L.I.E.S.    Language in Extreme Situations

A web against the use of Language as a Weapon of Mass Deception




La Guerra de la Palabra

Language of war. Decoding the jargon of war
(Nicholas Watt and Rory McCarthy,The Guardian)
Words of war
Thom Shanker (The New York Times)


Charmingly horticultural metaphor for the US military's new approach to handling journalists in a war with Iraq.

Since Vietnam, when the government blamed reporters for fuelling anti-war protests, access to front lines has been severely restricted. Gulf war correspondents mostly followed the action via flipcharts and videos in briefing rooms. Not this time: at least 500 reporters, American and non-American, have been "embedded" inside US troop units, eating and sleeping among soldiers.

Commanders hope the "embeds" will correct Iraqi media deceptions and show US forces are abiding by the laws of war. Debate is raging among US journalists, though, over whether the embedded media may end up taking root, losing their objectivity.

Sensitive site exploitation

General Tommy Franks, the overall commander of coalition forces, coined one of the more memorable military terms of the campaign yesterday. Troops will be performing what he called SSEs - sensitive site exploitation. This describes the delicate process of examining suspected plants containing weapons of mass destruction. No doubt such a technical term will come in handy if the allies fail to detect any weapons of mass of destruction, whose alleged presence in Iraq provided the pretext for war.

Hot contact point

How do you describe the uncomfortable business of casualties in a low-key way? The latest offering is "hot contact point".

"A hot contact point is where our soldiers are getting shot at," said a British sergeant, manning a checkpoint.

Blue on blue

In the same way that the Inuit people have lots of different words for describing snow, the US has a stockpile of phrases to describe the all-too-common tragedy of allied forces being killed by people on their own side.

Blue on blue, which made its debut yesterday after the downing of an RAF Tornado by an American Patriot missile, comes from wargaming exercises where the goodies are blue and - in a hangover from cold war days - the baddies are red. Replaces the older term "friendly fire" which, as Murphy's Laws of Combat eloquently note, isn't.


In a troubling development for those already concerned about US domination of the coalition attempting to topple Saddam Hussein, British officers now appear to be adopting the American pronunciation of the country they are invading. Captain Al Lockwood, one of the spokesmen for British forces in the Gulf, gave the new spoken form its first outing on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House programme yesterday morning.

Rapid dominance

This, according to the Pentagon's current philosophy, is what follows from a successful "shock and awe" offensive designed to terrify the enemy into submission.

Both terms were coined by military strategist Harlan Ullman in a 1996 National Defence University book. "The idea is to hit the Iraqi military and political structure at all the critical nodes and links with unbelievable intensity and unbelievable force and simultaneity," he explained. "That induces paralysis, desperation and a sense of extreme vulnerability. In essence you change their will and they surrender."


The US and British forces surrounding the southern towns of Nassiriya and Basra are, the military tell us, fixing them. This does not mean they are already engaged in repairing buildings damaged in battle. Rather, they have sealed off the perimeters to neutralise any Iraqi troops still inside the towns without having to risk engaging them in potentially costly street fighting, so that the main advance can continue north towards Baghdad.

Breaking the china

Facing starvation and the threat of disease, Basra's 2 million residents will no doubt be relieved to hear that Britain means them no harm. They may be less happy to hear the clinical language deployed yesterday by the British military to describe their efforts to protect Basra's population.

Air Marshal Brian Burridge, the head of British forces, declared: "When you go in and sort out an urban area you are not out to break the china; we want to win hearts and minds but we will have to use force."


This apparently innocuous term has sinister connotations. It describes one of the most horrific elements of urban warfare in which troops do not enter houses from the front door, for fear of triggering trip wires. Instead they blow holes in side walls, invariably causing numerous civilian casualties. Mouseholing was last seen in the Israeli assault on Jenin where tens of Palestinian residents were killed.


In the fog of war everyone is looking for detailed accounts of the battles on the ground in Iraq. The granularity of this war is not the sand that covers most of the country, but these details that have proved so elusive.

Both the military and the press are obsessed with the search for granularity. But practical problems with communications from soldiers in the fields to their commanders and restrictions from London and Washington on the flow of information mean it will be an endless search.

