Other ways than by (kinetic) warfare

The Monitor's language columnist considers why the military needs a new term for operations involving actual shooting.

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No doubt about it, Mr. Obama's to-do list is suddenly a lot longer this week. As he struggles to restart the economy and save the environment, he'll also have to stay on top of all the wars the country is involved in or at the edge of.

And he'll have to take note of which wars are kinetic, and which ones aren't.

Come again? It's not exactly everywhere, but it's a term I've seen and heard often enough to pay attention: kinetic operations, aka "shooting wars."

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Kinetic – it rhymes with frenetic – comes from a Greek word, kinein, meaning to move. Kinetic energy is energy of motion: a snowball flying through the air, for instance. Educational theorists speak of different people as having audio, visual, or kinetic (or kinesthetic) learning styles, depending on whether they learn best by hearing, seeing, or hands-on experience. Kinetic sculptures are those that move.

Kinetic has a cousin in the movie business, too – cinema. In the 1890s, the aptly named Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, borrowed another Greek word, kinema, meaning "movement," to coin the term cinématographe for the motion-picture camera they developed.

(While I'm digressing: The Online Etymology Dictionary reports, "When 3-D films seemed destined to be the next wave and the biggest thing to hit cinema since 'talkies,' they were known as deepies (1953). The gods have spared us.")

Meanwhile, kinetic is moving in other directions, too. "Afghanistan's kinetic action" was the somewhat cryptic headline on a piece the other day in Stars and Stripes, the independent news source for the US military community.

The lead was a little more enlightening, if not heartening: "Taliban fighters have turned increasingly to roadside bombs and other deadly tactics to combat U.S. soldiers and other NATO-led troops in southern Afghanistan, military officials say."

With such a grim story, no wonder there was a resort to euphemism.

By contrast, a "nonkinetic" operation is one with no shooting or bombing.

Thus the Navy Times quoted Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, on efforts to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia: "The most effective measures we've seen ... are non-kinetic and defensive in nature."

Max Boot and Richard Bennet, writing last month in The Weekly Standard about "low-intensity counterinsurgency" against Islamist rebels in the Philippines, noted, "Traditional 'kinetic' operations in which bullets are fired and bombs dropped are still part of the Philippine strategy against their numerous guerrilla foes, but they have become less important over the years, thanks partly to the advice Philippine forces have received from the US Special Forces."

Kinetic operations are in contrast with "psy ops," psychological warfare, or civil affairs operations, such as building schools or setting up health clinics.

So is this use of kinetic largely a euphemism? Euphemism is part of it, surely, in the Afghan story.

But it's a retronym, too, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it: "a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as acoustic guitar in contrast to electric guitar or analog watch in contrast to digital watch."

In other words – the armed forces need this new usage because they are doing so many other things than firing weapons. And that is not a bad thing.

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