Euphemism and American Violence

In Tacitus’ Agricola, a Caledonian rebel named Calgacus, addressing “a close-packed multitude” preparing to fight, declares that Rome has overrun so much of the world that “there are no more nations beyond us; nothing is there but waves and rocks, and the Romans, more deadly still than these—for in them is an arrogance which no submission or good behavior can escape.” Certain habits of speech, he adds, abet the ferocity and arrogance of the empire by infecting even the enemies of Rome with Roman self-deception:

A rich enemy excites their cupidity; a poor one, their lust for power. East and West alike have failed to satisfy them…. To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of “government”; they create a desolation and call it peace.

The frightening thing about such acts of renaming or euphemism, Tacitus implies, is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost. Maybe the most disturbing implication of the famous sentence “They create a desolation and call it peace” is that apologists for violence, by means of euphemism, come to believe what they hear themselves say.

On July 21, 2006, the tenth day of the Lebanon war, Condoleezza Rice explained why the US government had not thrown its weight behind a cease-fire:

What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is the growing—the birth pangs of a new Middle East, and whatever we do, we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.

Very likely these words were improvised. “Growing pains” seems to have been Rice’s initial thought; but as she went on, she dropped the “pains,” turned them into “pangs,” and brought back the violence with a hint of redemptive design: the pains were only birth pangs. The secretary of state was thinking still with the same metaphor when she spoke of “pushing,” but a literal image of a woman in labor could have proved awkward, and she trailed off in a deliberate anticlimax: “pushing forward” means “not going back.”

Many people at the time remarked the incongruity of Rice’s speech as applied to the devastation wrought by Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon and Beirut. Every bombed-out Lebanese home and mangled limb would be atoned for, the words seemed to be saying, just as a healthy infant vindicates the mother’s labor pains. Looked at from a longer distance, the statement suggested a degree of mental dissociation. For the self-serving boast was also offered as a fatalistic consolation—and this by an official whose call for a cease-fire might well have stopped the war. “The birth pangs of a new Middle East” will probably outlive most other phrases of our time, because, as a kind of metaphysical “conceit,” it accurately sketches the state of mind of the President and his advisers in 2006.

The phrase also marked a notable recent example of a turn of language one may as well call revolutionary euphemism. This was an invention of the later eighteenth century, but it was brought into standard usage in the twentieth—“You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”—by Stalin’s apologists for revolution and forced modernization in the 1930s. The French Revolutionist Jean-Marie Roland spoke of the mob violence of the attack on the Tuileries as agitation or effervescence, never as “massacre” or “murder”—improvising, as he went, a cleansing metaphor oddly similar to Rice’s “birth pangs.”

It was natural, said Roland, “that victory should bring with it some excess. The sea, agitated by a violent storm, roars long after the tempest.” The task of the revolutionary propagandist, at a temporary setback, is to show that his zeal is undiminished. This he must do with a minimum of egotism, and the surest imaginable protection is to invoke the impartial authority of natural processes.

If one extreme of euphemism comes from naturalizing the cruelties of power, the opposite extreme arises from a nerve-deadening understatement. George Orwell had the latter method in view when he wrote a memorable passage of “Politics and the English Language”:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell’s insight was that the italicized phrases are colorless by design and not by accident. He saw a deliberate method in the imprecision of texture. The inventors of this idiom meant to suppress one kind of imagination, the kind that yields an image of things actually done or suffered; and they wanted to put in its place an imagination that trusts to the influence of larger powers behind the scenes. Totalitarianism depends on the creation of people who take satisfaction in such trust; and totalitarian minds are in part created (Orwell believed) by the ease and invisibility of euphemism.

