President Obama fist-bumps a U.S. soldier at Camp Victory in Baghdad.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Now that Washington has at least six wars cooking (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and more generally, the global war on terror), Americans find themselves in a new world of war. If, however, you haven't joined the all-volunteer military, any of our 17 intelligence outfits, the Pentagon, the weapons companies and hire-a-gun corporations associated with it, or some other part of the National Security Complex, America's distant wars go on largely without you (at least until the bills come due).
War has a way of turning almost anything upside down, including language. But with lost jobs, foreclosed homes, crumbling infrastructure, and weird weather, who even notices? This undoubtedly means that you're using a set of antediluvian war words or definitions from your father's day. It's time to catch up.
So here's the latest word in war words: what's in, what's out, what's inside out. What follows are nine common terms associated with our present wars that probably don't mean what you think they mean. Since you live in a twenty-first-century war state, you might consider making them your own.
Victory: Like defeat, it's a "loaded" word and rather than define it, Americans should simply avoid it.
In his last press conference before retirement, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked whether the US was "winning in Afghanistan." He replied, "I have learned a few things in four and a half years, and one of them is to try and stay away from loaded words like ‘winning' and ‘losing.' What I will say is that I believe we are being successful in implementing the president's strategy, and I believe that our military operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities, and improving the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces."
In 2005, George W. Bush, whom Gates also served, used the word "victory" 15 times in a single speech ("National Strategy for Victory in Iraq"). Keep in mind, though, that our previous president learned about war in the movie theaters of his childhood where the Marines always advanced and Americans actually won. Think of his victory obsession as the equivalent of a mid-twentieth-century hangover.
In 2011, despite the complaints of a few leftover neocons dreaming of past glory, you can search Washington high and low for "victory." You won't find it. It's the verbal equivalent of a Yeti. Being "successful in implementing the president's strategy," what more could you ask? Keeping the enemy on his "back foot": hey, at $10 billion a month, if that isn't "success," tell me what is?
Admittedly, the assassination of Osama bin Laden was treated as if it were VJ Day ending World War II, but actually win a war? Don't make Secretary of Defense Gates laugh!
Maybe, if everything comes up roses, in some year soon we'll be celebrating DE (Degrade the Enemy) Day.
Enemy: Any super-evil pipsqueak on whose back you can raise at least $1.2 trillion a year for the National Security Complex.
"I actually consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with Al-Awlaki as a leader within that organization probably the most significant risk to the US homeland." So said Michael Leiter, presidential adviser and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, last February, months before Osama bin Laden was killed (and Leiter himself resigned). Since bin Laden's death, Leiter's assessment has been heartily seconded in word and deed in Washington. For example, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti recently wrote: "Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen is believed by the C.I.A. to pose the greatest immediate threat to the United States, more so than even Qaeda's senior leadership believed to be hiding in Pakistan."
Now, here's the odd thing. Once upon a time, statements like these might have been tantamount to announcements of victory: That's all they've got left?
Of course, once upon a time, if you asked an American who was the most dangerous man on the planet, you might have been told Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin, or Mao Zedong. These days, don't think enemy at all; think comic-book-style arch-villain Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom — anyone, in fact, capable of standing in for globe-encompassing Evil.
Right now, post-bin-Laden, America's super-villain of choice is Anwar al-Awlaki, an enemy with seemingly near superhuman powers to disturb Washington, but no army, no state, and no significant finances. The US-born "radical cleric" lives as a semi-fugitive in Yemen, a poverty-stricken land of which, until recently, few Americans had heard. Al-Awlaki is considered at least partially responsible for two high-profile plots against the US: the underwear bomber and package bombs sent by plane to Chicago synagogues. Both failed dismally, even though neither Superman nor the Fantastic Four rushed to the rescue.
As an Evil One, al-Awlaki is a voodoo enemy, a YouTube warrior ("the bin Laden of the Internet") with little but his wits and whatever superpowers he can muster to help him. He was reputedly responsible for helping to poison the mind of Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan before he blew away 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas. There's no question of one thing: he's gotten inside Washington's war-on-terror head in a big way. As a result, the Obama administration is significantly intensifying its war against him and the ragtag crew of tribesmen he hangs out with who go by the name of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Covert War: It used to mean secret war, a war "in the shadows" and so beyond the public's gaze. Now, it means a conflict in the full glare of publicity that everybody knows about, but no one can do anything about. Think: in the news, but off the books.
Go figure: today, our "covert" wars are front-page news. The top-secret operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden garnered an unprecedented 69% of the US media "newshole" the week after it happened, and 90% of cable TV coverage. And America's most secretive covert warriors, elite SEAL Team 6, caused "SEAL-mania" to break out nationwide.
Moreover, no minor drone strike in the "covert" CIA-run air war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands goes unreported. In fact, as with Yemen today, future plans for the launching or intensification of Pakistani-style covert wars are now openly discussed, debated, and praised in Washington, as well as widely reported on. At one point, CIA Director Leon Panetta even bragged that, when it came to al-Qaeda, the Agency's covert air war in Pakistan was "the only game in town."
Think of covert war today as the equivalent of a heat-seeking missile aimed directly at that mainstream media newshole. The "shadows" that once covered whole operations now only cover accountability for them.