Plain Language Hides Annihilation

With good reason, Orwell and others opposed vague and otherwise misleading language. Clear, precise language can do only so much, however, such as leading us to realize, to the extent we can, where civilization has taken us: to the threshold of annihilation.

Consider, for example, these two paragraphs from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ site, specifically from the page on “Nuclear Weapons and Global Security” (to which title I want to add the subtitle: “Never the Twain Shall Meet”):

“For the United States, about which the most is known, the president and other civilian leaders determine the overall purpose of U.S. nuclear forces and the types of missions for which they will be used. The actual numbers and weapon characteristics follow from more specific targeting decisions made by the Department of Defense. These decisions still rely on policies and assumptions about fighting and winning a nuclear war, which are a relic of the Cold War. The decisions made by the Department of Defense ultimately result in a long list of targets that U.S. nuclear forces must be able to destroy: missile silos, air bases, communication and command centers, and other military and industrial installations.

For the United States, typically two or more warheads are assigned to each target so that there is a high probability of destroying it. These targeting decisions then set the required numbers and types of warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The base level of 2,200 warheads set by the Moscow Treaty thus indicates that U.S. nuclear doctrine requires being able to destroy roughly 1,000 targets after 2012. Presumably, most of these targets are in Russia and China.”

The bolding is mine. I should add that the Union, which relies on a variety of customary sources, estimates the current (March 2009) worldwide arsenal of nuclear warheads to be between 25,486 and 25,496.

“Win” is usually an unambiguous word, but when uttered in this context, it goes beyond ambiguous and straight to absurd without passing euphemism. In so doing, it reminds me of Dr. Strangelove[“Nobody said we weren’t going to get our hair mussed a little bit”], of course, but also of Luke’s retort in Cool Hand Luke:

“Wish you’d stop bein’ so good to me, cap’n.”

To Luke, “good” meant “bad,” with good reason. “Win” means “lose” in nuclear warfare, and the plain, clear language in the paragraphs above seems like a simple, easily interpreted mask–attached to a madman’s face.

“Security,” when uttered by policy-types, may qualify for the Cool-Hand-Luke reversal. Just what do they mean by “security,” whose “security,” achieved in what ways, and . . . “I wish you’d stop watching out for our security, cap’n.” Consider warrantless wire-tapping, the precipitous (at best) invasion and occupation of Iraq, the exposure of Valerie Plame out of spite, extraordinary rendition (wouldn’t Orwell have fun with that term?), Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and so on.

I should mention that at least one political scientist quibbles with the term “the occupation of Iraq” because after the U.S. invaded, Iraq became a nation (again, I guess, is the argument) and invited the U.S. in. So if a person breaks-and enters-your house looking for WMD, finds none, cooks an omelette, and lies on your couch, everything will be just fine if you say, “Please come in!” –Not a perfect analogy, I grant, but nonetheless: invited in?


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