The Language of War
Sept. 15, 2001
I was in full rant the other day about the planned actions of the Bush administration in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States. The scariest thing, I was saying, is that Bush didn't get any smarter over night. He's still the same slack-minded, fumble-tongued president we've had since the year began. The big decisions, the heavy thinking, are being done by Cheney and Powell and Rumsfeld. They've not only got the brains, but they look the part - solid men, bigger voices, better suits. (Can't someone in the White House buy Bush a suit that doesns't ride up on his shoulders and make him look like a 15-year-old on his first date?)
Colin Powell is the smartest of the group, and the most ambitious. I can only imagine the private derision that Powell - an articulate, controlled, self-made man, a guy's guy who rose from son of immigrants to the nation's No. 1 soldier, the man many Republicans thought should have been the party's presidential candidate - feels toward Bush, his antithesis in every way. Powell, with his big-man's physique shaped by what seems to be some serious gym time, even looks good in a suit. And that brings me to my point: I was ranting to my wife, who is a bit younger than I, that you can take the soldier out of cammos and put him in a two-button Zegna, but he's still a soldier in heart and mind. The problem here is, I said to her, that Powell is such a "hawk."
"What's a hawk?" she asked.
I was stunned. I had always thought that despite our age difference of 14 years that my wife and I shared a common cultural history. But one of the most important political terms of my generation meant nothing to her. "Hawk" and its counterpart, "dove," were central components of the lexicon of the Vietnam War era. All Americans were slotted into one category or another, depending on their political opinions or their music or their hairstyles. Both "hawk" and "dove" were used in derogatory manner by the opposing group - the first was a war-mongering proponent of further death and destruction; the second was a bleeding-heart liberal who was willing to pay any price for peace, even the spread of communism.
More than 58,000 U.S. men and women died in a decade of fighting in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, and the conflict radically altered all elements of American society. But my wife was 10 years old when the last U.S. soldier left Vietnam, and the events of those times are merely history lessons to her not indelible personal memories that shaped her life - and her language.
Her generation, the tweeners born between the Boomers and Generation X, hasn't had a real war to call its own. There was the invasion of Grenada in 1983, but its Club Med weekend quality failed to move the American psyche. The Gulf War of 1991 had all the trappings of a genuine battle, but Operation Desert Storm was swift and tidy. We invaded Kuwait on Jan. 17, 1991, and declared it liberated on Feb. 27. Six weeks is not enough time to develop lasting memories (except of course for the unfortunate few who had to fight there). The Gulf War did produce its own language and military doublespeak - collateral damage being the most famous phrase, but we also learned of Scud missiles and later got to know all about Gulf War Syndrome - but they remain in use mainly by activists and political commentators.
So, now, with the corridors of political power bustling with preparations for battle, and the public airways clogged with the talk of war, images of Old Glory and sounds of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," now is a good time to introduce this new generation, the one that seems so anxious for revenge and conflict, to the language of war.
Soon, the anger, fear and sorrow over the bombings on our soil will begin to subside and if indeed Colin Powell and George Bush take us into a new war in a far off land we will need a common vocabulary to understand what is happening - and to choose sides in either support or defiance of these actions. When some be-ribboned Pentagon spokesman speaks to us of collateral damage and friendly fire and unaccounted American assets, we need to know what this jargon means. We need to know how to react, how to wage the political war at home that will be guaranteed to accompany the physical war abroad.
As the conflict continues, and the dollars for education, health care, the elderly and the poor disappear to buy bullets and body bags and bouncing betties, this war will create its own language. Much of will be borrowed from the World War II, Vietnam and the Gulf War, but other phrases will emerge, coined by the Pentagon as obfuscating fuzzwords, by soldiers in the field as colorful additions to the lexicon of military jargon, or by anti-war demonstrators as politically charged accusations.
