Warspeak: Linguistic Collateral Damage
How does War Affect the Way we Speak?
By Dr. Robert Beard, PhD, Linguistics
“Any war is a war on words as well as on people. No one is proud of the effects of war however proud we might be of the intentions of our fighting forces. Whenever war breaks out, we begin to hear the words “newspeak,” “doublespeak,” “doublethink.”
In George Orwell’s 1984, newspeak is a political language designed to narrow the range of thinking among the citizenry to the point that they lack the terms to think for themselves. “Freedom” is defined as slavery and “slavery” as freedom. That should convince everyone to be happy slaves. It is not surprising that those who direct wars would want to narrow the thought of the nation behind them to thoughts of acceptance and support.
We might specify the newspeak of war, in the Orwellian tradition, as “warspeak.” Every war has its own vocabulary and not all of it is nefarious. The extensions of hair on the side of the face were named during the Civil War after General Ambrose Burnside, whose were particularly bushy. Later on, the order of the words was reversed to “sideburns.”
Until the Civil War, a bushwhacker was simply a backwoodsman but after that war, the word referred to ambushers. In a bit of delayed action, the nickname of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson took on ominous implications during the Watergate Scandal, when it became the verb stonewall “to remain absolutely silent to all questions.”
World War II introduced a plethora of new words and phrases to our vocabulary. “Snafu,” “nose dive,” “blitz(krieg),” “storm troopers,” “Nazi,” are all words currently in common usage with meanings moving ever farther from the original (for instance, the “news blitz” or the “Soup Nazi” of TV’s Seinfeld show).
Because we were the “Allied” Powers and the enemy the “Axis” Powers, even today the connotations of the word “axis” are impossible to resist. President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” could never be replaced by “Evil Alliance,” even though it means pretty much the same thing. Of course, the biggest name change came in 1947 when the Department of War changed its name to the Department of Defense.
Perhaps the temperature of the Cold War is responsible for its vocabulary having little impact on contemporary speech. The words “red” and “pink” may never be the same and “pinko” can still raise the occasional eye-brow. But we don’t know what to do with left-overs that have nothing more to refer to, such as “Iron Curtain,” “subversives,” “Checkpoint Charlie,” the “Berlin Wall,” the “Red Menace,” and “commie rat fink.”
The Korean War brought us the “Dear John” letter and the notion of “brainwashing.” Our only explanation for the breakdowns of soldiers in that conflict was that the Koreans had a secret psychological weapon that ‘washed’ our soldiers’ brains of all their training. That allowed us to accept them back into our midst despite behavior that could have cost them dearly in previous wars. That war was also the origin of the MASH unit, the basis of the popular TV show of the same name.
No war has ever torn the US apart like the Vietnam War. This war gave us “grunt,” “body bag,” “friendly fire,” “frag” (killing of an officer by his own men), the “Domino Theory,” “body count,” “carpet bombing” (sounds a bit like something you might do in the living room, doesn’t it), and many others. Most of the Vietnamese era words are euphemisms, more drastically needed because of the unusually personal and vicious nature of that war.
The invasion of Cambodia was referred to as an “incursion” and the war itself was officially a “police action,” not actually a war, even though 2 million people died in it. (The president could declare a police action without congressional approval.) According to William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak, the first Doublespeak Award went, in 1974, to a US Air Force colonel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for saying to American reporters, “You always write it’s bombing, bombing, bombing. It’s not bombing, it’s air support.” We never retreated in Vietnam but staged a “phased departure.”
New words for “kill” were especially prolific: “waste,” “blow away,” “smoke,” “eliminate assets” were all attempts to think of battlefields as less disturbing than they really are…
Words like “chick” and “doll” for women, maybe even “kid” for children, often originate in military jargon before being adopted by the general population. Terms like “assets” and “collateral damage” are simply extensions of this kind of slang. Notice these terms always point to something inanimate or otherwise less than human. No one wants to think about killing other human beings, even when it is ostensibly necessary.
We have particular difficulty with words for irregulars, people who fight without wearing uniforms that clearly identify them as the enemy. They were “guerrillas” or “terrorists” when they took control of the Nicaraguan government but the US-backed rebels who later attempted to overthrow the government in the same country were “contras” in the US press. The US commander in Iraq referred to them as “gangs of thugs” even though the US press uses the more neutral term “irregulars.” One country’s terrorists are another country’s freedom fighters.
Up until the Vietnamese war, the names of operations were secret until completed, as with “Operation Overlord,” the military name of the Normandy landing. Beginning with the first Gulf War (“Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm”), they are not only public but are created with marketing in mind. Doesn’t “Operation Enduring Freedom” have more appeal than “Operation Kill the Terrorists?” And calling the Iraqi war “Operation Iraqi Freedom” draws much more support than “Operation Dump the Iraqi Government” would ever have.
The Gulf War gave us “smart bombs,” “surgical strike” (sounds like a doctor healing the target rather than destroying it), “precision bombing” and “collateral damage.” (The question these terms raise is, if the bombing is so precise and surgical, how come there is collateral damage?)
Chemical and biological weapons have become “weapons of mass destruction” in the current war. That term focuses more on the terrifying results of those weapons than their contents. War correspondents are “embedded” in military units that assure them protection and provide an easy means of oversight. Reporters expect to get the “tick-tock” from the US military: a minute-by-minute schedule of what is happening and what is going to happen.
Of course, newspeak and double-think are not limited to times of war. Those who oppose abortion choose to call their political movement the “Right to Life” while the abortionists call theirs the “Right to Choose” movement, suggesting that both sides are “right,” right? When Republicans wanted to abolish the tax on inheritance, it suddenly became the “death tax.” And don’t forget all the corporate buzzwords such as “right-sizing,” “relayering,” “reengineering,”-all of which refer to firing people in a way that hides the weakness implied by the firings themselves. Peaceful everyday struggles also bring out newspeak; war only intensifies a normal proclivity, perhaps because the stakes are higher.
“Demonizing” the enemy is an important part of any struggle that seeks a willing coalition to back it. Referring to the enemy as “a regime,” part of an “axis,” or even “big-spending liberals” or “fat cats” is just lexical wordfire in some struggle between members of the species that possesses language. Just keep your head down and well-informed and warspeak will bounce off you like bullets off Superman.”