BY CHARLES MEMMINGER – I thought I’ve been watching the war in Libya the past several days on TV but it turns out that according to the White House I’ve been watching a “kinetic military action.” It looked like war, what with all the jets dropping bombs and cruise missiles flying and anti-aircraft guns going ack-ack-ack into the night sky over Tripoli. But I was wrong. It was a kinetic military action. I’ve never even heard of a kinetic military action but one of president Obama’s deputy national security advisers said it’s a kinetic military action and so I guess we have to live with it.
Being the suspicious type, I suspected that the reason the White House can’t call all that shootin’ and dyin’ going on in Libya a war is because President Obama committed U.S. troops to the anti-Moammar Gadhafi coalition in accordance to a United Nations resolution and didn’t get permission to go to war from the U.S. Congress. Apparently the Constitution says only Congress can declare war and doesn’t say squat about whether Congress has to declare a kinetic military action.
I’ve been writing professionally for more than 30 years and I believe this is the first time I’ve ever actually typed the word “kinetic.” I’ve read about it. I know what it means. It’s a word that pops up in physics a lot in connection with moving celestial bodies and long, hairy calculations involving speed, velocity, mass and, I think, Angelina Jolie. According to my handy-dandy thesaurus it simply means movement, activity, aggressiveness (see: animated). So, in the context of the White House definition, it refers to military action that is moving, active, aggressive and animated. Opposed, I supposed, to military action that is idle, inactive, lazy (see: sluggish). A cynic might contend that military action that is idle or sluggish isn’t military action at all. That would be called military INACTION.
Warning bells go off in my head when high government officials start to fold, spindle and mutilate the English language to make some kind of a nuanced point. There was Bill Clinton pondering what the meaning of “is” is before a Federal Grand Jury; Al Gore raising the concept of “no controlling legal authority” in a campaign donations scandal and George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” proclamation. They usually do this not to make things more clear for us but to mislead us. Clinton did have sex with THAT woman, Gore did make phone calls from White House illegally soliciting campaign donations and Bush’s mission in Iraq had not been accomplished and still hasn’t.
Other presidents unpracticed in the pliability of language suffered for it. When cornered in the Watergate Affair, Richard Nixon could only pathetically cough up the phrase “I am not a crook!” when what he clearly was going for was “I am not a kinetic engager in deception, fabrication or fraudulence (see: subterfuge).”
Now that I know that what we are engaged in in Libya with all the tanks, battleships, jets, missiles, guns, bombs and inappropriate camouflaged clothing (Note to rebels: Fatigues with green jungle cammo do NOT make you invisible in the desert) … now that I know that is not war it makes me wonder whether other historical conflicts were misnamed. The “Kinetic Naval Engagement of 1812”, for instance. And the “World Kinetic Military Hostility I and World Kinetic Military Hostility II”, “The Kinetic Unpleasantness of the Roses”, “The 100-Year Kinetic Thingy” and “America’s Civil Messed Up Kinetic Disagreement” come to mind. Since our country’s Cold War with the Soviet Union was cold, I guess it was not kinetic. Maybe it should have been called the “The Interminable Lethargic Non-Kinetic Peace-Resembling Snit.”
The question is whether simply changing a few words can change the reality of what is actually happening. Had John Paul Jones said, “I have not yet begun to kinetically begin a watery conflagration!” or had it been announced that the Japanese had just “kinetically engineered a frightful fracas at Pearl Harbor” or had Groucho Marx – the leader of Freedonia in “Duck Soup” – shouted “Gather the forces! Harness the horses! It’s a kinetic maddened state of perturbation!” would the world be any different?