10 Of The Most Evasive Military Euphemisms

Voting Rules

Vote up the most misleading military terms.

War brings innovation as well as destruction, as many everyday items were initially developed for military use. Changes can also be seen in language, because a great deal of modern-day speech actually derives from combat. The other side of this linguistic coin is the increasingly vague way in which wars are written and spoken about. Rather than express the stark and often bleak truths of combat, a host of euphemisms have emerged to soften the reality.

Some serve to minimize the unwelcome moral quandaries of war, while others stretch our credulity to breaking point. From the absurd to the outright malicious, this collection looks at the real meanings behind military euphemisms and their origins.  

  • The Department Of Defense
    Photo: United States Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    104 VOTES

    The Department Of Defense

    Implication: A reorganization of the military with a greater focus on defense and deterrence 

    Reality: Little more than a rebranding

    Context: In the immediate years following WWII - the most destructive conflict in human history - there was an understandable wish to maintain peace. The United Nations charter specifically outlawed wars of aggression, so the US Department of War needed a rebranding to bring it up to date with the postwar world. 

    The National Security Act of 1947 was a major reorganization of the US military. A new cabinet post, the Secretary of Defense, and the creation of the CIA were among the most impactful aspects of the act.

    104 votes
  • Foraging
    Photo: Felix Octavius Carr / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    89 VOTES


    Implication: Requisitioning supplies for an army while on campaign

    Reality: Stealing food from the local populace 

    Context: Supplying an army has historically often been the difference between victory and defeat. One of the reasons the Romans were such a dominant force in the ancient world was their outstanding organization and ability to arm and feed thousands of legionaries at once. Most armies campaigning outside their own borders would attempt to resupply with local wares either through foraging or raiding. The difference between foraging and raiding isn't exactly clear-cut. 

    One way to look at it is that so-called “civilized” states like Rome foraged, while barbarians like the Huns or Mongols raided and pillaged. But what practical difference was there between those on the receiving end of a foraging party and those subjected to raids? 

    Not much, as it would take a very brave - or foolish - village to turn down an army's demands for supplies. In some cases, actually paying for food could be advantageous as well as morally upstanding. In the Peninsular War, famed British general Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington to most, made a point of paying a fair rate to Portuguese and Spanish locals for supplies. As a result, traders who might have turned over goods to the French would instead seek out the British. Similarly, the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi once starved out a castle by paying way over the standard price for rice in the local area. The rush to cash in denied the castle's garrison much-needed supplies. 

    During the American Civil War, the Union Army moved at a lightning pace to secure Vicksburg by stripping the surrounding countryside of supplies en route to the key Confederate stronghold. The following year, General William T. Sherman's famed March to the Sea saw his forces cut a brutal path through Georgia. Foraging parties helped themselves to any supplies they could get their hands on, burning whatever they couldn't carry with them. 

    89 votes
  • Enhanced Interrogation
    Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    85 VOTES

    Enhanced Interrogation

    Implication: Getting military intelligence through unconventional means

    Reality: Torture

    Context: The use of torture to obtain information is illegal in both international and US law. The Eighth Amendment also specifically prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” To get around these legal stumbling blocks, the second Bush administration coined the pernicious euphemism “enhanced interrogation” to justify the controversial methods employed by the CIA on terror suspects from 2002 through 2009. 

    The idea that extreme techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and rectal feeding do not amount to torture, but are instead “enhanced interrogation” methods, really pushed the limits of credibility even in the hyper-patriotic climate of the immediate post-9/11 years. Although the Bush administration attempted to justify both the legality and the strategic value of these methods, very little actionable intelligence ever came from them. A Senate committee concluded that enhanced interrogation techniques were not an effective way to gather intelligence. 

    85 votes
  • Frontverkürzung ('Shortening Of The Front')
    Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #491037 / Anatoliy Garanin / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
    60 VOTES

    Frontverkürzung ('Shortening Of The Front')

    Implication: A strategic withdrawal to a more defensible position

    Reality: Getting pushed back by a superior force

    Context: The German Empire actually did this during WWI in 1917 to conserve manpower by narrowing the confines of the Western Front to free up more soldiers to win in the east. During WWII, the propaganda machine of the Third Reich was in full damage control mode to explain away the lack of progress made after the winter of 1941-1942. After the speedy victories in Western Europe in 1940, the Soviet Union proved a much tougher nut to crack. Several euphemisms were adopted into the German lexicon to excuse the reversal in fortunes. 

    Words like niederlage ("defeat") or ruckzug ("retreat") were never used in state broadcasts. At worst, the German military machine was experiencing a mere rückschlag ("setback") - but a temporary blip on the road to victory. The failure to advance was explained away as an engpässe ("bottleneck"). After all those easy 1939-1940 victories, the German people had clearly been “spoiled” and now needed to show some patience and fortitude for the final victory ahead. The front wasn't a fixed thing but elastiche ("elastic"), always updating and never fixed. Sure, the movement was only really in one direction after 1942, but the German army never stopped moving. 

    Speeches that once invoked “fortress Europe” later became “fortress Germany” and by the spring of 1945, “fortress Berlin.”

    60 votes
  • 5
    63 VOTES

    Boots On The Ground

    Implication: Combat troops deployed abroad 

    Reality: A state of war 

    Context: This curious turn of phrase has seen its meaning shift over the course of its relatively short life. A version of the term was first coined in the memoirs of a British official in the wake of the Malayan Emergency

    A chapter of the book was titled “Feet on the Ground,” which signified the idea that a successful military operation had to have a ground presence (i.e., feet). “Boot” has long been a rather dehumanizing term for infantry, but it wasn't until 1980 that the term “boots on the ground” first came about. Initially, it was a statement of resolve, a commitment to see a military campaign through with the necessary ground element.

    The idea of victory through airpower alone goes all the way back to the immediate years following WWI. An Italian theorist named Giulio Douhet wrote one of the first works exploring the concept of strategic bombing. The idea has been extolled ever since, from wartime Disney propaganda films to the Obama administration. It's a particularly welcome premise in the US, where the tolerance for casualties is low. 

    In more recent times, the idea of “boots on the ground” began to act as a stand-in for a state of war - an escalation most recent presidents have been very reluctant to cross. 

    63 votes
  • Pacification And Neutralization
    Photo: Branch of the National Union of Journalists / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    49 VOTES

    Pacification And Neutralization

    Implication: Bringing a hostile region under control

    Reality: Wholesale destruction 

    Context: Terms like pacification and neutralization attempt to sanitize the ugly realities of combat, particularly in the modern era. Pacifying an area almost sounds like putting an unruly infant to bed early rather than flattening it from the skies. Similarly, neutralizing a foe is usually just a less direct way of saying “killing.” 

    Famed British writer George Orwell remarked on the absurdity of such terms in a 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language”:

    Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

    49 votes