Before launching their response to Islamic jihadists in September 2001, members of the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney gave close consideration to the naming of that response. The President has been reported by Bob Woodward and Robert Draper to have said to his staff that they should all view the September 11 attack as an “opportunity.”1 His sense of that word in this context is hard to interpret, but its general bearings are plain. Imaginative leadership, the President was saying, must do far more than respond to the attack, or attend to the needs of self-preservation. Better to use the attack as an opportunity to “go massive,” as Donald Rumsfeld noted on September 11. “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” A similar sense of Bush’s purpose has recently been recalled by Karl Rove. “History has a funny way of deciding things,” Rove said to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania on February 20, 2008. “Sometimes history sends you things, and 9/11 came our way.” But so, all the more pressingly: how to name the massive and partly unrelated response to a catastrophe which was also an opportunity?

The name must admit the tremendousness of the task and imply its eventual solubility, but also discourage any close inquiry into the means employed. They wanted to call it a war; but what sort of war? The phrase they agreed on, the global war on terrorism, was at once simple-sounding and elusive, and it has served its purpose as nothing more definite could have done.

The “global war on terrorism” promotes a mood of comprehension in the absence of perceived particulars, and that is a mood in which euphemisms may comfortably take shelter. There is (many commentators have pointed out) something nonsensical in the idea of waging war on a technique or method, and terrorism was a method employed by many groups over many centuries before al-Qaeda—the Tamil Tigers, the IRA, the Irgun, to stick to recent times. But the “war on crime” and “war on drugs” probably helped to render the initial absurdity of the name to some degree normal. This was an incidental weakness, in any case. The assurance and the unspecifying grandiosity of the global war on terrorism were the traits most desired in such a slogan.

Those qualities fitted well with a style of white-lipped eloquence that Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson had begun to plot into his major speeches in late 2001. It made for a sort of continuous, excitable, canting threat, emitted as if unwillingly from a man of good will and short temper. Gerson, from his Christian evangelical beliefs and journalistic ability (he had worked for US News & World Report and ghostwritten the autobiography of Chuck Colson), worked up for the President a highly effective contemporary “grand style” that skated between hyperbole and evasion. The manner suggested a stark simplicity that was the end product of sophisticated analysis and a visionary impatience with compromise.

This was exactly the way President Bush, in his own thinking, turned his imaginative vices into virtues, and he intuitively grasped the richness of a phrase like “the soft bigotry of low expectations” or “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies”—resonant formulae which he approved and deployed, over the challenges of his staff. What did the phrases mean? As their creator knew, the mode of their nonmeaning was the point. Like “pacification” and “rectification of frontiers,” these markers of unstated policy were floating metaphors with a low yield of fact. But they left an image of decisiveness, with an insinuation of contempt for persons slower to pass from thought to action.

Euphemism has been the leading quality of American discussions of the war in Iraq. This was plain in the run-up to the war, with the talk of “regime change”—a phrase welcomed by reporters and politicians as if they had heard it all their lives. Regime change seemed to pass at a jump beyond the predictable either/or of “forced abdication” and “international war of aggression.” Regime change also managed to imply, without saying, that governments do, as a matter of fact, often change by external demand without much trouble to anyone. The talk (before and just after the war) of “taking out” Saddam Hussein was equally new. It combined the reflex of the skilled gunman and the image of a surgical procedure so routine that it could be trusted not to jeopardize the life of the patient. It had its roots in gangland argot, where taking out means knocking off, but its reception was none the worse for that.

Are Americans more susceptible to such devices than other people are? Democracy exists in continuous complicity with euphemism. There are so many things (the staring facts of inequality, for example) about which we feel it is right not to want to speak gratingly. One result is a habit of circumlocution that is at once adaptable and self-deceptive. “Their own approbation of their own acts,” wrote Edmund Burke of the people in a democracy, “has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favor.” Since the people are not always right but are by definition always in the majority, their self-approbation, Burke added, tends to make them shameless and therefore fearless. The stratagems of a leader in a democracy include giving the people a name for everything, but doing so in a way that maintains their own approbation of their own acts. Thus a war the people trust their government to wage, over which we have no control, but about which we would prefer to think happy thoughts, gives the widest possible scope to the exertions of euphemism.

