Thursday, May 24, 2012

Euphemisms for War

Somebody named Clausewitz described war as "an extension of foreign policy by other means."  The word "war" has apparently gotten something not to say -- politicians must have linguists on call to think up devilishly clever ways of calling it something else.  At one time we had a Department of War; now it's a Department of Defense.  If we restrict the usage of the word "war" to situations in which a formal declaration of war is involved, the last country which the United States formally declared war on was Romania, in 1942.  Seventy years ago.

This semantic twist would be news to the participants in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, and numerous other conflicts!

The Korea conflict was referred to officially back then as a "police action," according to some sources.  I recently heard an old veteran from those days recite this bit of scornful verse:

"Truman says, 'This ain't no war,'
So what in the Hell are we fighting for?"

Other terms might and have been used by clever circumlocuters:
1.  Pacification
2.  Armed intervention
3.  Armed presence
4.  Humanitarian intervention

But, by far, the strangest use of terms was Defense Secretary Robert Gates's expression "limited kinetic action."

These alternative expressions serve both as euphemisms and as a means of making policy operationally more flexible; for example, going around the War Powers Act or selling it to the public.  Most people would balk if a President would declare that we should declare war on Uruguay.  (I couldn't even imagine a reason, offhand; Uruguayans, rest easy!).  But saying that we need to stabilize the region, or to forcibly assist in humanitarian missions might fly with some.

Still, Robert Gates's use of that term made it sound like an old-fashioned game of pinball or pool.

How does it fit in with St. Thomas Aquinas's "just war theory"?  Do we also talk about a "just police action theory" or a "just limited kinetic action theory"?

Also, what about "Make Awkward Sexual Advances, Not Limited Kinetic Action"?  It makes for a mighty busy t-shirt.


Bilbo said...

This is actually an interesting topic, as I have recent experience with encountering pushback on the use of the term "warfare." While drafting a paper at work, I was advised by the legal eagles that I should avoid using the term "warfare," because it calls forth specific legal obligations and limitations which must be observed by the participants under the Laws of Armed Conflict and the Geneva Convention. Nevertheless, I'm sure the difference between "warfare" and "police action" or "intervention" or something else would be lost on an individual encountering an adversary-initiated kinetic event. Me, I prefer awkward sexual advances, the awkward part being operative since I am older and somewhat out of practice. Good post!!

Big Sky Heidi said...

It's very interesting that they avoid using that word, and both clever and amusing how they manage to avoid saying it.

"Adversary-initiated kinetic action," "awkward sexual advances," wonderful!

Mike said...

From the dictionary - Origin:1150–1200; Middle English werre; Old Norse verri - worse.

'Worse' pretty much covers it.

Sinner Bob said...

Instead we get faux wars like War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Women. War serving as a slogan or buzz word.

Anonymous said...

Interesting facts.

Grand Crapaud said...

Did we ever un-declare war on Romania?

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Thank you, Bilbo. Great praise, especially since you are familiar with such matters directly.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Heidi -- THank you.

Mike -- Gret point.