The language of war and weapons


Military chiefs around the world recognise that language is one of the most effective weapons in their armoury. Why expose the true nature of conflict, the logic goes, when briefings can be dressed up with euphemisms that serve to make the general public feel better about whatever military expedition is underway?

The US military, in particular, has often been keen to use slang and doublespeak to smooth over the wrinkles.

Think about the first Gulf War in 1991 or the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Both conflicts were laden with benign terms such as “surgical strikes”, a phrase that eased the consciences of Americans who had been scarred by the “carpet-bombing” of the Vietnam War, which itself is a soft term for a particularly virulent form of saturation munitions. Then there was “friendly fire” and “collateral damage”, which somehow turn bad news into something less unpalatable.

Arguably the peak example of such doublespeak also found infamy in the 2003 US-led invasion. In the build-up to the intervention, military chiefs talked broadly about their battle plan, dressing up a proposed fierce assault on Baghdad as a “shock and awe” campaign, a term coined years earlier at the National Defence University.

The phrase was particularly effective in hoodwinking the US public into believing that “shock and awe” could help the military avoid a messy ground war and in obscuring the likely level of civilian casualties on the ground.

Experts believe that civilian deaths amounted to more than 6,640 people (or more than 300 per day) during the three-week “shock and awe” offensive on Baghdad – a bitter truth that deviated far from the dominant US narrative of precise and “surgical strikes” on military targets and little or none of that “collateral damage”.

The practice also extends to naming conventions for weaponry and munitions, but in this we can detect that the doublespeak is often more forceful. US military missile names include the conventional (Patriot), the doom-laden (Hellfire) and the menacing (Tomahawk).

But it has not always been this way. More than 70 years ago, the US dropped two nuclear bombs – Little Boy and Fat Man – that levelled the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and forced Japan to surrender arms and end the Second World War.

The bombs’ names were plundered from popular culture: Fat Man was a character from the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon. Little Boy was initially called Thin Man, after Dashiell Hammett’s 1930s novel, but eventually morphed into the name that history now records.

Compare these to MOAB, the Mother of All Bombs (also referred to as GBU-43/B), dropped last weekend on ISIL operatives in Afghanistan.

As nominative determinism goes, it could not be more forthright. MOAB is the largest non-nuclear bomb ever dropped on a battlefield.

Its power is delivered in both words and deeds – not for it a popular culture reference or doublespeak, just the brutal reality of overwhelming US force.




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