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The War of Words
Waterboarding, Collateral Damage, and resisting euphemism
In my sophomore year of high school, I had a fantastic English teacher. One of the many things he knew, and taught us, is that language too is political. This was during the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and us kids were being peppered with propaganda online and in the news just like everyone else. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they named the war “Operation Enduring Freedom.” In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq on false pretenses, they called the whole enterprise “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Today we know these wars were utter failures that didn’t bring an ounce of freedom anywhere. Upwards of a million civilians killed, thousands of soldiers on both sides dead, a region massively destabilized and the Taliban back in power. Even at the time a lot of my classmates and I felt that something was deeply wrong. The President of the United States and top officials lying to get us into a war was one of our first political memories, and at a young age I remember us making fun of the ludicrous idea of bringing freedom to the Middle East with tanks, bombs, and guns.
But the language flying around at the time was not always easy to see through. Pentagon officials would talk about “enhanced interrogation” and the media would reprint it. Rarely was it qualified as being a euphemism for torture. Any and every outlet would talk about “the global war on terror” and yet many people, if asked to explain how America was fighting a noun, an idea, would have been hard-pressed to explain it. Many would have said that we were going after terrorists, but few could have explained how we were addressing the rise of terrorism, the reasons that some people around the world wanted to take up arms against our country. In fact, none of the top brass could’ve explained how the “war on terror” was getting to the root causes of terrorism, because our plan was never to do that. The plan and the implementation were always war, violence, and the complete refusal to even look at how mass violence from the United States might lead to more people around the world resenting our military and our country.
In the middle of all this violence, central to politicians and the public accepting it for as long as they did, was the war of words. And my English teacher helped us peer behind the curtain of this propaganda battle that raged across our televisions and newspapers and magazines and the nascent internet. Together we read an essay one day entitled Euphemism and American Violence by David Bromwich. In it Bromwich masterfully breaks down phrases like “regime change” which seem innocuous but hide the realities of war and massive violence. He writes, “The frightening thing about such acts of renaming or euphemism … 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.” Everyone who lived through that era knows this to be true. Everyone who read “slight uptick in violence” in one publication or another, when reading about brutal fighting in Fallujah or Kandahar can see how hundreds of deaths can be obscured and sterilized with the wave of a pen.
Bromwich also cites George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” which spells this phenomenon out perfectly:
“Defenseless 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.”
That last line is exactly what propagandists and politicians in the West often want to do during wartime. They want us to endorse a noble mission, a project of spreading freedom, important ideals and values, but they don’t want us thinking about the dead children, the starving adults, the men losing arms and the women who can’t feed their families. And right now we’re seeing the return of these euphemisms. On Meet the Press Netanyahu recently that the Israeli army is only targeting terrorists, and that civilians losing their lives are just “collateral damage.” This phrase is a distrubing way of painting over the deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza, and it has a substantial history of painting over thousands of other dead civilians around the world. But it’s not just Israeli officials using increasingly alarming and obscuring language.
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Al Shifa, Gaza City's main hospital, is being bombarded, surrounded by tanks, and shot at by snipers. Numerous reports say that people fleeing have been shot, electricity has run out, and people are dying without needed care. Responding to this horrific situation, Joe Biden called for “less intrusive action” and the second I read those words I was struck by flashbacks from high school. What does less intrusive action when attacking a hospital mean? What do these words mean when a besieged strip of land is being relentlessly bombed? I don’t know, and I’d wager he doesn’t either. This phrasing is the epitome of refusing to name what is really happening or what should happen, thereby evoking a vague idea of restraint without actually giving Israel any clear instructions or laying out any red lines. And that is what 95% of U.S. politicians are content with doing at the moment. They speak repeatedly of “less civilian death” which is less euphemistic than many of the other examples discussed here, but crucially still does the work of excusing the mass killing of civilians as inevitable, and refuses to push for a ceasefire or any clear and actionable items.
Everything I’ve discussed so far is just the tip of the iceberg. The use and abuse of language around Israel’s attack on Gaza is multifaceted and abundant. It comes from the IDF, Zionist propagandists, U.S. officials, Israeli politicians, and a number of media outlets as well. Pushing back is vital. We have to educate ourselves about how language is used, educate others, and respond through the avenues available to us. We also have to think systemically about supporting alternative media outlets, especially non-profits that are less reliant on advertisers and can be more directly accountable to their readership. In preparing to write this piece and doing some reading I found one more article I need to share with you on the topic of hard-hitting journalism that cuts through euphemism and propaganda.
In 2008, and throughout the initial years of the “war on terror,” or the devastating invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the violent destabilization of much of the Middle East, the U.S. public was repeatedly exposed to the term waterboarding. We were told, occasionally, that it meant something like pouring water on someone's face to get them to spill information. It was lumped in there with “enhanced interrogation” and all the vagueness that contains. But in 2008 Christopher Hitchens wrote a stunning piece called Believe Me, It’s Torture for Vanity Fair. The essay is about how he arranged to be, and was, waterboarded by U.S. Special Forces. Vanity Fair includes pictures and even video of what Hitchens endured on their website. In describing his first-hand experience in the middle of the torture technique he writes, “My interrogator told me that, rather to his surprise, I had not spoken a word. I had activated the ‘dead man’s handle’ that signaled the onset of unconsciousness.”
This is what waterboarding actually means. Torture, the possibility of massive bodily harm, and even the risk of death. Hitchens himself had signed a contract acknowledging that he could die, or receive major neurological harm or other permanent injury. When our government spent years telling us about “enhanced interrogation techniques” they meant the violent and repeated drowning of waterboarding, dangerous sleep deprivation for days with blinding lights and blaring music, and other forms of torture at black sites around the world.
So we can’t simply accept the framing presented to us by Israel, the United States, and many for-profit media outlets. We need to push back. We need journalists who cut throught the euphemisms, outlets that put truth before all else, and our own healthy skepticism. We need to think critically when we hear phrases like “fewer civilian causalities” and ask why civilians should be killed at all, in Gaza and everywhere else. When we see Israel offer incubators to Al Shifa Hospital, we need to ask what happened to the perfectly functional incubators that were there even two weeks ago. When we read about officials saying “collateral damage” we need to ask what the hell that even means. If you’re reading this, I know you want a world without the massacre of civilians, and know you see that this slaughter is excused and justified and hidden with the insidious use of language. The next step is actively pushing back, not allowing intentionally vauge language to paint over atrocities and shield the murder of civilians. So we need to be involved in the war of words. We can’t sit idly by. Support journalists and outlets telling the truth, and use whatever platforms or conversations you engage with to push back against propagands and euphemism and support a necessary critical thinking. People are increasingly seeing the reality of the situation in Palestine, but powerful nations and and organizations and individuals will keep trying to distort the picture. We can’t let that happen, both for the people of Gaza and for each and every violent conflict around the world where these tools of obfuscation are weaponized. We have to play our part.
Thank you so much for reading! If my writing is helpful to you I hope you’ll become a paid subscriber and allow me to spend more time writing for you. Thank you - Josh