Each U.S. war of the last century has embraced a new form of media, a form of conveying the news, a conduit for shared emotions and common language. America read about World War I in its newspapers; it listened to WWII and its charismatic orators Roosevelt and Churchill on the radio; television brought Vietnam into the nation's living rooms; the Gulf War celebrated the birth of CNN. As technology advanced, so did our connection to the conflict - the Gulf War was telecast live from the rooftops of Bagdhad. This proximity of time and technology created a nearly instant national consciousness of the war.
Will this coming conflict be America's first Internet war? Some say the World Trade Center terrorists built their network and planned their attacks over the Net. One can easily imagine real-time chat and webcast among nations and individuals as an attack is under way. Or perhaps this war will be our first cell phone conflict, and we will have the grotesque opportunity to listen to bombing victims as the ordnance falls or as they attempt to survive the aftermath.
The one certainty is that technology will bring civilians closer to the front lines than ever before. A common library of language and images will develop immediately, as it already has in the wake of the New York and Washington attacks.
Until then, the language of older wars must suffice. Below is a beginning, a primer to understand what is at stake when peoples wage war. Note how many words refer to death and destruction. Think about how using these words in daily conversation with family, friends and co-workers might make you feel. Now you are beginning to define yourself as a hawk or a dove.
Abort - To cancel an operation or mission.
Assets - Military stuff like bombs, tanks and helicopters, including soldiers.
Banana Clip - The curved magazine that holds bullets for an AK-47, the Russian-designed automatic rifle frequently photographed in the hands of Osama bin Laden.
Bird - A helicopter or other aircraft.
Body Bag - The black plastic bags some soldiers go home in.
Body Count - The number of KIAs, an important number for those keeping score.
Bouncing Betty - A landmine that bounces up in air about four feet before exploding, making its shrapnel more lethal.
Collateral Damage - Coined during the Gulf War, it refers to the destruction of anything other than the primary target, such as hospitals, schools or women and children.
Contact - An encounter with the enemy, not an entry in a computer address book.
Dove - Against the war.
Dustoff - When a soldier is wounded or killed, a Medevac helicopter provides this evacuation.
Frag - A fragmentation grenade, but useful as a non-military verb or adjective: My hard drive is fragged. Also: Fragging - The killing of an officer by his own troops.
Friendly Fire - When one of our soldiers is killed or wounded by his own forces. It is estimated that friendly fire was responsible for at least 17% of the 600 U.S. service men and women killed or wounded in the Gulf War.
FUBAR - Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition, a World War II acronym that has persisted because of its multiple uses. Related to SNAFU - Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.
Grunt - An infantryman, or ground-pounder. Short for "ground replacement usually not trained." Most KIAs are grunts. Related to Leg (non-airborne personnel).
Hawk - In favor of the war.
Incursion or Insertion - Invasion.
KIA - Killed in action (There were 58,000+ KIAs in the Vietnam War).
Klick - A kilometer, about 0.6 of a mile. Wars are generally fought in klicks
LZ - Landing zone, where the Medevac lands to dustoff the grunt.
Medal of Honor - The nation's highest military award: 239 were awarded during the Vietnam War (150 of them posthumously); none were awarded during the Gulf War.
MIA - Missing in action (2,000 in Vietnam War).
Phased Departure - Retreat.
POW - Prisoner of war.
R&R - Rest and recreation, what grunts do when they're not fighting; usually taken away from the combat zone.
REMF - Rear echelon motherfucker. Support staff. They don't fight.
Soft Targets - Population centers, such as cities; contrast with Hard Targets, such as ammo dumps. It is difficult to avoid collateral damage in soft targets.
Sortie - One complete, roundstrip mission by one aircraft.
Surgical Strike - An attack that produces little collateral damage.
Target-rich Environment - A location with plenty of high-value military targets. Afghanistan, after 10 years of pounding by Russian armed forces, is a very target-poor environment.
Target Servicing - Attacking a target with artillery fire or bombing.
Tracers - Phosphorus tip bullets that leave red streaks in the night sky; usually seen on CNN broadcast over a video phone.
Unaccounted Assets - Military stuff that is lost, including soldiers who are MIA or might be KIA.
Vertical Insertion - Invasion by air.
WIA - Wounded in action.