There has sprung up, over the past five years, a euphemistic contract between the executive branch and many journalists. “A short, sharp war,” as Tony Blair was sure it would be, has become one of the longest of American wars; but the warmakers have blunted that recognition by breaking down the war into stages: the fall of Baghdad; the Coalition Provisional Authority; the insurgency; the election of the Assembly; the sectarian war. In this way the character of the war as a single failed attempt has eluded discovery; it has come to seem, instead, a many-featured entity, difficult to describe and impossible to judge. And to assist the impression of obscurity, two things are consistently pressed out of view: the killing of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers and the destruction of Iraqi cities by American bombs and artillery.

Slight uptick in violence is a coinage new to the war in Iraq, and useful for obvious reasons. It suggests a remote perspective in which fifty or a hundred deaths, from three or four suicide bombings in a day, hardly cause a jump in the needle that measures such things. The phrase has a laconic sound, in a manner popularly associated with men who are used to violence and keep a cool head. Indeed, it was generals at briefings—Kimmitt, Hertling, and Petraeus—who gave currency to a phrase that implies realism and the possession of strong personal shock absorbers.

A far more consequential euphemism, in the conduct of the Iraq war—and a usage adopted without demur until recently, by journalists, lawmakers, and army officers—speaks of mercenary soldiers as contractors or security (the last now a singular-plural like the basketball teams called Magic and Jazz). The Blackwater killings in Baghdad’s Nissour Square on September 16, 2007, brought this euphemism, and the extraordinary innovation it hides, suddenly to public view. Yet the armed Blackwater guards who did the shooting, though now less often described as mere “contractors,” are referred to as employees—a neutral designation that repels further attention. The point about mercenaries is that you employ them when your army is inadequate to the job assigned. This has been the case from the start in Iraq. But the fact that the mercenaries have been continuously augmented until they now outnumber American troops suggests a truth about the war that falls open to inspection only when we use the accurate word. It was always known to the Office of the Vice President and the Department of Defense that the conventional forces they deployed were smaller than would be required to maintain order in Iraq. That is why they hired the extracurricular forces.

Reflect on the prevalence of the mercenaries and the falsifying descriptions offered of their work, and you are made to wonder how much the architects of the war actually wanted a state of order in Iraq. Was this as important to them as, say, the assurance that “contracting” of all kinds in Iraq would become a major part of the American economy following the invasion? We now know that the separate bookkeeping and accountability devised for Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and similar outfits was part of a careful displacement of oversight from Congress to the vice-president and the stewards of his policies in various departments and agencies. To have much of the work of this war parceled out to private companies, who are unaccountable to army rules or military justice, meant, among its other advantages, that the cost of the war could be concealed beyond all detection. What is a contractor? Someone contracted to do a job by the proper authority. Who that hears the word “contractor” has ever asked what the contract is for?

There was a brief contest over surge—so ordinary yet so odd a word. The rival term emphasized by critics of the war was “escalation”: a word that owes its grim connotations to Vietnam. The architects of the surge—Frederick Kagan and Retired General Jack Keane—fought hard to stop the mass media from switching to escalation. Their wishes were granted almost without exception, and to clinch the optimistic consensus, The New York Times on July 30, 2007, published an extraordinary Op-Ed by Kenneth Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon praising the progress of the surge. The authors, supporters of the war who were permitted falsely to describe themselves as skeptics, wrote, as they confessed, after an eight-day army-guided tour, from which they had neither the enterprise nor the resources to step out and seek information on their own. But it now seems likely that, with the help of the surge, the word as much as the thing, 2008 will end with as many American troops in Iraq as 2006. Meanwhile, as the mass media approved of the surge, they lost interest in Iraq, and that was the aim. The strategists of the surge may have taken some pleasure in putting across a word that sounds like a breakfast drink but that insiders at the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the Pentagon would recognize as shorthand for counterinsurgency.

When Seymour Hersh broke the story of Abu Ghraib, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was keen on excluding the word torture from all discussions of the coercive interrogations and planned humiliations at the prison. His chosen word was abuse: a word that has been devalued through its bureaucratization in therapies against spousal abuse, child abuse, and so on. “Torture,” by comparison, still sets teeth on edge, and the word had been avoided for a long time.

