Arms Talk

By Hugh Rawson

A national debate over gun control has begun in the United States, and you can tell where people stand on the issue without really listening to their arguments. Just pay attention to the key words they use. Those who favor restrictions on guns, particularly semi-automatic rifles that can fire many bullets without reloading, stress their offensive capabilities. They typically refer to these guns as assault rifles, military-style weapons, and combat weapons.  Meanwhile, the companies that make these same rifles, and the people who oppose restricting them, speak more abstractly of tactical weapons, modern sporting rifles, and personal defense weapons (P.D.W. for short). More powerful, longer-range rifles are described, depending on one’s point of view, as sniper rifles or precision rifles, and firearms of all sorts may be referred to most generally, and most blandly, as tools. The choice of words sets the terms of the debate and forecasts the speaker’s conclusion.

Ironically, considering how the gun manufacturers now shy away from aggressive terminology, they were the ones who popularized assault rifle to describe the semi-automatic AR-15. This type of rifle was designed for the armed forces. It is the civilian counterpart of the military’s M16, and manufacturers traded on the military connection when introducing the AR-15 to the consumer market. The main difference between the two weapons is that the trigger of the semi-automatic AR-15 must be pulled to fire each shot, while the automatic M16 can spray a stream of bullets with a single squeeze.

(AR stands for ArmaLite Rifle, after the original developer, the ArmaLite division of the Fairchild company. Colt subsequently bought the design, trademarked it, and sold the rifle in such large quantities that people commonly refer to all guns of this type, whether made by Colt or other companies, as AR-15s. A Google search for AR-15 this February produced about 230,000,000 hits in 0.31 seconds.)

“The New Breed of Assault Rifle” was how Remington described its version of the AR-15 in a 1980 ad.  As recently as 2007, Guns & Ammo, a magazine for consumers, hailed the AR as “America’s battle rifle.” By this time, however, publicity about the use of AR-15s in deadly shootings was causing many people in the gun industry, as well individual gun owners, to have second thoughts about what to call them. For example, the author of the Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Assault Weapons told The New York Times (Jan. 16, 2013) that the National Rifle Association refused to sell his book on its website in 2008, but did so after he changed its title in 2010 to the Gun Digest Buyer’s Guide to Tactical Rifles.

The language of the American military establishment provides many parallels to the ongoing civilian debate. For example, the U.S. arsenal includes short-range tactical nuclear weapons, which are not as small as the name suggests. Some of these battlefield weapons are a good bit more powerful than the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan to end World War II.  The U.S. has a stockpile of perhaps two hundred of these weapons, also called mininukes, in western Europe. Using them would cause a great deal of collateral damage, which is another way of saying that many civilians would be killed and wounded, and many nonmilitary structures destroyed. Western Europe would not look the same afterward. As an American army major in Vietnam dryly remarked about another instance of collateral damage: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it” (Associated Press, Feb 8, 1968).

Similar military euphemisms include surgical strike (from the 1960s) and the older precision bombing.  (In 1945 only 60% of the bombs dropped by the American Eighth Air Force hit within 1,000 feet of their targets, with most of bombs coming from the belly of a  B-17 — the Flying Fortress, which, its name to the contrary, was designed strictly as a long-range offensive weapon.)   Other military examples include incursion, which is another word for the more aggressive invasion; preemptive strike, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a surprise (or sneak) attack; strategic (or retrograde) movement, which puts the best possible face on a retreat; and friendly fire, which may not seem so friendly when you are hit, even though the fire has come from one of your comrades. (The American military command in Vietnam classified any death from friendly fire as a misadventure, which is a delicate way of not saying mistake).

Then there is the inoffensive defense, as in the Department of Defense, which started out in 1789 as the more accurately named War Department. It follows that since the Department of Defense was created in 1947 the United States has not fought any wars: The conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places (e.g., the forays into Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989) are not officially classified as wars because Congress did not declare them to be so.

But the United States has plenty of company in this respect. The Israeli military services constitute that country’s Defense Forces, Russia boasts a Ministry of Defense, and when the former Japanese Imperial Navy puts to sea, it does so as the nation’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.

And so it goes. The motto of the American Strategic Air Command, charged with obliterating the enemy, is “Peace Is Our Profession”; the long-range MX missile, with multiple warheads, was hopefully dubbed The Peacekeeper, and the six-engine B-36 bomber, introduced in 1948, toward the start of the Cold War, was called The Peacemaker, harking back to where we started: The Colt .45 six-shooter, first produced in 1873, and for many years the weapon of choice by gunfighters and lawmen alike, and also nicknamed  The Peacemaker.

11 thoughts on “Arms Talk

  1. An engaging and illuminating history. In the newest chapter, the Pentagon is trying to persuade journalists to refer to the remotely controlled aircraft being used in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere not as “drones,” a word with rather dark science fiction connotations, but as “unmanned aerial vehicles.”

  2. Delfin

    Governments, and the military in particular, are factories that produce euphemisms twenty-four hours a day, non-stop, everywhere. I guess that the warped minds that produce the new terminology are linguists and lexicographers who prostitute themselves for some lentils… do not forget.
    Thank you for a great and well-approached piece. May I again mention Eric Blair’s1984?

  3. First rate as usual, Hugh. Going back to World War II I do not recall any official concern about what we now call “collateral” effects or civilian casualities. Do you think Bomber Harris worried about them in night raids over Hamburg or Dresden or the U.S. during incendiary raids and later nuclear action against Japan? Keep it up! Fred Ordway

    1. I think “collateral damage:” came out of the Vietnam war, along with such others as “armed reconnaissance” for “bombing, “reconnaissance in force” for “search and destroy,” and “specified strike zone” for “free fire zone.” Curiously, “collateral damage” was not among the 6,000-plus entries in the 1979 edition of the “Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms,” though the phrase was in common use at the time. Your mention of Bomber Harris reminds me that while the Americans engaged in so-called “precision bombing” in daylight air raids, the British, flying at night, carried out what they called “area bombing,” which, of course, was even less precise. Highlights of the “area bombing” campaign included the fire bombings of Hamburg (perhaps 42,000 dead) and Dresden (estimates of the total casualties range from 250,000 to 400,000). Prior to the invention of the airplane, attacks on cities and other unfortified positions generally were considered unsporting, even immoral. After the tremendous battlefield carnage of WW I, however, leading military thinkers looked to the airplane as a way of shortening the next war. Thus, Gen. William (Billy) Mitchell, argued that no nation could stand up for long against air attacks on its “vital centers” (meaning “cities”). He thought that dropping “a few gas bombs” on a few cities would cause the enemy to surrender. By the early 1940s, air campaigns of this sort were referred to as “strategic bombing.”

      1. Several years ago, I saw a fascinating film about British and German propaganda efforts during World War II. (Sorry, but I forget the title.) The message from London was that the attacks on civilians reflected the German lack of moral fiber and served only to increase the patriotism and will to resist of the British. The message from Berlin was that the attacks on civilians reflected the British lack of moral fiber and served only to increase the patriotism and will to resist of the Germans. The documentary’s point was that, in extremis, human beings describe what they see in terms they want to believe.

  4. Madiha

    The wars that America fought after 1947 were indeed peace missions and it was necessary to save humanity from imaginary weapons of mass destruction and destroy millions for that noble cause.

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