Evil ones

Saddam Hussein threw George Bush's favourite insult back at him yesterday. In his second television address since the military campaign began, he branded Mr Bush and Tony Blair the "evil ones" who are no better than "lowlifes and enemies of humanity". Such language will be familiar to President Bush, who condemned Osama bin Laden as the "evil one" after the September 11 attacks.


Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi information minister, showed that he too has been leafing through the Bush dictionary of insults. Iraq, he declared over the weekend, had lured British and American troops into "swamps" from which they will never return. This had shades of President Bush's pledge, after the September 11 attacks, to "drain the swamp of terrorism".

Strike package

Before anyone gets too excited, this is strictly a military term to describe the vast array of hardware and technology supporting the bombing raids. When people watch the vast B-52 bombers taking off from Britain, or see their vapour trails high over Iraq, they are only seeing part of the bombing campaign. The "strike package" includes fighters, reconnaissance and early warning radar aircraft, and air-to-air refuellers, an RAF speciality.

Regime target

Even with harrowing pictures of young victims of allied bombing in Basra, Britain and the US insisted yesterday that they are only striking Saddam Hussein and the infrastructure that supports his regime. These are, in the military parlance, regime targets, which include presidential palaces, the army, security service and intelligence headquarters


A gratifying colourful foray into the grey world of military jargon by the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. Contrasting the hordes of American and British troops attacking Umm Qasr and Nassiriya with the Iraqi "heroes" defending the towns, he told reporters: "Those mercenaries and hired guns are seeing death in front of them ... We have drawn them into a quagmire and they will never get out of it."

Manoeuvrist approach

Military forces down the ages have found it handy to perform manoeuvres. Where would an army be if it remained static?

Now commanders have adopted one of the oldest military terms to describe the battle unfolding in Iraq. A manoeuvrist approach, they say, describes the flexible tactics which allow commanders in the field and at the main headquarters in Qatar to adapt their plans in response to events on the ground.

Deconflicting the airspace

Baghdad was not the only victim of allied bombing yesterday. The English language took a fair pounding when commanders announced that they were "deconflicting the airspace" over southern Iraq.

Lieutenant General David McKiernan, the land war commander, unveiled this phrase to describe the complex process of ensuring that the vast array of weaponry fired into southern Iraq does not collide. "I want to make sure that the fires are fully coordinated and deconflicted," he said.

Yapping like a rabbit

Gore Vidal, the grand old man of the American literary left, coined one of the more eloquent, though cutting, phrases of the war. "How embarrassing for Blair, prime minister of that once great country, to be yapping like a rabbit in support of our war," Vidal said to cheering supporters at a rally in Santa Monica.

As a man of letters, Vidal is unlikely to have been inspired by the Chas and Dave song, "Rabbit Rabbit Yap Yap, Rabbit Rabbit." Perhaps he was thinking of the noises male rabbits make after mating.

Collateral damage

Labour's pugnacious chairman, John Reid, yesterday announced the demise of this chilling euphemism, which describes the deaths of innocent people in conflict. "I do not like this terrible military phrase, collateral damage," he said.

No longer will military spokesmen be able to stand on a podium, far from a war zone, and dismiss innocent deaths in abstract terms, as they did in 1999 when US warplanes fired on a convoy of ethnic Albanians, believing they were Serb forces.

The change of language does not, however, herald a change in military tactics, according to Mr Reid, who says the world should prepare for "unavoidable civilian deaths". While his new phrase is more honest, some may wonder whether it says much for Anglo-American "smart" bombs, which are meant to hit solely military targets

Catastrophic success

Amid their excitement at taking on a depleted and demoralised Iraqi army, US commanders are talking about sweeping triumphantly into Baghdad in a "catastrophic success". By catastrophe, they do not mean a disaster, because they are dismissing the idea of thousands of civilian casualties. Instead they are using a negative adjective - catastrophic - to emphasise the positive, in the way that anyone under 21 describes something that is "cool" as "wicked"

Vertical envelopment

The Pentagon's term for the preferred method of outflanking Iraqi forces by flying troops over them and then attacking from the rear or the sides. Special forces are believed to have already identified sites across Iraq where planes and helicopters will land mobile forces, including tanks, to engage Iraqi positions from several directions.


