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Euphemisms on the Euphrates: the war of words

From 'shock and awe' to 'embed,' this war is hatching new words, which can be critical in shaping perception.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2003



WASHINGTON

World War II enriched the English language with terms like shellshock, foxhole, and blitzkrieg. The Vietnam war gave us hearts and minds, hawks and doves, and grunts. The first Persian Gulf War added "the mother of all battles" to the lexicon. Now, journalists are "embedded" with American and British military units, in a war the "coalition of the willing" sought to end fast with a campaign of "shock and awe" that would eliminate Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction."

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War is a fertile time for language. But thus far, in a venture the Pentagon has dubbed "Operation Iraqi Freedom," the most freighted word has been "quick." In the months leading up to hostilities, hawks inside or close to the Bush administration predicted a war with Iraq would go "relatively quickly." Vice President Cheney, speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation" on March 16, said that meant "weeks rather than months."

But the American public doesn't necessarily hear nuance or qualifiers. "Spokes-persons for this administration are speaking to an America of 15 to 20 years ago, and not to a cable TV-Internet America," independent pollster John Zogby told a Monitor breakfast. "Well, to Americans, winning it 'quickly' is by tomorrow."

President Bush, of course, has strained to rein in expectations since the war began, reminding Americans that war is unpredict-able. Mr. Zogby also notes that by the end of the war's first week, Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had become more publicly cautious.

Opting for caution

Still, the war of words within the administration continues: Pentagon adviser Richard Perle predicted Sunday on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television that this war would be shorter than the Persian Gulf War of 1991, which lasted six weeks.

"I think it will be a quick war, certainly by historical standards," he said.

As many Americans follow the war in real time, the words that accompany the images take on added significance. They shape perceptions and, in turn, public opinion - which, if it sours, could hobble Mr. Bush's pursuit of objectives and harm his reelection campaign in 2004.

Last week, at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., Bush almost said the war was moving "ahead of schedule." His spokes-man, Ari Fleischer, told reporters in advance that Bush would say that - but at the last moment, Bush opted for caution and changed the line.

'Cakewalk' and other regrettable terms

Some commentators have charged the administration with Orwellian efforts at deception in official descriptions of the invasion as a "liberation" and by telling the public that the purpose of war is peace.

But Geoffrey Nunberg, a senior researcher at Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information, sees a more benign goal: "What critics of political jargon get wrong is that it's often offered less in the service of cynical deception than willful self-deception or self-delusion." Still, he says, the words of hard-liners like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, could haunt them. Already, Mr. Adelman has regretted his prewar prediction that the war would be a "cakewalk."

The word "liberation," a favorite of Mr. Wolfowitz, could be another regrettable term, says Mr. Nunberg. "It evokes an image of American tanks rolling through Normandy as pretty French peasants are scooped up to kiss them," he says. "We're seeing, at best, sullen and suspicious Iraqis lined up by the side of the road."

Wolfowitz argues that it's too soon to assess the reaction of ordinary Iraqis - that they are still being terrorized and thus not expressing themselves freely.

But still, if the word "liberation" seems off-key for now, neither is the administration enamored of calling it a "war" - or even referring to killing and death. "'War' is a galvanizing word," says Jane Elmes-Crahall, an expert on political rhetoric at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "Some people want the comfort and structure in calling it a war. But for another significant part of the public, calling it an outright war makes it real. They're not ready. They don't want to put themselves and people they know and love in harm's way."

Ms. Elmes-Crahall asked her students to consider how US officials refer to "war" and "killing." They came up with more than two dozen phrases, from "broad and concerted campaign" and "tearing down the apparatus of terror" to "decapitation operations" and "confronting dictators."

Perhaps the most extensive public discussion of terminology took place at the Pentagon last week, over the so-called fedayeen and their guerrilla-style attacks, as the Pentagon sought to strip these irregular fighters of lofty purpose. In a directive to Army units in Iraq, the term fedayeen - which translates to "those who sacrifice themselves for a cause" - was banned. Instead, they were to be called "paramilitary fighters," or PMF. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke preferred, simply, "thugs."

By the start of the war's second week, they were "paramilitary death squads." At Friday's CentCom briefing in Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks explained the new terminology in a discourse on fedayeen conduct, which includes taking "children away from their homes and tell[ing] their families that everyone will be killed if the males don't fight for the regime."

His conclusion: "I don't know what to call it, and I don't think anyone else does."

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