Yet there were many, and not only in the inner circle of the vice-president, in the panic months after September 2001 who eagerly approved the breaking of old restrictions in the global war on terrorism. Alfred McCoy in A Question of Torture recalls that in late 2001 and early 2002 “a growing public consensus emerged in favor of torture.”2 And lawmakers were not to be outdone by legal theorists; Representative Jane Harman said, “I’m OK with it not being pretty.” What did the new tolerance encompass? “Interrogation in depth” was one way of putting it; “professional interrogation techniques” were spoken of (perhaps with a view to the professionalism of the contractors). With the apparent acceptance of torture, the inversions of euphemism began to be extended to grammar as well as diction. Thus Alan Dershowitz argued in January 2002 for “torture warrants,” to be issued by judges, and later spoke of the legitimation of torture as “bringing it within the law” (where, he implied, the torturer, the tortured, and the law would all be more secure). By bringing torture within the law, what Dershowitz meant was breaking the law out of itself to accommodate torture.

This argument was always about two things: the truth of words and the reality of violence. The statements to House and Senate committees, in late January and early February 2008, by Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell oddly converged on the following set of propositions. A method of interrogation known as “waterboarding” would feel like torture if it was done to them (Mukasey and McConnell offered different but parallel versions of the same personal formula, pretty clearly in coordination). The method had been used by American interrogators after September 11, 2001, they said, but it was not in use at present. Whether it constituted torture was a matter under investigation—an investigation so serious that no result should be expected soon—but authorization of the practice was within the powers of the President, and he reserved the right to command interrogators to waterboard suspects again if he thought it useful. The attorney general added his assurance that, in the event that the practice was resumed, he would notify appropriate members of Congress, even though Congress had no legal authority to restrain the President.

It would be hard to find a precedent for the sophistical juggle of these explanations. The secret in plain view was not a judgment about present or future policy, but an imposed acceptance of something past. President Bush, in 2002 and later, sought and obtained legal justifications for ordering the torture of terrorism suspects, and it is known that American interrogators used methods on some suspects that constitute torture under international law. If these acts had been admitted by the attorney general to meet the definition of torture, those who conducted the interrogations and those who ordered them, including the President, would be liable to prosecution for war crimes. Because the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials remains vivid today, the very idea of a war crime has been treated as a thing worth steering clear of, no matter what the cost in overstretched ingenuity. Thought of a war crime does not lend itself to euphemistic reduction.

Yet “waterboarding” itself is a euphemism for a torture that the Japanese in World War II, the French in Indochina, and the Khmer Rouge, who learned it from the French, knew simply as the drowning torture. Our American explanations have been as misleading as the word. The process is not “simulated drowning” but actual drowning that is interrupted. Clarifications such as these, in the coverage of the debate, did not emerge from news reports on the Mukasey and McConnell testimony; they had to be found in the rival testimony, either in public discussions or before Congress, of opponents like Lieutenant Commander Charles D. Swift (the JAG Corps defense counsel who was denied promotion after his public criticism of the Guantánamo tribunals) and Malcolm W. Nance (a retired instructor at the US Navy SERE school).

The contrast between the startling testimony of men like these and the speculative defense of waterboarding offered by semiofficial advocates such as David B. Rivkin, the Reagan Justice Department lawyer and journalist, has been among the most disquieting revelations of these years. A group of men who think what they want to think and pay little attention to evidence have been running things; and they are guided not by experience but by words that were constructed for the purpose of deception.

Americans born between the 1930s and the 1950s have a much harder time getting over the shock of learning that our country practices torture than do Americans born in the 1970s or 1980s. The memory of the Gestapo and the GPU, the depiction of torture in a film like Open City, are not apt to press on younger minds. But the different responses are also a consequence of the different imaginings to which people may fall prey. Many who fear that their children might be killed by a terrorist bomb cannot imagine anyone they know ever suffering injustice at the hands of the national security state.