The military uses this physics term for motion to describe actual combat. Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Staff, used the word last week, describing how wars are fought today, with radio broadcasts and bombs.

"We have been sending messages in a number of ways to the regime that we believe the regime is through," he said. "And we've been sending them both in information operations and kinetically."

Kinetic targeting

Current preferred euphemism for dropping bombs. When aircraft drop leaflets on Iraq asking the military to surrender and radio stations broadcast anti-Saddam rhetoric, the generals describe it as soft targeting. When fighter jets and cruise missiles destroy targets on the ground, the military calls it "kinetic targeting".

For the military, it is an unusually simple and vigorous description of the destruction they are about to deliver. It has also spawned a spin-off: the tens of thousands of US and British troops poised to attack Iraq are simply waiting for permission to "go kinetic".

Liberty lip lock

Last week, Republican congressman Robert Ney announced plans to rename french fries as freedom fries in protest against the French government's failure to support the US on Iraq.

Why stop there, asked Adam Tschorn, in his column, As If, in the Los Angeles Times. He suggested legislation to change the language as follows: the french kiss will be known as the liberty lip lock; the french maid's outfit would be known as a freedom frock; the french horn as the victory trumpet.


New favourite word of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's UN ambassador, who used it to describe security council members' responses to the six "benchmarks" proposed by London in what diplomats helpfully called a "non-paper".

"If this gains traction ... then the co-sponsors would be prepared to drop" any mention of an ultimatum in the resolution, Mr Greenstock said. Diplo-speak, meaning either that the proposal might be "pulled along" or - a more vivid alternative dictionary definition - that it would gain "adhesive friction", like a good set of tyres on a steep road.

Sample sentence: "If the benchmarks in this non-paper gain traction we could have it in blue by the weekend."


It is becoming increasingly important for British and US politicians and military leaders to explain why the fighting against coalition troops has been so fierce. One tactic has been to brand all those who have taken up arms as men and women who know they will have no future in a post-Saddam regime.

Gen Tommy Franks, the US commander of allied forces, has referred to such fighters pithily as "dead-enders".

The coalition has no time for the uncomfortable alternative: that many ordinary Iraqi civilians and soldiers may hate the idea of being invaded by a western superpower and its allies so much that they are prepared to fight.

The numbers game

In the English section of his press conferences Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi information minister, has been giving precise - and unverifiable - civilian casualty figures. However, in the Arabic part of his broadcast, the minister glosses over the figures, presumably worried they may make the population feel war is not going well.

On the other hand, the regime has been happy for gruesome images which suggest the coalition's bombs have not been as precise as the US and UK claim to reach the Iraqi people. Babil, the newspaper owned by Saddam's son, Uday, yesterday carried pictures of decapitated bodies it said belonged to Iraqi civilians killed in bombing raids.

The numbers game: part two

The Americans were yesterday estimating that 500 Iraqis had been killed in the last two days by US army tanks and mechanised units as they swept through southern Iraq.

But last weekend many reporters, encouraged by military sources, were claiming the "capitulation" of the Iraqi army's 51st Division, a mechanised infantry force of between 8,000 and 20,000 men. By Sunday the US was admitting that 1,000-2,000 prisoners were seized.


Some might regard this term as a refreshingly honest departure by the military,which has a habit of cloaking its work in abstract language. To others, it will be seen as disturbingly bloodthirsty.

Killboxes are grid squares, measuring 35 miles square, into which RAF Tornados fire their Paveway laser-guided bombs. A "hot" killbox contains a specific target posing a direct threat to troops.

This is a far cry from the 1991 Gulf war, when US commanders laughed as they replayed cockpit video clips of pilots dropping their bombs.


General Wesley Clark, the former Nato supreme allied commander, maintained the military tradition of mangling the English language yesterday. "They didn't uprise," he complained to CNN about the failure of the people of Basra to fulfil the coalition's expectations of an uprising against Saddam Hussein. "The simple fact is that the liberation didn't quite occur."

The remarks by Gen Clark, who was accused by the British of nearly starting world war three during the 1999 Kosovo campaign, came amid a war of words among America's armchair generals over the relatively light numbers of troops sent to Iraq.

