NEW YORK, Oct. 31, 2003 - They are disappearing, one by one, slain on the battlefields of Iraq, the victims of the mismatch of political desire and harsh reality. I am not referring here to American soldiers falling regularly in the line of duty, either; if we learned anything from Vietnam, let it please be that soldiers sent to fight and die should not “disappear” from our consciousness. But certain words and phrases — descriptive nouns like “bomb” and “ambush,” along with less surprising terms like “WMD” — are missing in action, at least from the Pentagon’s briefings.
Here are some terms you are unlikely to hear from the mouths of senior U.S. military officials or commanders, at least not for attribution: “mopping-up operations,” “sabotage,” “anarchy,” “dead-enders.” These and other terms used liberally by the Pentagon to describe violence — or those behind it — in the immediate postwar period have gone the way of “shock and awe” as it has become undeniably clear that U.S. troops are in for what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called a “long, hard slog” in his now infamous leaked memorandum.
To borrow a phrase from another war, the battle for the “hearts and minds” of average Iraqis is proving far more difficult than the war’s most fervent supporters expected, and while any good American will tell you that America cannot afford to lose, the sober ones among them will quickly add, “But that doesn’t mean victory is a foregone conclusion.”
Certainly no one, right now, would claim to see a “light at the end of the tunnel.”
This week, the U.S. military turned another rhetorical corner in Iraq as two words it had resisted fiercely to describe attacks on U.S. forces there — “sophisticated” and “coordinated” — became impossible to deny. The military goes to great lengths to ensure that those who speak to the media are “on message,” and until this week, sophisticated and coordinated were not acceptable ways to describe those killing American troops in Iraq.
The five bombs that rocked Baghdad last Saturday, together with the missile attack that nearly killed the visiting U.S. deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, triggered this change. Events got ahead of the message, however, and the officer charged this time with fitting old guidance to the new reality was Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, assistant commander of the 1st Armored Division, the U.S. Army unit in charge of security in Baghdad.
Speaking to reporters the day of the attacks, Hertling insisted the bombings could not be called “synchronized.” Coordinated, perhaps, but not synchronized.
“They are a bunch of amateurs,” Hertling said. “They are trying to indicate that Baghdad isn’t secure, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Within hours, men at higher pay grades turned this interpretation to mincemeat.
“We’re seeing a more sophisticated use of technology,” said Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian official in Iraq, adding that the attack that saw a remote-controlled, homemade rocket launcher nearly kill Wolfowitz bore the marks of “professional terrorists.”
The next morning, Rumsfeld put his imprimatur on “sophisticated,” throwing in “coordinated,” after some initial hesitation, to boot.
“I don’t know that they were coordinated but I think your first point is valid. In fact they’re more coordinated and — let me put it this way,” Rumsfeld told WHDH, the NBC affiliate in Boston. “They’re more sophisticated than they previously were during the period from May 1 up until about a month ago.”
This creeping realism — or, if you prefer a military coinage, counter-optimism — has led some staunch supporters of the Bush administration to question whether they are being told the truth about the situation on the ground.
Conservative Iraq war supporters like Sen. John Warner, R-Va.; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.; and Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., all have expressed concern of late that the administration is putting too rosy a tint on the Iraq war.
“It is perhaps the greatest mistake made by the Johnson and Nixon administrations with regard to Vietnam,” says a Senate Republican source. “You have to tell the American people something that meshes with the facts on the ground, or sooner or later they’re going to stop believing anything you say, and then the critics look like geniuses.”
Rumsfeld and other officials defend their characterizations as a necessary counter-balance to the pessimistic tone of the media.
“We have made an effort to point out the progress because until we did,” he told reporters Thursday, “progress was being largely ignored by the press.”
Along those lines, the Pentagon leaked its plans this week to move more quickly on the training and deploying of Iraqi police and paramilitary units to lessen the provocative presence of U.S. troops, and their exposure to attack. Thus is another term gaining currency: “Iraqification.”
This is an update on the Vietnam era’s “Vietnamization,” a term, according to William Safire, the conservative New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter, first made popular by Nixon’s Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, who was describing his administration’s plans for getting troops out of Vietnam.
Safire, present at conception once again, asked his readers last month to suggest a word to describe the process the Bush administration is feverishly trying to move forward today. He rejected “Iraqify” and Iraqization” as too clunky.
Another conservative, Reuel Marc Gerecht of The Weekly Standard, countered wittily with “Premature Iraqification.” And while the debate over the policy rages, the word appears to have stuck.
Every war kicks up its own special lingo, some of it euphemistic and meant to distort or sweeten the truth, some of it born of the passions of a life-and-death struggle, and some so laden with irony that no decent journalist could allow it to go unexposed.
How, for instance, can an Army whose major prospective theater of operations is the Islamic world not realize the implications of a weapon system called the “Crusader”?
My own favorite, from The Defense Department Dictionary of Military Terms, is:
“Nuclear bonus effects: Desirable damage or casualties produced by the effects from friendly nuclear weapons that cannot be accurately calculated in targeting as the uncertainties involved preclude depending on them for a militarily significant result.”
The brutal frankness of military jargon, and the battlefield slang of wartime, can be jarring, says Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine general who served in Vietnam. He offers up the term “crispy critters,” widely used by GIs in Vietnam for napalm victims.
“It’s a cultural thing tied to the circumstances of the time,” he says. “We are now in a peculiarly sensitive period which abhors distasteful or denigrating nouns and verbs. We camouflage harshness with bland acronyms. Spices to cover up a foul taste and perfume to cover a bad odor.”
The euphemism being used today for the mines or bombs that kill U.S. troops or their Iraqi allies is “improvised explosive device,” or occasionally, its acronym, IED. The Dictionary of Military Terms defines an IED as:
“IED: A device placed or fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic, or incendiary chemicals and designed to destroy, incapacitate, harass, or distract. It may incorporate military stores, but is normally devised from nonmilitary components.”
In reality, however, many of the IEDs currently employed in Iraq require little improvisation. Indeed, U.S. intelligence sources say most of these bombs come directly from the gigantic, largely unguarded arsenal of Saddam Hussein’s army — the same 400,000-man army sent home with a stern warning after “major combat” ended, rather than herded into POW camps.
It would do the Pentagon’s case no good to be describing the weapons killing American troops as “LSAs” — Looted from Saddam’s Arsenal.
Just what to call this enemy appears to be an area where senior commanders and officials have no clear guidance.
Almost universally, U.S. military officers and officials will object to the term “resistance.” Eyebrows were raised in July when Army Gen. John Abizaid, shortly after taking over U.S. Central Command, called them “guerrillas.” Until then, Rumsfeld’s “dead-enders” or “Baathist holdouts” was the preferred reference, each endowed with a requisite hint of the temporary and the doomed.
Abizaid apparently decided he wanted none of mincing words: “I think describing it as guerrilla tactics being employed against us is, you know, a proper thing to describe in strictly military terms.”
The terms refuse to be defined however. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of military forces in Iraq, last week called them “noncompliant forces.”
Rumsfeld’s most recent reference (Thursday) is to “Baathists and regime remnants.”
Whatever they are, it is going to take a lot more than clever words to root them out.