starving five billion earthlings via nuclear winter. That’s what our tax dollars fund: death and dismemberment. But then, as Vine recounts in his excellent book, The United States of War, that’s what this country has been about since the get-go, since the first and prolonged annihilation of its indigenous inhabitants.

In a May 16, 2021, CounterPunch Plus interview, Vine told me that “the U.S. military has been at war or involved in some form of combat in virtually every year in U.S. history. By my count, building on the Congressional Research Service, every year bar eleven. So 234 out of the 245 years in U.S. history, the U.S. military has been in some form of war…from independence through almost the end of the nineteenth century, there was continuous warfare against Native American peoples…I see the war of 1898 and the seizure of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam and, in a de facto way, Cuba, just as an extension of those wars in North America.”

Who knows how you change a nation up to its eyeballs in blood? Nazi Germany was defeated (by the Soviets, incidentally) and the USSR with its massive gulags collapsed. Going back further in time, the very bloody Roman Empire rotted from within before being overrun by outsiders, and other ancient empires collapsed under conquest.

But things are different today. The world has nuclear bombs. That changes everything, and for a long time world leaders, despots and presidents, acknowledged that. For 78 years that threat of human extermination kept the peace between countries that could bring on Atomic Armageddon – though, of course, it did nothing about military adventures in non-nuclear backwaters. But the Biden regime has broken with the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction. It openly provokes nuclear-armed Russia and China. This may well be the desperate flailing of a dying empire. If so, we live in very dangerous times.

Maybe talking about that truthfully can limit the peril. Calling things by their names is a good place to start.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.