Iraq: Slogans of War

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, the language of war is the continuation of thought by other means. In Iraq you can pretty well track the progress of the conflict by the catch phrases and jargon you hear from U.S. military commanders. Early on it was robust and muscular. "Shock and awe" set the tone; verbs were strong, simple and always in the active voice. But as the situation worsened, there was much less talk about "victory over antiregime elements" than about "achieving our mission" in Iraq.

Perhaps there is some department of strategic linguistics buried in the Pentagon that invents these phraseologies and then has commanders in the field promulgate the quote for the day at their morning prayers (i.e., the daily briefing commanders give to subordinates). More likely, though, it's an organic and semiconscious process in which phrases and metaphors are thought up by high-ranking officers and spread by repetition and emulation through the ranks and out into the news media wilds. Some of their neologisms even escape into the vernacular.

In the beginning there was much talk about how coalition troops were going to "kill or capture anti-Iraqi forces" and "destroy high-value targets." The enemy comprised "terrorists, criminals and regime dead-enders," supplemented by foreign jihadis. America's mission was to "create a secure and stable Iraq" or create the "conditions for security and stability" so that the "political process could move forward."

After the country's elections in January 2005, though, the "kill and capture" formulation fell into disfavor. The military began focusing on training the Iraqi police and military in what became known as "standing up the Iraqi security forces." Subsequent rhetoric also promised to "stand up" Iraqi ministries and local government agencies, as if they were all a bunch of pieces on the board that had toppled over (which is sort of what happened with the invasion). That transitivization of the verb to stand up will soon be in the dictionaries—if it isn't already. And later came a recognition, in a phrase uttered by one general after another and now heard right down to captains and literate lieutenants, that "the enemy gets a vote too."

Throughout it all, the American military continued to "own the battlespace" or at least "dominate the battlespace," even when a lot of people were getting killed in it by rival factions. And officers started routinely talking about distinguishing between "kinetic operations" (i.e., blowing people away) and "nonkinetic operations" (i.e., winning their hearts and minds—never a popular phrase in Iraq). Occasionally the sloganmaking would backfire badly, as it did with the brass's campaign to brand 2006 "The Year of the Police." Saying it is so doesn't make it so, and 2006 instead became the year the very police that the United States had stood up started standing up the death squads. More often, though, sloganeering gives a framework to the propaganda effort, and a unity to the message, that often proves very effective. No one has been foolish enough in this war to talk about destroying villages in order to save them.

Lately there have been some new coinages particular to the new reality. Once Sunni volunteers started coming over to the American side and fighting against Al Qaeda, the term they themselves chose for this movement—the Sawa, or Awakening—sounded a little too close to the radical terminology favored by the enemy, which many of them in fact had been (though apparently not the dead-ender part). The U.S. military's term for this was the Concerned Local Citizens, which inevitably spun off a new acronym: CLCs. That sounds unfortunately like a threat to the ozone and sits so poorly on an Arabic tongue that many Iraqis pronounce it "CRCs." More significantly, the military command became concerned that the Iraqi government wasn't taking advantage of the "breathing space" that had been created by the relative decrease in violence. And at last count, I've heard no fewer than four generals, six colonels and innumerable junior officers talk about the "window of opportunity" that has been created for the Shiite-led government to reconcile with Sunnis. Typical specimen: "A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, but it's unclear how long that window is going to be open," in the words of Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. military's ground forces commander in Iraq.

My favorite, though, is another 2007 coinage, and perhaps it shows how much the military has learned on the job. "Iraq is like playing three-dimensional chess in the dark." A common variant adds "while being shot at." Sometimes there's a beat, followed by "That would be easy compared to this war." At first it seemed like an individual general's well-turned phrase, until we heard it from a couple of other generals, and then "3-D chess" started showing up on right-wing blogs, which perhaps only goes to show that great minds (and small ones) think alike.