Christopher Hitchens, critiquing his friend Martin Amis, once casually referred to "the moral offense of euphemism." It's a beautiful and cutting phrase. The inability to call something what it is represents an opening salvo in an assault on the truth. An early acquiescence to the moral offense of euphemism is nothing less than the first stage of surrender to corruption. Whether the rot is manifested or merely intellectual is a distinction that will erode with time.
Few governments have relied more on euphemism than the Bush administration. Euphemism is different from spin. Spin puts the best face forward on a given policy; euphemism uses its opposite to describe itself. Hence the Clear Skies Initiative to weaken the Clean Air Act; the Freedom Agenda to describe military domination of the Middle East; or Enhanced Interrogation to discuss torture.
The Iraq War has been characterized by euphemism since its inception. The name "Operation Iraqi Freedom" denotes a foreign military occupation of Iraq endlessly described as liberation -- a term that, in practice, means the absolute opposite of any common-sense definition of "freedom." For over five years, foreign troops have enjoyed the legal right to kill any Iraqi whom commanders deem fit to kill; to search any house commanders deem fit to search; and to detain any Iraqi whom commanders deem fit to detain. This is, clearly, a condition Americans would never accept for themselves. Debate can reasonably occur over whether the war is worth it or whether the rules of engagement are appropriate. But no one can responsibly call this condition "freedom" for Iraqis.
Here's a guide to some of the most pronounced, and pernicious, euphemisms of the Iraq War.
Any visitor to Baghdad notices them: the 10- to 15-foot concrete barriers protecting major installations and government buildings. They're covered with graffiti, political banners of yesteryear, and the occasional dab of paint. In 2007, the U.S. military began putting them around entire neighborhoods and limiting access to the enclosed enclaves.
The rationale was to separate sectarian combatants: for instance, throughout 2006 and into 2007, the Sunni Adhimiya neighborhood in eastern Baghdad was the scene of fierce fighting with the Shiite Mahdi Army from nearby Sadr City. So a wall went up to divide the two neighborhoods, and the military erected similar ones throughout Baghdad. The term for these concrete-barricaded areas? "Gated Communities," a phrase borrowed from placid American havens of golf, swimming clubs, and other affluent leisure-time activities.
The residents staged a protest, which Petraeus aide David Kilcullen considered an al-Qaeda in Iraq propaganda stunt rather than a legitimate expression of community outrage; the U.S. merely waited out the protests and kept building. Either way, not many in Adhimiya had time to make it to the links, even just to shoot nine holes.
CONCERNED LOCAL CITIZENS
Let's say you had a bunch of insurgent fighters who 20 minutes ago were shooting at American soldiers and marines. Let's also say that through a combination of strategic calculation (they really didn't see much of a future for themselves under the foreign domination of anti-tobacco nazis like al-Qaeda in Iraq), inducement (lots of cash from U.S. commanders who'd rather not be shot at and blown up), and opportunities both present and future (today: becoming the neighborhood warlord; tomorrow: overthrowing the Shiite government!) they decide to stop shooting at the Americans.
You can call these guys a lot of things: well-motivated warlords; rational decision makers; allies of convenience. What you really shouldn't call them is "Concerned Local Citizens," a term that equates ferocious nationalist/sectarian killers with busybody retirees who hold bake sales to fund smoothing down the gravel at the playground before someone skins a knee. This LOL-worthy term was so egregious that even the military, in early 2008, changed it to ...
SONS OF IRAQ
So these are the new-model Concerned Local Citizens. And admittedly, it's punchy. Indeed, according to Michael Gordon, writing in The New York Times Magazine, "Concerned Local Citizens" translated into Arabic as the tonally dissonant "Worried Iraqis."
Of course, it also implies that the well-motivated warlords are deeper Iraqi patriots than the Iraqi army and police force that we're also sponsoring, so that's a downside. An Iraq War veteran who worked with the CLCs/Sons of Iraq recently came up with a better term on his blog for those who'd stop shooting at him if they'd get money out of it: "Enemies with Benefits." Alas, it appears not to have caught on yet. Euphemism works best when it's unintentionally humorless.
DAUGHTERS OF IRAQ
And speaking of something that isn't funny, an offshoot of the Sons of Iraq program is -- wait for it -- the Daughters of Iraq. These Daughters are hired to guard set installations where women -- whom Iraqi culture won't allow men to frisk -- seek to enter. Given the recent onslaught of female suicide bombers, it's not exactly a program without a rationale. Unfortunately, it's also a recipe for getting women murdered -- either by terrorists, since the Daughters aren't even issued weapons to defend themselves; or by the charming men who feel compelled to violently drive home the lesson that security is a man's, man's, man's, man's, man's world. And this program is supposed to save lives?
This one was a game of linguistic three-card monte. Throughout 2006 and early 2007, the principal political question was whether Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad could achieve some sort of sectarian accord to stop the civil war. Indeed, the U.S. Congress made "reconciliation" -- the buzzword of the moment -- one of its 18 benchmarks to judge progress in Iraq. Alas, Iraqi national politics remains an cauldron of sectarian acrimony and obstinacy.
So what did the Bush administration do? It changed the meaning of reconciliation. Beginning in the summer of 2007, the White House, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and the U.S. military command in Iraq began talking about what they called "Bottom-Up Reconciliation," saying that the success of programs like the Concerned Local Citizens in volatile provinces like Anbar and Diyala proved that provincial hinterlands were "reconciling" with the national government -- even though a) the national government loathes the CLC/Sons of Iraq program; and b) that falsely implies that Iraqi politics, like American politics, allows public opinion to rise from the local to the national level to influence decision makers. Better still, it entirely elided the question of sectarian progress in Baghdad. This was perhaps the Bush administration's most successful euphemism.
OMENS OF PROSPERITY
Here's something that might count as a breaking euphemism. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week ordered 50,000 Iraqi troops to conduct raids throughout Diyala province, which U.S. officials boasted of being increasingly pacified in 2007. The operation is called "Omens Of Prosperity." Because nothing says "prosperity" like 50,000 troops kicking down doors and arresting people. Oh, and the Iraqi government refused to allow any Sons of Iraq to participate in the operation. Talk about your Bottom-Up Reconciliation!
Imagine you walk into an auto body shop where you left your car for a tune-up. You ask the man at the counter: When can I pick up my car? "Well," he replies, "I think that's a question best left to the discretion of the mechanics in the shop, don't you? After all, they're the ones hard at work fixing your car."
Wait, you say. Are you telling me you don't know when my car will be ready? I need to drive to -- "What I've always said," he interrupts, "is that setting an arbitrary deadline from the counter of this auto-body shop is the surest guarantee that your car will break down as soon as you drive it out of the shop. That won't just be a disaster for you, it will disrespect all the hard work the mechanics have been doing on your car."
You rub the bridge of your nose and ask: Can you even say how much this is going to cost me? "We think it's important to support our mechanics to the fullest. It would be irresponsible to speculate on the full price, since that's up to them, really, but having had a look at your finances, we're confident you can afford the total cost."
You might be tempted to throttle the man. And yet, somehow, this is John McCain's entire position on the war. "[A]djustments should be left to the discretion of Gen. Petraeus," he wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year with Joe Lieberman, "not forced on our troops by politicians in Washington with a 6,000-mile congressional screwdriver."
Some might be tempted to say that euphemisms are ultimately no big deal. But if you can't talk openly about what the war is -- and what the set strategy for it entails -- you engage in a self-deception that ensures nothing but continued catastrophe. Euphemism isn't merely an everyday sin. Applied to war, it's a mortal one.