Every war breeds its own vocabulary, and the second Persian Gulf conflict has proved no exception. One thing does seem new, though. As this invasion (aka liberation) plays out 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the world’s living rooms, its singular lingo has circled the globe with unprecedented speed. A month ago, how many of us could have decoded A-Day, G-Day or S-Day or knew that MOAB referred to the world’s biggest conventional bomb rather than a history-rich bit of the Middle East? And while most of it won’t enter the language permanently — only the famous “mother of all battles” seems to have survived from the first Persian Gulf War — there is no denying its reach. For now, at least, we are all experts in the terminology of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Yet the new buzzwords aren’t all alike. As the cliches and acronyms and code words rain down, it’s an interesting exercise to sift through them, sorting military jargon from media waffle and both of them from political euphemism. Those alphabet-soup days, for instance, are a classic instance of military idiom, chosen in homage to D-Day, June 6, 1944, the date the Allies landed in Normandy to liberate Europe from the Nazis. In this war, A-Day designates the introduction of air forces; G-Day stands for the introduction of ground forces; and S-Day, more obscurely, signals the unleashing of special-operations forces. If the language seems abrasively tough and clinical to those who oppose the war, one can only point out that it is in the nature of military operations to be tough and clinical. This invasion, no matter how many people disapprove of it, is no different from any other in that respect.
The same goes for the nearly 10,000-kg MOAB, the “massive ordnance air blast” (or “mother of all bombs”) that the United States unveiled in January; for the “psy-ops,” or psychological operations, that are of unusual importance in this notably unprovoked war; for “CENTCOM,” the U.S. Central Command that we keep hearing about; and even for the unfortunate Iraqi “elements,” otherwise known as troops, that the U.S. military kept running across in the desert last week. None of this language is sinister; it is merely the way soldiers talk.
Then there is the media’s input. Some of this, too, is technical, after a fashion, although the people who use it seem to have no idea how pompous and grating they sound when they talk without irony of “embeds” — journalists attached to or “embedded in” particular military units in the field.
Things get more complicated when it comes to the phrases that characterize the war’s purposes and progress, and which are disseminated by, but did not originate with, the media. Some straightforwardly echo the language and/or viewpoint of the coalition’s agenda. Thus U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are neither determined nor pigheaded; they possess a “steely” or perhaps an “iron resolve.” Coalition forces do not simply advance north toward Baghdad; they “roll” across the desert like a “wave of steel.” Iraq is not just Iraq; it is a “dying” or a “doomed regime.” Cliches even before repetition turned them stale, these metaphors are disquieting for other reasons as well. They reflect a lack of emotional distance between the media and the war they are reporting on, and they exalt a war that has sowed more doubt in the world’s democracies than any conflict since Vietnam. It is as well to watch out for them.
But of course the mother of all slogans, the one this war will be remembered for, is “shock and awe.” There is not a newspaper or television program in the world that hasn’t picked up on this catchy — and horrifying — description of the U.S.-led coalition’s planned aerial bombardment of Baghdad. It is probably fair to say that it has become a code word not just for the allied push for “regime change” in Iraq, but for the general arrogance and power-madness ascribed to America, fairly or not, since Mr. Bush took office. In short, it has been a public-relations disaster for the administration.
The irony is that the phrase, which originated in a 1996 academic report on how the U.S. military might achieve its goals more quickly, cheaply and even humanely, was never meant to sum up the coalition’s war plan. The media picked up on it after a Pentagon source mentioned it in January, but, surprising as it may seem, it has not officially been used since. It is hard to think of a better instance of wartime language spinning out of control, creating the opposite effect from the one intended.
It will be fascinating to see how “shock and awe” goes down in history, a legacy to be determined entirely by what happens in Iraq — and how.
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