Doublespeak is the Tool of Those Who Wish to Deceive
The toolbox of my trade as a writer contains one major item: language. I respect the power of language and despise the devices of trickery involving its usage.
Doublespeak in particular represents the language of subterfuge. It hides, covers and ignores the truth. Doublespeak serves in the toolbox of politicians, CEOs and used car salesmen.
However, the military remains the winner of the doublespeak award and none more false, deceiving, and confusing than the term “friendly fire.”
When used to describe the cause of death of a soldier, does it make the death any more acceptable than if it had been from enemy fire?
I would not even grace “friendly fire” with the term oxymoron. An oxymoron joins together two opposites, which make a certain kind of sense, such as the term “jumbo shrimp.”
But there is nothing friendly about the fire from a gun. If somehow the military hopes to soften the figures of war casualties by categorizing the death in this way, we must remain vigilant in not falling prey to gullibility.
Friendly fire or not, in a war zone, it is still a casualty of war if those bullets hit a soldier.
Using language in this manner, the words are used to deceive us. When the military releases information to the press, then that press — the Fourth Estate — must be vigilant as well.
The danger in the press using the terms without proper definition and of the public hearing more benign forms of communication of horrific concepts means we bury our minds to atrocities.
For example, if the deaths in Sudan are referred to as “ethnic cleansing,” the perception is not of death but of purity and innocence. Using the word “genocide,” which is the dirty word for the euphemism, might have woken us up to the fact that we as a country allowed the killings of mothers and children to occur without our intervention.
The National Council of Teachers of English gives out Doublespeak awards each year. In 2004, they recognized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for describing the torture at Abu Ghraib as “the excesses of human nature that humanity suffers.” That does sound a whole lot better than “the U.S. soldiers tortured and beat prisoners.” This is not the first time the Pentagon has been recognized for its doublespeak. Instead of using the term “body bags” during the Gulf War it was changed to “human remains pouches” to the current phrase, “transfer tubes.”
The ever-popular “collateral damage” again attempts to soften the effect of war. Collateral damage can refer to environmental contamination, ecological destruction, and even the killing of innocent bystanders. Yet if we see “collateral damage” in the reading of a war report, do we think of the toll on humanity? Not really. It sounds as if a bumper received a dent.
Doublespeak becomes even more dangerous when it is used to lie to the public as in the case of Pat Tillman, the football hero who volunteered for the Army after 9/11 and was killed in Afghanistan in April of 2004. His parents are still seeking the truth about their son’s death. First the story was a complete fabrication, but then over a month after the death, the Army rolled out the “friendly fire” phrase with no explanation. As the parents continue to insist on finding out the truth, the news is not good. It is suspected that Tillman’s death was seen as a chance for an administration facing reelection to pull out a poster boy for the cause against terrorism.
Another “friendly fire” case occurred in May of 2004 with a lesser-known soldier but with no less “collateral damage” to the family. Jesse Buryj was killed after Polish troops ran into Buryj’s Humvee with a dump truck. In the confusion weapons were fired either from a fellow soldier or Polish soldier, hitting Buryj. The similarity to Tillman’s case has more to do with public relations than concern for truth as the Polish government’s findings show a U.S. soldier responsible. The Washington Post reported in January that if the true nature of Buryj’s death had been released, it had “the potential to cause a rift with a coalition partner right before the 2004 presidential election.”
If we cannot depend on our news sources to report beyond the disguised language of our government, I urge us all to question what we read and hear and not go complacently into our homes feeling secure that one of our own died just from “friendly fire.” Language such as that is the stuff of nightmares because when closely examined would it not be worse to die at the hands of a friend than an enemy anyway?