United States Military Doublespeak
NEW DELHI: “All statements are true, if you are free to redefine their terms,” is an observation first made by economist Thomas Sowell but best practiced by the United States military. The best example of this is the fact that the US -- having recently bombed its seventh country, Syria, in the six years Barack Obama has been President -- has not officially declared war since 1942, so technically, none of its military offenses count as war. Further, if the definition of military engagement is broadened to include special operation forces, the US is militarily involved in 134 countries, either in combat, special missions or advising and training foreign forces.
The US military seems to have perfected the Orwellian idea based on the manipulative use of language which George Orwell called “newspeak” and “doublethink” and is today known as “doublespeak.” Doublespeak “is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it,” says Professor William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak.
A recent article in The New Yorker by Elliot Ackerman titled “Assassination and the American Language,” refers to an example of this doublespeak as employed by the US military and intelligence services. Executive Order 12333 includes the following clause:
“No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
Ackerman writes that he was made to sign the order, but the nature of operations he witnessed whilst stationed in Afghanistan involved “dossier upon dossier … Taliban senior leaders, Al Qaeda operatives, each one targeted for killing.”
The key words here are “targeted for killing.” The US administration has elaborate guidelines to prevent against assassinations. However, when the terminology is changed to “targeted for killing / targeted killings,” the methodology that applies to the frowned-upon assassinations is suddenly justified.
Ackerman explains this better when he writes, “when the picture of the person you were trying to kill sat on your desk; when you watched the Predator strikes light up the night sky just across the border; and then, when you took that same picture and moved it into a file for archiving, it sure felt like an assassination.”
“The discomfort of my colleagues, where it existed, didn’t stem from the act itself. Their dossiers were filled with details about Taliban commanders and Al Qaeda operatives—people we had identified as valid targets, who were known to have killed marines and soldiers in Afghanistan, or to have had ambitions to launch attacks in the U.S. or Western Europe. The discomfort existed because it felt like we were doing something, on a large scale, that we’d sworn not to,” the article in The New Yorker continues.
One of the most dangerous implications of the US’ use of military doublespeak is in counting civilian casualties in these theatres of ‘non-war.’ Figures for civilian casualties caused by US troop involvement or air strikes and drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, for instance, are far lower in comparison to figures for militant deaths -- making these operations seem justifiable.
In reality however, the catch is in the definition of the term ‘militant.’ The US administration assumes that military age males in strike zones are militants, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Further, the local population is considered “guilty by association” and will be defined as a “militant” if they are seen in the company or in the association of a terrorist operative. For instance, in a drone attack in February 2012, according to the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), 50 civilians were killed in strikes during efforts to rescue victims of a previous drone attack; these family members and associates were considered “guilty by association” by the US administration, and hence, labeled ‘militants’ not civilians.
“Signature strikes” are also another example of indiscriminate killings being ratified as official policy. Individuals are targeted without any knowledge of their identity, if they are seen in engaging in what is deemed as “suspicious activity.” Suspicious activity is itself very loosely defined, prompting a senior State Department official to note that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.
This points to the fact that the number of civilian casualties are probably far higher than any of the estimates arrived at above, as many are defined as “militants” without adequately clear evidence to support that claim.
In fact, the “Global War On Terror,” which was declared after the September 11 bombing and is still -- through Congress’ 2002 authorisation of the Iraq War and 2001 authorisation to fight Al Qaeda, which President Obama is using to justify strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq -- being used, is itself an example of doublespeak.
Going back further, much of today’s US military doublespeak originated during and after the Vietnam War (technically, the Vietnam “conflict”). This includes “friendly fire” (shots fired at your own soldiers), “collateral damage” (civilian casualties), “civilian irregular defense soldier,” (mercenary), and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture).
Referring to this doublespeak, American linguist William D. Lutz wrote:
“During [these] "armed situations", massive bombing attacks became "efforts." Thousands of warplanes didn't drop tons of bombs, "weapons systems" or "force packages" "visited a site". These "weapons systems" didn't drop their tons of bombs on buildings and human beings, they "hit" "hard" and "soft targets". During their "visits", these "weapons systems" "degraded," "neutralized," "attrited," "suppressed," eliminated," "cleansed," "sanitized," "impacted," "decapitated," or "took out" targets; they didn't blow up bridges, roads, factories and other buildings, and the people who happened to be there. A "healthy day bombing" was achieved when more enemy "assets" were destroyed than expected.”
Donald Rumsfeld may have ridiculed for his notion that there are “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, and “unknown unknowns” -- but those terms probably have more truth to them then the more precise euphemisms that US military warfare formally employs.