Fwd: Jargon of war quickly crosses ideological gulf to daily usage

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Date: Thu 27 Mar 2003 - 12:58:31 GMT

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    Jargon of war quickly crosses ideological gulf to daily usage

    By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff, 3/27/2003

    http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/086/living/ Jargon_of_war_quickly_crosses_ideological_gulf_to_daily_usuageP.shtml

    ''Vertical envelopment'' could be a hot new techno band or a Back Bay zoning scheme. In fact, it's a term used by Pentagon officials -- masters of warspeak -- to describe the unleashing of massive air power on Baghdad, selectively targeting key installations, in the first phase of the war against Iraq.

    Think ''carpet bombing'' without the deep-pile connotation.

    Should the ''shock and awe'' campaign pave the way to ''catastrophic success,'' to borrow two more examples of current war lingo, then something besides an oxymoron worthy of Joseph Heller's ''Catch-22'' could be realized. ''Catastrophic'' in this context means supremely good, and leads to ''decapitation'' (the removal of Saddam Hussein) followed by -- all together now, class -- ''regime change.'' Or
    ''debaathification,'' as an Iraqi dissident called it this week.

    Got that? If not, awe shucks. Your vocabulary is, like, so Desert Storm.

    ''Every war is like a family tussle, with a general construct and its own characteristics,'' says Anne Soukhanov, US general editor of Microsoft's Encarta College Dictionary and a dedicated tracker of word usage. ''As those characteristics change -- weapons, location, the generation that's fighting the war -- so does the language.''

     From the first Gulf War, says Soukhanov, we got Humvees and MREs
    (Meals, Ready to Eat) and ''the mother of all battles,'' which proved to be the mother of all-purpose phrases. ''There's an example of how one side, in this case Saddam Hussein, uses an expression that captures the imagination of the other side and becomes a font,'' Soukhanov says.
    ''Now we hear things like `the mother of all traffic jams.' ''

    Examples of freshly minted warspeak abound in newspaper columns, Web dispatches, and TV broadcasts. Terms such as ''embeds'' (reporters traveling with the troops), ''unilaterals'' (nonattached reporters),
    ''casevac'' (short for casualty evacuation), ''NBC assault'' (referring to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, not the peacock network), and ''target of opportunity'' have swiftly embedded themselves in the national lexicon, so to speak. (Dave Anderson wondered in a recent New York Times column which football coach might first use ''target of opportunity'' to describe ''how his team took advantage of a glaring weakness in an opponent's defense.'')

    Just since Saturday, the phrase ''shock and awe'' has appeared more than 700 times in US newspapers and magazines. ''Collateral damage,'' a slightly older species of war jargon referring to civilian casualties, has taken on new currency as coalition forces pound Baghdad and other cities. ''Shaping fires'' -- an effort to weaken enemy forces so they can be wiped out by subsequent attacks -- appears to be gaining ground with military officials.

    Sexy new acronyms and initials have become ubiquitous as well, from MOABs (''massive ordnance air burst,'' also ''mother of all bombs'') to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) to SSE (sensitive site exploitation) forces.

    There is even a military alphabet -- S Day, D Day, A Day, G Day -- signifying moments in the battle, some occurring on the same day, when specific goals are realized by specific US commanders.

    This process of lexical assimilation has happened before, though not with the same immediacy that today's all-access, instant-analysis style of warfare produces.

    As far back as the Civil War, terms such as ''slacker'' and
    ''unconditional surrender'' moved from the language of the battlefield into mainstream society.

    World War I popularized ''bombardment,'' ''trench warfare,'' ''no man's land,'' and ''shell-shocked.''

    World War II gave us ''blitz'' (short for blitzkrieg) and
    ''firestorm,'' as in what rained down on Dresden, among many others.

    As warfare evolved, Americans spoke about being ''brainwashed'' (Korean War) by misleading statements or coping with ''the fallout'' (Cold War) of traumatic events such as divorce.

    Vietnam, the most protracted US conflict, produced an entire dictionary all its own: from ''quagmire'' and ''fragging'' to ''plausible deniability'' and ''friendly fire.''

    ''Jeep'' and ''snafu'' began life as battlefield acronyms. That
    ''no-fly zone'' once enforced over Iraq? The term has already broadened to mean ''a topic of questioning or conversation that is off-limits,'' according to the Encarta World English Dictionary.

    Many of these words and phrases were coined in response to something new, ''either technologically or psychologically,'' says Justin Kaplan, editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

    In the current war, says Kaplan, terms such as ''weapons of mass destruction'' have entered widespread usage. ''Whether `shock and awe' passes into currency is debatable,'' he says. ''I have trouble remembering it, because it seems to lack some sort of internal energy. But time will tell.''

    According to author and historian Paul Fussell, warfare usually gets reported in euphemistic language ''because it's so awful.''

    ''The really nasty stuff, the exploded bodies and guts hanging out, is never available for close inspection,'' Fussell says. ''The big euphemisms now are `precision' and `accuracy,' and that language is used largely to dispel suspicions that bombing is extremely inaccurate.''

    A World War II veteran and former infantry officer, Fussell is no fan of warfare. Yet the more disillusioned the troops, he says, the richer the language of obfuscation and euphemism. And Vietnam is a prime example. ''It's no wonder reporters called military briefings the `five o'clock follies' over there,'' Fussell says.

    In this war, Soukhanov says, the transformation of words like
    ''embedded'' and ''unilateral'' from adjectives to nouns signals a functional shift in the language. ''Whether `shock and awe' morphs into a hyphenated adjective, like traffic pileup, we don't know,'' Soukhanov says. ''If it brings a tyrant down, it could become commonplace.
    `Regime change,' on the other hand, has already started morphing into figurative use in areas like business and politics.''

    The Atlantic Monthly's senior editor, Barbara Wallraff, who oversees the magazine's Word Count column, is hesitant to predict which words and phrases might take up permanent residence in the American psyche once the war is over. One new term she approves of, though, is ''war fighter,'' a generic term for any serviceman or servicewoman.

    ''I'm rooting for that one, because it's a very useful word,'' Wallraff says. ''Still, it's a very democratic process. We all get to decide, not just the experts.''

    Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

    This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 3/27/2003. Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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