Evasive language, banishment of experts, and the egos too big to admit error are just some of the pathologies common to both conflicts.
In 1968, The Atlantic published "How Could Vietnam Happen" by James C. Thomson, an East Asia specialist who served in the White House during the war. The essay set forth a number of explanations for what went wrong, and reading it as the United States blunders through the longest conflict in our history, one can't help but wonder whether it holds lessons for our generation. Several passages in particular grabbed me, each offering a particular insight for reflection.
THE PERILS OF EVASIVE LANGUAGE
Regular readers know that I recently complained about the Obama Administration calling its drone strikes "surgical." So I was interested to see a colleague from another era object to the term. For him, it was an example of "bureaucratic detachment" that blinded policymakers to reality. What exactly is bureaucratic detachment?
By this I mean what at best might be termed the professional callousness of the surgeon (and indeed, medical lingo -- the "surgical strike" for instance -- seemed to crop up in the euphemisms of the times). In Washington the semantics of the military muted the reality of war for the civilian policy-makers. In quiet, air-conditioned, thick-carpeted rooms, such terms as "systematic pressure," "armed reconnaissance," "targets of opportunity," and even "body count" seemed to breed a sort of games-theory detachment. Most memorable to me was a moment in the late 1964 target planning when the question under discussion was how heavy our bombing should be, and how extensive our strafing, at some midpoint in the projected pattern of systematic pressure. An Assistant Secretary of State resolved the point in the following words: "It seems to me that our orchestration should be mainly violins, but with periodic touches of brass." Perhaps the biggest shock of my return to Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the realization that the young men, the flesh and blood I taught and saw on these university streets, were potentially some of the numbers on the charts of those faraway planners. In a curious sense, Cambridge is closer to this war than Washington.
Language from the War on Terrorism (some of it old, some of it new) that contributes to bureaucratic detachment includes:
- Enhanced interrogation techniques
- Collateral damage
- Special Operations
- Intelligence professionals
- Exporting democracy
- Freedom agenda
- Surgical strike
- Kinetic operations
- Indefinite detention
- Signature strikes
- Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism
- Overseas Contingency Operation