From: Wade T. Smith (email@example.com)
Date: Thu 27 Mar 2003 - 12:58:31 GMT
Jargon of war quickly crosses ideological gulf to daily usage
By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff, 3/27/2003
''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)
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 3/27/2003. © Copyright
2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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