Sunday, January 30, 2005

Give a Blood Chit to the Confusion Agent

By PETER EDIDIN

“TO civilians, the language of war is poetry, or at least poetic: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," or "Half a league, half a league/ Half a league onward." Even "War is hell," Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's terse repudiation of the whole thing, has its own hard-bitten grace.

But to the military professional, war is associated less with the martial cadences of Tennyson than with bland bureaucratese. This makes intuitive sense. A nation's military establishment requires an emotionally neutral, descriptively precise vocabulary to track and control its endlessly branching organizational tree, and to occasionally fight a war - an extraordinarily complex undertaking.

The United States may have the greatest need for a military operating language, because it has by far the largest military to operate. Such a language exists, and much of it, the unclassified part, is collected in the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a 742-page and growing work, most recently amended in November. Since 1989, its use has been mandatory for the armed forces and the Defense Department.

The dictionary (online at: http://jdeis.cornerstoneindustry.com/jdeis/dictionary/qsDictionaryPortlet.jsp?group=dod is striking for the resourcefulness of the compilers - who must describe a wide array of arcane objects, activities and institutions - for their lack of affect and for the surreal humor that is the occasional product of unswerving literalism. In a book whose ultimate subject is weapons and war, there is hardly a whiff of smoke or powder. Excerpts follow.

A

absolute dud A nuclear weapon which, when launched at or emplaced on a target, fails to explode.

antemortem identification media Records, samples and photographs taken prior to death. These include (but are not limited to) fingerprints, dental X-rays, body tissue samples, photographs of tattoos or other identifying marks. These "predeath" records would be compared against records completed after death to help establish a positive identification of remains.

B

back tell The transfer of information from a higher to a lower echelon of command. See also track telling. (See also: cross tell; forward tell; lateral tell; overlap tell; and relateral tell.)

blood chit A small sheet of material depicting an American flag and a statement in several languages to the effect that anyone assisting the bearer to safety will be rewarded.

C

catalytic attack An attack designed to bring about a war between major powers through the disguised machinations of a third power.

cloud amount The proportion of sky obscured by cloud, expressed as a fraction of sky covered.

confusion agent An individual who is dispatched by the sponsor for the primary purpose of confounding the intelligence or counterintelligence apparatus of another country rather than for the purpose of collecting and transmitting information.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/weekinreview/30word.html?pagewanted=all&position=
con·cept: Give a Blood Chit to the Confusion Agent