At least the Pentagon literally has five sides.

Bring Back the Department of War

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Not content with fighting over whether to call the war on Islamic State a war, and whether to call Islamic State the enemy, we are now arguing whether to call Islamic State Islamic State.

Ah, the words of war. War has never brought out the best in the language. This administration, like its predecessor, is prosecuting its war that isn't a war under the authority of a declaration of war that isn't a declaration of war but an "Authorization for the Use of Military Force." (In keeping with this dubious approach, the dollar costs of these wars that are not wars are not carried on our budget that isn't a budget.)

There will be U.S. ground forces in Iraq, but they are not to be called boots on the ground, although they will be on the ground and presumably wearing boots. The war that is not a war against the enemy that is not an enemy will be prosecuted in Syria, too, although Syria, lacking a government recognized in the West, may not actually be Syria.

I'm not kidding. This linguistic dodge has been used before. Readers old enough to remember Vietnam will recall the U.S. "incursion" into Cambodia. Although it's true that President Richard Nixon, in announcing his decision to send tens of thousands of troops across the border, never actually used the word "incursion," he was also careful to specify that the U.S. wasn't invading: "This is not an invasion of Cambodia. The areas in which these attacks will be launched are completely occupied and controlled by North Vietnamese forces." In other words, an invasion isn't an invasion when the invaders only target territory not under control of the host government. This proposition, bizarre though it may sound to the lay ear, actually has support from some international lawyers.

Speaking of international lawyers, they seem to hate the word war. What was once known as the "law of war" has morphed into the "law of armed conflict." Part of this of course is the lawyer's instinctive aversion to simplicity: Why use one word when two will do? But another involves our increasing tendency toward obfuscation. By distinguishing "armed conflict" from "war," we substitute a legal for a sociological concept, the abstraction of the classroom for the reality of people's lives. Those who suffer and die in an armed conflict take no solace from the fact that the lawyers doubt that the conflict was a war.

Where does it come from, this Orwellian insistence on not calling the things we do in war things we do in war? The literary historian Paul Fussell, in his book "The Great War and Modern Memory," traces the trend toward surrounding war with euphemism to World War I, "perhaps the first time in history that official policy produced events so shocking, bizarre, and stomach-turning that the events had to be tidied up for presentation to a highly literate mass population." Letters home from the front were characterized by a literary style he calls British Phlegm: "The trick was to fill the page by saying nothing and to offer the maximum number of clichés."

Perhaps there is something to this. As the military historian John Keegan has pointed out, many countries that fought in World War I left no treasure trove of letters home for scholars to examine because their soldiers were mostly illiterate. Their soldiers were illiterate because their populations were illiterate. Widespread literacy might indeed create a closer public attention to the details of the war, and a greater need (in the eyes of political leaders) to obfuscate hard truths.

And there were other aspects of World War I that brought peculiar euphemisms into public discourse. William Safire, in Safire's Political Dictionary, quotes ambassador Clare Boothe Luce's denunciation of Woodrow Wilson's policy of "neutrality" before U.S. entry into World War I: "America was not too proud to sell guns, make loans, ship supplies to the Allied side, and to heap abuse on Kaiser Bill -- a procedure which American morality permitted us nevertheless to call 'neutrality'."

Why so much euphemism around World War I? Perhaps because, apart from mass literacy in the West, World War I possessed another distinguishing feature. For nearly all the combatants (the Ottoman Empire being the notable exception), military casualties dwarfed civilian casualties. This was a new thing in major warfare. World War I was in this sense the culmination of a longtime trend, particularly in the West, toward separating war from the general population. Included in this process was the creation of a political leadership that didn't go to war.

A war fought away from home, leaders who do not see the battlefield, a literate and increasingly prosperous population: It's easy to understand how political language would begin to devolve into something remote from reality.

Whatever the merits of any particular war, the rise of euphemism intended to disguise its nature is an unhappy development in political discourse. How do we repair the damage?

A young acquaintance of mine, formerly of the U.S. Special Forces, has a concrete suggestion. My friend undertook many a dicey mission in dangerous parts of the world. He doesn't feel that what his country called upon him to do was unjust or unfair. He does feel that the rest of us tend to hide from ourselves the nature of what we ask our armed forces to do.

My friend proposes restoring the original name of the Department of Defense, which until 1949 was known as the Department of War. A small change, he concedes, but one he says would put us on the path toward a little bit more honesty about who we are and what's done in our name.

  1. Yes, World War II was different, but both Hitler in the Holocaust and Stalin for his own reasons heavily targeted civilian populations.

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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net