“Language exists to express and communicate,” writes Roy F. Baumeister in Evil, Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, “but perpetrators reluctant to face up to their guilt often find ways to use language to conceal, confuse, and mislead.” It is a process that begins with the words themselves. But then perpetrators play endless games with words to try and present the shocking and horrific as mundane and ordinary, and to confuse the public while hiding their crimes and sickening intentions so as to alleviate their guilt.
Now that it appears another Cold War is brewing between the U.S.and Russia, I revisited how Baumeister believes perpetrators use euphemistic words and language. Although “Cold War” terminology was graphic right after World War II, by the time I attended secondary school it had become obscure, vague, ambiguous and confusing.Gone were the horrific images and casualties in the Korean War-and many other military overthrows and deadly engagements to counter the Soviets. Nor was there mention of a nuclear holocaust.
Perhaps the haziness over Cold War realities, including its urgency, was the humiliating guilt and defeatU.S. forces in Vietnam. Wording like pacification, Phoenix Program, carpet bombing, Agent Orange, and liquidating the enemy had concealed mass murder, assassinations, indiscriminate killings, and torture. Still, my instructors assured me how the Cold War was a mere “war of words,” a “space race,” “a conflict over two competing economies,” and “two superpowers that had turned a cold shoulder towards each other.”
It was this kind of highly specialized and confusing language, a language that disguised the brutalities and horrors of warfare, that in part motivated me to internalize militarism and war, and then later join the U.S. military so as to stop the spread of Communism. It was because of Cold War euphemisms and their innocuous ideas that I euphorically, and with great anticipation, longed for war. It was only later that I understood how institutions used seemingly innocent terms to disguise their brutalities and crimes against humanity.
Again, it appears another Cold War is evolving. Tensions exist over U.S. military actions in Syria, a former U.S. NSA contractor who defected to Russia and exposed embarrassing surveillance programs, and a renewed missile-space race. So far, it has been a “war of words.” For example, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin called President Barack Obama‘s allegations that Syria used chemical weapons “absurd.” Earlier, he had called President Obama America‘s first “gay president” for allowing same sex marriages.
The discord between the U.S. and Russia has also been a real “turning the cold shoulder.” At a recent eleven of G-20 members meeting, both President Obama and President Vladimir avoided each other and refused to meet privately. While some U.S. leaders accuse Russia of “cozying up to a Syrian dictator” and legitimizing “atrocities,” others are taunting Russia’s geopolitical influence in the region. It seems this new Cold War might even be fought and settled within the United Nations Security Council.
Of course the U.S. still might turn a true Cold War into a real World War IV. President Obama’s case for military intervention in Syria never did reflect intelligence assessments, a military consensus, nor accurate evidence of who used chemical weapons. Still, Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at Syria’s President Assad and Russia’s President Putin over their agreement of dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program. He even declared it as “not enough” and “totally unacceptable.”
The “cold war” expression was actually coined in the 14th century, when Prince Juan Manuel, the regent of Castile and Leon, applied it to the struggle between the Spanish Christians and the Arab Moors. The prince meant that, unlike “hot,” or formally declared, wars, the “cold war” began without a declaration of war and ended without a peace treaty.(1) The wars between Europeans and Arab Moors lasted centuries, were extremely devastating to both sides, and filled with many deportations, massacres and atrocities.
If this new Cold War devolves into a Hot War again, a World War IV, I hope political and military leaders of both nations will have the courage and integrity to use “real” words and “genuine” concepts that will reveal its true horrors and brutalities. There are too many veterans that are still suffering from Cold War euphemisms and their realities. There were too many cover-ups regarding mass murders, torture, indiscriminate killings, burning children with napalm, use of chemical warfare, and wholesale rape and slaughter.
And for the survivors of more than 30 million victims of the Cold War, or Hot War, or World War III, or the “other” humanitarian crises that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry knows only too well, at a much more deeper level they still experience the harsh realities of the Cold War too. They understand how perpetrators manipulate language and flagrant hypocrisies, concealing their guilt while hiding behind superficial words. The same words which a gullible and disconnected public believed but never questioned.
In the end, shocking and horrific metaphors-passed on as being mundane and ordinary-are ultimately overtaken by more realistic wartime experiences and graphic realizations. Imperial “humanitarian interventions” always seem to finally be exposed for what they really are: wholesale rape and slaughter in the name of absolute power and corporate greed. But remember: at the root of every declining superpower political leaders use euphemistic words, which leads to confusion, which leads to deadly realities.
And deadly realities of the past always have ways of catching up to superpowers, of eventually determining their present and a nightmarish future.