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Tomgram: William Astore, Words About War Matter

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: As you know, in return for a donation of $100 ($125 if you live outside the U.S.), we've been offering signed, personalized copies of Andrew Bacevich's groundbreaking new book, America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Many thanks to those of you who already contributed. Your books will be in the mail soon and your donations really do help keep us chugging along! If you meant to get a copy and haven't yet, the offer is only open until Sunday, so check out our donation page soon for the details. Tom]

At the moment, there are a maximum of 3,870 U.S. military personnel (or 7,740 actual boots on the ground) in Iraq supporting the war against the Islamic State. That's the "official cap" imposed by the Obama administration, because everyone knows that the president and his top officials are eager to end American wars in the Middle East, not expand them. Of course, that number doesn't include the other 1,130 American military types (or 2,260 boots) -- give or take we don't know how many -- who just happen to be there on what's called... er, um... "temporary deployments," or are the result of overlap from rotating deployments, but add up to perhaps 5,000 trainers and advisers, or maybe, for all we know, more, including 200 Special Operations forces whose numbers are officially acknowledged by no one but mentioned in press reports. And naturally that 5,000 figure doesn't include the American private contractors also flowing into Iraq in growing numbers to support the U.S. military because everyone knows that they aren't either troops or boots on the ground and so don't get counted. Those are the rules.

Do keep in mind that this time around the whole American on-the-ground operation couldn't be more limited. Though the numbers of U.S. trainers, advisers, and Special Ops types continue to creep up, they are, at least, helping the Iraqi military reconstitute itself on Iraqi bases. In other words, this round of Washington's Iraq wars bears no relation to the last one (2003-2011), when the Pentagon had its private contractors build hundreds of U.S. bases, ranging in size from American towns to tiny combat outposts. This time, the U.S. military has no bases of its own, not a single one... er, um... at least it didn't until recently when an American Marine, a specialist in firing field artillery, died in an Islamic State rocket attack on what turned out to be an all-American Marine outpost, Fire Base Bell, in the northern part of the country. The artillery operations he was involved in supporting the Iraqi army in its (stalled) drive on the country's second largest city, Mosul, are not, however, "combat operations" because it's well established that no American troops, Special Ops units possibly excepted, are in combat in that country (or Syria). In fact, U.S. officials point out that artillery doesn't really count as combat. It's more like U.S. air operations against the Islamic State except... er, um... it takes place on the ground.

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And by the way, according to Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast, the U.S. actually has two bases in Iraq (the other in al-Anbar Province) and is planning to add more in the future, but these will most certainly not be old-style "fire bases." In fact, the one where that Marine died has already been renamed the Kara Soar Counter Fire Complex and it seems that any future... er, um... post established in Iraq will also be a "counter fire complex," not a base, and will only engage in air-strike-style operations on or just above the... um... ground. And the reason for that has nothing to do with the possible reaction of Americans to the new realities of Iraq. As Youssef points out, it's the fault of the touchy Iraqis: "The new name notably did not include the word 'base,' as some Iraqis fear the return of any U.S. footprint that resembles the eight-year war that began with the 2003 invasion."

In this spirit of renaming, the Pentagon and the Obama administration follow in a proud American linguistic tradition. As the Bush administration was completing its invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in April 2003, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon was planning to build at least four major installations for the future garrisoning of that country, though "permanent bases" was a phrase being avoided at all costs. ("[T]here will probably never be an announcement of permanent stationing of troops," wrote the Times reporters.) At the Pentagon, these massive outposts were instead labeled "enduring camps." And tradition matters. So all is well in... er, um... that country in the Fertile Crescent. You know the one I mean.

It's true that, in these years, American English has taken some casualties, but the good news is that none of these have happened "in combat." Just think of them as necessary adjustments to an increasingly difficult-to-describe world, one that TomDispatch regular retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore catches to a T in today's post on this country's post-9/11 war of words. Tom

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What's the Meaning of Failure?
A Dictionary of Euphemisms for Imperial Decline
By William J. Astore

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Guanta'namo (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.

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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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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