This complacency suggests a new innocence—the correlative in moral psychology of euphemism in the realm of language. And if you take stock of how little general discussion there has been of the advisability of pursuing the global war on terrorism, you realize that this country has scarcely begun to take stock of the United States as an ambiguous actor on the world stage. Those who said, in the weeks just after the September 11 attacks, that the motives of the terrorists might be traced back to some US policies in the Middle East were understandably felt to have spoken unseasonably. The surprising thing is that six and a half years later, when a politic reticence is no longer the sole order of the day, discussion of such matters is still confined to academic studies like Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback and Robert A. Pape’s Dying to Win,3 and has barely begun to register in The New York Times, in The Washington Post, or on CNN or MSNBC. Ask an American what the United States may have to do with much of the world’s hostility toward us and you will find educated people saying things like “They hate the West and resent modernity,” or “They hate the fact that we’re so free,” or “They hate us because this is a country where a man and a woman can look at each other across a table with eyes of love.” Indeed, the single greatest propaganda victory of the Bush administration may be the belief shared by most Americans that the rise of radical Islam—so-called Islamofascism—has nothing to do with any previous actions by the United States.

Nothing can excuse acts of terrorism, which are aimed at civilians, or those acts of state terror in which planned civilian deaths are advertised as “collateral damage.” Yet the uniformity of the presentation by the mass media after 2001, to the effect that the United States now faced threats arising from a fanaticism with religious roots unconnected to anything America had done or could do, betrayed a stupefying abdication of judgment. The protective silence regarding the 725 American bases worldwide, and the emotions with which these are regarded by the people who live in their shadow, cover up a clue in the fact that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on September 11 were Saudis. The presence of thousands of American troops on Arabian soil was hotly resented. To gloss over or ignore such facts only obstructs an intelligent discussion of the reaction likely to follow from any extended American occupation of the Middle East.

Baghdad is calmer now; the surge is working.” The temporary partial peace is an effect of accomplished desolation, a state of things in which the Shiite “cleansing” of the city has achieved the dignity of the status quo, and been ratified by the walls and checkpoints of General Petraeus. “The surge is working” is a fiction that blends several facts indistinguishably. For example: that Iraq is a land of militias and (as Nir Rosen has put it) the US Army is the largest militia; that in 2007 we paid 80,000 “Sunni extremists” to switch sides and then call themselves The Awakening. Americans have suggested that the members of this militia make up neighborhood watch groups, and have assigned them euphemistic cover-names such as Concerned Local Citizens and Critical Infrastructure Security. In fact, many of them are “increasingly frustrated with the American military,” according to Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley in a Washington Post story that ran on February 28.

If a Power coerces once,” wrote H.N. Brailsford in his great study of imperialism, The War of Steel and Gold, “it may dictate for years afterwards without requiring to repeat the lesson.” This was the design of the American “shock and awe” in Iraq. Looking back on the invasion, one is impressed that so clear-cut a strategy could have evaded challenge under the casual drapery of “democracy.” But say a thing often enough, so as to subdue the anxiety of a people and flatter their pride, and, unless they have come to know better with their own eyes and their own hands, they will accept the illusion.

History begins today” was a saying in the Bush White House on September 12, 2001—repeated with menace by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the director of Pakistani intelligence Mahmoud Ahmad—a statement that on its face exhibits a totalitarian presumption. Yet nothing so much as language supplies our memory of things that came before today; and, to an astounding degree, the Bush and Cheney administration has succeeded in persuading the most powerful and (at one time) the best-informed country in the world that history began on September 12, 2001. The effect has been to tranquilize our self-doubts and externalize all the evils we dare to think of. In this sense, the changes of usage and the corruptions of sense that have followed the global war on terrorism are inseparable from the destructive acts of that war.

—March 5, 2008

  1. 1

    Bob Woodward, Bush at War (Simon and Schuster, 2002), p. 32; Robert Draper, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (Free Press, 2007), p. 166.

  2. 2

    Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan, 2006).

  3. 3

    Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Metropolitan, 2000); Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005). Dying to Win was reviewed in these pages by Christian Caryl, September 22, 2005.