First Person | War of Words

As Indian forces do internal security jobs, they should shun euphemistic war jargon

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

In the last four and a half years with FORCE, I have become acquainted with the rich military vocabulary, which transcends nationalities. Interestingly, like any living language, military language is both dynamic and evolving, with new conflicts throwing up new words, terminologies and phraseology. And like most other things pertaining to military, whether war-fighting technology or strategy, the US leads in the language as well. Remember the famous ‘shock and awe’ by President George W Bush that became a staple of young military leaders? Another famous or rather infamous contribution of the Global War on Terror to international military language was ‘extraordinary rendition’. In a lay-man’s language it means that under an extraordinary order of the President of the US, terror suspects are handed over to friendly and suitably disposed countries to be tortured for information as torture is illegal in the US.

In the early years of GWOT, before Guantanamo Bay blew in the face of the US administration, CIA was known to frequently abduct suspects and hand them over to a friendly regime (Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and so on) with a list of questions that it wanted answered from the arrested person. As large number of these cases hit international headlines, the term quickly fell into disuse.

However, there are many words which have stood the test of wars and have endured across the world. The department of defence (DoD) of the US government has a feeder organisation by the name of the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC), which ‘serves as a vital link in the transfer of information among DoD personnel, DoD contractors and potential contractors and other US government agency personnel and their contractors. DTIC is a DoD Field Activity under the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, reporting to the Director, Defense Research & Engineering (DDR&E).’ DTIC also maintains a very comprehensive dictionary of military words and phrases, most of which originate from World War II. But many of these have been updated following operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of Global War on Terror (GWOT). The online dictionary says that these are the standard NATO terminology to be followed across the board. The idea being that all militaries who cooperate or collaborate with the US military should know what a US soldier means when he says something.

While a large number of words/phrases had standard military definitions, there were a few which I found particularly interesting primarily because of the sanitised way in which they conceal the sinister meaning. Topping my list is one which, unfortunately, many Indian Army officers have also started using with alarming frequency, especially in Kashmir: Collateral Damage. Listing the DoD definition, the dictionary describes it as, ‘unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time. Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack.’ Notice how the word damage cleverly avoids mentioning death or killing of innocent men, women and children. Moreover, the concept of ‘not excessive in light of the overall military advantage’ is so delightfully vague and subjective that it leaves hardly any room for punishment of the perpetrator of the damage.

Closely linked to collateral damage is the acronym MOUT, which is military operations in urban terrain. Since MOUT seems to be the war of the future (Afghanistan and Iraq and who knows where next) and has the inherent hazards of collateral damage, the US weapons manufacturers are researching on how to minimise it through high-precision missiles and weapon system. Honestly, these are the phrases that the Indian military should use less and less, because unlike the US or ‘Coalition’ forces, the Indian Army is involved in military operations within the country and is faced with its own people. It does not need precision weapons to minimise ‘damage’ but it needs to keep the people on its side by ensuring minimal alienation.

The other interesting entry is Propaganda and its various combinations (trust Americans to go in the details). The DoD dictionary describes propaganda as ‘any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behaviour of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.’ Then there is a thing called Black Propaganda, which ‘emanates from a source other than the true one.’ While Grey Propaganda ‘does not specifically identify any source,’ White Propaganda is ‘disseminated and acknowledged by the sponsor or by an accredited agency thereof.’ No fear of Indians using any of this, because we do not believe in propaganda, only ‘dissemination of truth’.

Since this has been happening quite often, especially in Iraq, where the US forces are often chasing invisible enemy, there is an entry on Accidental Attack, described as ‘an unintended attack which occurs without deliberate national design as a direct result of a random event, such as a mechanical failure, a simple human error, or an unauthorised action by a subordinate.’ And Basic Encyclopaedia is what all soldiers must have at all times: ‘A compilation of identified installations and physical areas of potential significance as objectives for attack’. Whatever you may do, you cannot fault the Americans on details.

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