War by Euphemism

Paul Greenberg

7/1/2011 2:41:00 PM - 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.

If this isn't war, it'll do till something even bloodier comes along, which it will, the world being the world, and man being man.

Yet none (in this administration anyway) dare call it war. That way, our president can hope his latest, uh, limited kinetic operation, or overseas contingency operation, or whatever the latest term of legal art is, can escape congressional scrutiny.

Call it multilateral diplomacy, to use another Obama-ism. What it means down on the ground in Libya is death and destruction. As a political term, multilateral diplomacy has the great advantage of diluting responsibility for deadly policies. For if all are multilaterally responsible for some murky war, nobody is.

In the end, in this all too painfully real world, there's no denying that the White House is waging war -- on the English language.

----------

As the killing goes on in Syria, where the regime grows more desperate, and therefore even more brutal, one of the thousands of Syrians who've taken refuge in neighboring Turkey was interviewed in a refugee camp. "What is our guilt?" asked the 27-year-old identified only as Mohammed. "We just demanded freedom and democracy, nothing else."

Young man, that is exactly your guilt. It can even be a capital offense in your country. And a lot of others across the Arab world.

Whether it be a Moammar Gadhafi or Bashar al-Assad shooting down his own people in hopes of surviving himself, the slaughter of the innocents continues.

And what is the American response to these horrors? Euphemisms galore. Pick your own favorite. There are so many to choose from. For this administration's policy toward the Arab Spring, which is now in the process of becoming the Arab Winter, is to have no policy. Or at least no clear one.

The longer you dig into the statements out of the White House and State Department, the more you realize all this verbiage is being used not to explain any policy but to substitute for one.

Call it diplomatic kudzu. It's not a crop, just a cover.