Paul Greenberg
War is the health of euphemism. As was demonstrated once again when Robert Gates, who now has served as secretary of defense under two successive presidents, appeared on Fox News the other day. Mr. Gates is (a) a dedicated public servant whose competence the country has relied on for years, and (b) an honest man obliged to explain his boss' disingenuousness.

It ain't easy, but he gives the assignment his unconvincing best. For example: Asked whether the country is engaged in hostilities in Libya, a legal point of some interest in the debate over the War Powers Act, our game secretary of defense said that, at the Pentagon, they prefer to say "we're involved in a limited kinetic operation."

There you have the hallmark of euphemism: It obfuscates meaning by expanding language, turning a solid into a gas. In physics it's called sublimation, in politics rationalization. It's quite a process. It can give the bloodiest deeds an antiseptic sound. Although the people killed as a result are just as dead.

Calling hostilities another name scarcely changes the reality on the ground. Civilians killed in bombing raids may now be known as collateral damage, but the change in terminology scarcely minimizes their suffering. It only disguises it. If not very well.

Mr. Gates does have a sense of humor, if of the gallows variety. For he added, "If I'm in Gadhafi's palace, I suspect I think I'm at war." Maybe because of the corpses that litter the place on deadly occasion.

Onward, NATO -- in peace or limited kinetic operations.

If the key to wisdom, its very purpose, is to call things by their right names, the object of American policy in, around and in the general vicinity of Libya seems to consist of calling things not even by their wrong ones, which at least might lead to some meaningful disagreement.

Instead, things are given names so vague there's nothing there even to disagree with. How do you authorize or oppose, take a stand for or against, limited kinetic operations?

There used to be two kinds of rhetoricians -- those who raised the level of public discourse and those who lowered it.

Now there is a third, and it begins to dominate our public discourse: those who just muddy the discussion.

Unable to win or even lose the war against Moammar Gadhafi's crumbling but still cruel regime, this administration claims it's not involved in the "hostilities" there. Even as it fires drones that run up the casualty lists, military and civilian. And supply the weaponry other members of the North Atlantic alliance use at our expense and to such deadly effect.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.