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The Pentagon's war on words

A recently declassified document reveals the Department of Defence is sugar coating its actions by using euphemisms.
Last modified: 12 Mar 2014 22:21
The government has ramped up its campaign since George W Bush began his 'global war on terror' [AP]

President Barack Obama makes no bones about it.

He calls the treatment of hunger-striking prisoners at Guantanamo “force-feeding”.

But in a just declassified Pentagon document, many of the detainees are described as engaging in “long term non-religious fasting”.

It’s the latest linguistic leavening from the US Department of Defence, a title in itself emblematic of the culture of euphemism at an agency that for 150 years proudly called itself the Department of War.

Since the Bush administration’s declaration of a “Global War on Terror”, the military has worked overtime to enlarge its encyclopedia of euphemisms.

Here’s just a sampling of terms that have become common parlance, and their translations:

“Special rendition” – kidnapping

“Environmental manipulation” – applying extreme hot and cold temperatures for interrogation

“Kinetic” – firing bombs, missiles and bullets

“Countervalue attack” – fire-bombing a city

Not to mention the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that nearly everyone but former Vice President Dick Cheney calls torture by waterboard.

'Novocaine for the conscience'

Conservative pundit Paul Greenberg says euphemisms cross political boundaries, “obfuscating meaning by expanding language, turning a solid into a gas”.

George Orwell classically defined euphemisms as words “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable".

And as historian David Bromwich put it, their lingering power lies in “effacing the memory of actual cruelties".

But back in the 1980s , Carol Cohn, director of the Boston Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights, found herself resorting to “padded language” when she studied the community of America’s nuclear “techno-strategists”.

She concluded that their recourse to euphemism stemmed from a very human impulse in dealing day in and out with violent death and destruction.

“People”, she wrote, “carefully excise from their discourse every possible trace of soft sentimentality, as though purging dangerous non-sterile elements from a lab”.

As the Pentagon moves to scale back its frontline combat forces out of strategic and budgetary necessity, its capacity for “kinetic” action will still be formidable.

So will its expertise in finding words that can act as what one anonymous blogger defines as “novocaine for the conscience”.