The First Casualty
 William Lutz
July, 1991

      Senator Hiram Johnson was wrong when in 1917 he observed that in war the first casualty is truth. In war, the first casualty is language. And with the language goes the truth. It was the Vietnam "conflict," not the Vietnam War. It was the Korean "police action," not the Korean War. It was the "pacification" of Gaul by Julius Caesar, not the brutal and bloody subjugation of Gaul. "Where they make a desert, they call it peace," observed the British chieftain Calgacus of the Roman conquest of Britain. War corrupts language.

      The doublespeak of war consists, as Orwell wrote of all such language, "of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness." It is, fundamentally, the language of insincerity, where there is a gap between the speaker's real and declared aims. It is language as an instrument for concealing and preventing thought, not for expressing or extending thought. Such language silences dialogue and blocks communication.

      We learned that mercenaries paid by the U.S. government were "civilian irregular defense soldiers," refugees fleeing the war were "ambient non-combatant personnel," and enemy troops who survived bombing attacks were "interdictional nonsuccumbers." In Vietnam, American warplanes conducted "limited duration protective reaction strikes", during which they achieved an "effective delivery of ordnance." So it went too in the Persian Gulf.

      Just as officially there was no war in Korea or Vietnam, officially there was no war in the Persian Gulf. After all, Congress didn't declare war, it declared an authorization of the "use of force," a power clearly delegated to Congress in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which now reads: "Congress shall have the power to authorize the use of force." So now we have not war but Operation Desert Storm, or "exercising the military option," or, according to President Bush, an "armed situation."
      During this "armed situation," massive bombing attacks became "efforts." Thousands of warplanes didn't drop tons of bombs, "weapons systems" or "force packages" "visited a site." These "weapons systems" didn't drop their tons of bombs on buildings and human beings, they "hit" "hard" and "soft targets." During their "visits," these "weapons systems" "degraded," "neutralized," "attrited," "suppressed," eliminated," "cleansed," "sanitized," "impacted," "decapitated," or "took out" targets; they didn't blow up bridges, roads, factories and other buildings, and the people who happened to be there. A "healthy day bombing" was achieved when more enemy "assets" were destroyed than expected.

      If the "weapons systems" didn't achieve "effective results" (blow up their targets) during their first "visit" (bombing attack) as determined by a "damage assessment study" (figuring out if everything was completely destroyed), the "weapons systems" "revisited the site" (bombed it again). Women, children, and other civilians killed or wounded during these "visits," and any schools, hospitals, museums, houses, or other "non-military" targets that were blown up, were "collateral damage" - the undesired damage or casualties produced by the effects from "incontinent ordnance" or "accidental delivery of ordnance equipment" - meaning the bombs and rockets missed their original targets.

      In order to function as it should and as we expect it to, language must be an accurate reflection of that which it represents. The doublespeak of war is an instance of thought corrupting language and language corrupting thought.

      Such language is needed only if, as George Orwell, wrote, "one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them." Thus the phrase, "traumatic amputation" produces no mental pictures of soldiers with arms or legs blown off. The terms "light" or "moderate" losses invoke no mental pictures of pilots burned beyond recognition in the twisted wreckage of their planes, of hundreds of soldiers lying dead on a battlefield or screaming in pain in field hospitals. Killing the enemy becomes the innocuous "serving the target," which invokes no mental picture of shooting, stabbing, or blowing another human being into small, bloody pieces. Clean-sounding phrases such as "effective delivery of ordnance," "precision bombing," and "surgical air strikes" evoke no mental pictures of thousands of tons of bombs falling on electric power plants, communication centers, railroad lines, and factories, or women, children, and old people huddling in the ruins of their homes and neighborhoods.

      The new doublespeak of war flowed smoothly as military spokesmen coolly discussed "assets" (everything from men and women soldiers to aircraft carries and satellites), the "suppression of assets" (bombing everything from enemy soldiers to sewage plants), "airborne sanitation" (jamming enemy radar and radio, blowing up anti-aircraft gun and missiles, and shooting down enemy airplanes, "disruption" (bombing), "operations" (bombing), "area denial weapons" (cluster bombs, previously called anti-personnel bombs), "damage" (death and destruction, or the results of bombing), "attrition" (destruction, or the results of bombing).

      The massive bombing campaign (which included concentrated bombing by massed B-52s dropping thousands of tons of bombs in just one attack) directed against the Republican Guard units of the Iraqi army was considered highly successful by General Norman Schwartzkopf, who based his assessment on "the delivery methods and volume that we've been able to put on them." Returning from a bombing attack, an American pilot said he had "sanitized the area". A Marine general told reporters, "We're prosecuting any target that's out there." And an artillery captain said, "I prefer not to say we are killing other people, I prefer to say we are servicing a target." Even with all this doublespeak, news of the "armed effort" was subject to "security review," not censorship. When language is so corrupted, what becomes of truth?

      The use of technical, impersonal, bureaucratic, euphemistic language to describe war separates the act of killing from the idea of killing; it separates the word from that which it is supposed to symbolize. Such language is a linguistic cover-up designed to hide an unpleasant reality. It is language that lies by keeping us as far as possible from the reality it pretends to represent. With such language we create a psychological detachment from the horror that is war, and we become numb to the human suffering that is the inevitable result of war. With the doublespeak of war we are not responsible for the results of our actions. And war becomes a "viable" solution to our problems.


Reproduced here for educational purposes pursuant to Section 107 of Title 17 of the U.S. Code.

(Reprinted from Quarterly Review of Doublespeak, vol. XVII, nÂș 4, Jul 1991).