How Does the Pentagon Say "Body Bag"?
Hint: It's not "transfer tube."
On March 20, the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, anti-war activists around the world performed coordinated readings of "What I Heard About Iraq," a piece by Eliot Weinberg that ran last year in the London Review of Books and Fellowship magazine. Among Weinberg's litany of indictments against the war effort was this line:
"I heard that the Pentagon had renamed body bags 'transfer tubes.' "
Well, don't believe everything you hear.
Countless news articles and blog entries over the past two and a half years have claimed that "transfer tube" is the new Pentagon-speak for "body bag." Sometimes, as in Tom Tomorrow's political cartoon This Modern World, the purported euphemism is rendered as "transport tube." (As one of his glassy-eyed characters put it: " 'Body bag' is such an uncouth term!") But the U.S. military does not refer to body bags as either "transfer tubes" or "transport tubes." Mortuary suppliers have been using the designation "pouch, human remains" since at least 1965, and the Pentagon has recognized "human remains pouch" (or HRP for short) as the official term since the first Gulf War.
The Ottawa Citizen recently labeled the transfer tube story an "urban legend." Unlike most urban legends, however, this spurious bit of accepted wisdom can be traced back to one incident: Not a vicious rumor intended to tar the Bush administration, but a simple misunderstanding between a reporter and a military spokesman.
The trouble dates back to a Nov. 2, 2003, article in the Toronto Star by the paper's Washington Bureau Chief Tim Harper. In the piece, which appeared under the headline "Pentagon Keeps Dead Out of Sight," Harper reported on the Pentagon's ban on cameras at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the bodies of most of the U.S. war dead arrive from Iraq. Harper cited critics of the war who decried the media ban as propagandistic and then noted: "Today's military doesn't even use the words 'body bags.' During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon began calling them 'human remains pouches' and it now refers to them as 'transfer tubes.' "
Reached by telephone at the Star's Washington bureau, Harper acknowledged that his original reporting of "transfer tubes" was an unintentional error based on miscommunication with an official at Dover. Harper had been in contact with Lt. Col. Jon Anderson, then the public affairs chief at the Air Force base, who explained the procedure used to return the remains of dead soldiers from Iraq. The bodies are first sealed in thick plastic bags—the HRPs. Next the bags are placed in rectangular aluminum containers known as "transfer cases," often erroneously referred to as "coffins," even though they are not used for burial. Finally, the transfer cases are covered with American flags and flown to Dover in military cargo planes. The Pentagon's media ban was intended to keep images of these flag-draped cases out of the public eye. (Despite the ban, a Web site known as the Memory Hole eventually posted photos of the Dover transfer cases obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.)
Though he didn't tape his conversation with Lt. Col. Anderson, Harper says he wrote down "transfer tubes" in his notes, perhaps based on a mishearing of Anderson's description of the transfer cases. He took the term as a euphemism for body bags and wrote about it that way in the article, a point driven home by the subheadline: "Bush team doesn't want people to see human cost of war: Even body bags are now sanitized as 'transfer tubes.' " Once the Star article began to circulate widely on the Web (thanks to republication on sites like Common Dreams), Harper heard from one of his colleagues that a Pentagon official had denied that transfer tubes was the new military terminology. He followed up with Anderson, who said that he had never heard of the expression before. Harper chalked up the error to a "communication breakdown" and refrained from using the term in his own reporting, though he says that neither Anderson nor anyone at the Pentagon ever asked him to run a correction.
But the damage had been done. Bloggers held up the transfer tube euphemism as emblematic of the official secrecy surrounding the war: A contributor to Daily Kos called the term "grotesquely euphemizing," while Atrios called it a "bit of newspeak." If even the clinical expression "human remains pouch" was too explicit for the Pentagon, the thinking went, the propaganda machine had clearly reached new heights of double-speak. The success of the urban legend hinged on the fact that it was just "too good to check": The euphemism dovetailed snugly with other conceptions of the war effort held by its critics, and thus it could be passed around as simply the latest outrage from an outrageous administration.
Apocryphal euphemisms are hardly the province of any one political vantage point, however. Fifteen years ago, during the height of the "PC wars," many American conservatives exulted in telling stories of rampant euphemization on college campuses and elsewhere. Politically correct speech, such as the use of "differently abled" for "disabled," was often presented as an Orwellian attempt to control thought by changing the English language. The only problem was that a number of these supposed "PC euphemisms" were never actually used in seriousness, as Deborah Cameron explains in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene. No school ever mandated that short people be called "vertically challenged," or that girls be called "pre-women." Those were satirical takes on PC language invented by college cartoonists and other wags, but the expressions were eventually circulated as ostensible proof of political correctness run amok. As with transfer tubes, the would-be PC-isms spread quickly because they fit into a set of preconceptions about an opposing point of view.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer for the Visual Thesaurus.
Photograph of flag-draped cases by TheMemoryHole.org via Getty Images.