LETTER FROM AMERICA: Terminology of war is throwing up a smokescreen

Terms being used by the military and media in the reporting of events in Iraq show signs of a subtle propaganda campaign, writes US commentator Paul Holmes.

Ah, the language of war. The attack on Iraq is less than a week old, and already there are half a dozen words I hope I will never hear again.

'Embedded', for example. I heard a reporter on CNN hand off to 'our reporter embedded in an aircraft carrier', which sounds pretty painful. But the 'embedding' of reporters in military units is the most brilliant strategic decision of this entire campaign, since its effect appears to be the transformation of usually intelligent reporters into Pentagon PROs. As someone in the administration obviously realised, it's hard to hold on to journalistic integrity when you're dependent for continued survival on the people you're supposed to be covering.

Then there's 'shock and awe', a totally unnecessary new term for a strategic approach that's not nearly as original as Donald Rumsfeld would like you to believe. The Germans called it 'blitzkrieg', although I can understand why the US military didn't want to borrow a term from the Nazis.

Then there's the brand name for this conflict: Operation Iraqi Freedom.

It's possible, I suppose, that Iraqi freedom might be a by-product of this campaign, but to pretend that it's what the exercise is all about is intellectual dishonesty at its most perverse. The real Operation Iraqi Freedom will begin after Saddam is captured or dead, and when a new government is elected - and I hope I don't sound too cynical if I predict that by that time most Americans will have lost all interest in the process.

Other terms include 'coalition of the willing', apparently shorthand for 'coalition of the willing to accept American aid in return for saying they support US aggression, as long as they don't actually have to participate', and 'collateral damage', a euphemism for the death and dismemberment of innocent women and children.

But the most Orwellian usage of all has been the recent application of the word 'relevance', as in 'the United Nations faced a test of its relevance, and failed'. Relevance, in this context, means willingness to rubberstamp whatever demands the US makes. If that sounds very much like irrelevance to you, perhaps you don't understand the might-makes-right world in which we are living.

I mention all this because as a professional communicator, I believe words are important, and I find the ways in which they are used to manipulate, and to obfuscate, fascinating.

For a student of propaganda, these are rich times indeed.

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