Supply nodes

This term describes the latest rage in the Pentagon. As troops surge through Iraq towards Baghdad they have established small battlefield depots, known as supply nodes, to provide supplies for their forces. These are abandoned when troops move on.

Open sources

Amid the fog, or sandstorm, of war the military often do not have a clue what is going on. This is the term used by military spokesmen when they have to rely on reports by journalists to tell them what is happening.

With hundreds of journalists "embedded" with the military, many reports are unlikely to come as a great surprise, however.

Speed bump
Anything that slows down the progress of war - including skirmishes. The resistance at Basra and the protracted resistance at Umm Qasr were particularly nasty speed bumps.

Effects-based warfare
A nuanced approach to war, combining strategic firepower ("graduated destruction") and pyschological operations (or "psyops") - such as leaflet dropping and interfering with TV or radio broadcasts. Some Iraqi commanders have even made "capitulation agreements" already. The effects-based approach is backed up by the provision of humanitarian aid to create a "benign campaign".

Digital battlefield
The US Army's 4th division is equipped with command and control systems that allow tank movements to be monitored on computers, seen as a first step towards a "digital battlefield" that involves "total situational awareness", ie, everyone can tell where everyone else is. The idea is to dispel the "fog of war" that leads to deaths from "friendly fire".

The antidote to smart bombing and precision planning, "boots" symbolise the traditional way of getting the job done. Land forces are known as "boots on the ground", while General Tommy Franks is known as a "muddy-boots soldier".

Dirty dozen
The US state department hit list of the 12 most wanted in Saddam's regime, including his sons Uday and Qusay, his cousin "Chemical" Ali Hassan Majid and deputy leader Tariq Aziz.

Shock and awe
The Pentagon's name for the mass bombardment designed to demoralise the Iraq and effectively win the war before an invasion. The author of the term, Harlan Ullman, says the phrase has "not been helpful".

Hammer time
A US admiral was shown invoking the spirit of 90s Christian rapper MC Hammer - albums include Let's Get It Started and Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em - when he declared to his fist-pumping troops that "hammer time" was upon us.

Target of opportunity
This is what American military planners called their chance to get in with a spectacular first blow, when raids on Baghdad attempted to "decapitate" Iraq by taking out Saddam. This seems to be a modified form of the rejected "inside-out strategy" that proposed attacking Baghdad and Saddam first to isolate the regime from the surrounding country

The main attack that is still to come. One Pentagon official was quoted as saying today's attack was "a limited thing - it ain't A-Day". Last Thursday's attacks followed a process of "softening up", basically preliminary bombing.

P.O.W. and E.P.W.

When Pfc. Jessica Lynch became the first American soldier rescued from enemy hands since World War II — and the first female prisoner ever extracted — officials sought a shorthand way to distinguish captured Americans from Iraqis who were caught or who surrendered. The initials P.O.W. still stand for American prisoners of war, but any Iraqi became an E.P.W., or enemy prisoner of war.

Set-piece battle

This historical term refers to carefully planned and executed combat operations, implying the gathering of large formations organized according to doctrine and intelligence assessments, made before the war, of enemy strengths and reactions. Attacks on the Baghdad and Medina Republican Guard divisions were set-piece, and lopsided, battles.

Branches and sequels

These terms acknowledge that combat plans may need to be improvised once the enemy is engaged. Branches are options in shifting battlefield conditions and allow for altering the number or direction of forces. They even include the choice of whether to fight now or later.

Sequels are those options, written before the first shot is fired, to anticipate the best course of action at the end of military operations, whether the fight ends in victory, slow success, deadlock or defeat. Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, coined his own term — excursions — last week to describe these improvisations.

"We react to what they do," Mr. Rumsfeld said of the Iraqis. "The plans are made, and excursions are developed and, the good Lord willing, serious problems are averted."

(The Guardian, 14-27/3/03 and The New York Times, 6/4/03))


Poema: No a la guerra
Life under the chief doublespeak officer
Dubya war glossary
Kid Row
Truth is strongest weapon in war
Loyalty oath
Did our leaders lie to us?
War watch. Claims and counter claims made during the war over Iraq
War-speak worthy of Milton and Chuck Norris
Metaphor and war, again
Language of war.Decoding the jargon of war
Fighting war with words
With God and the Bard on our side




Back to topBack to top