"Kinetic warfare."

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 20 2002 6:40 PM

Birth of a Washington Word

When warfare gets "kinetic."

"Retronym" is a word coined by Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern's campaign director, to delineate previously unnecessary distinctions. Examples include "acoustic guitar," "analog watch," "natural turf," "two-parent family," and "offline publication." Bob Woodward's new book, Bush at War, introduces a new Washington retronym: "kinetic" warfare. From page 150:

For many days the war cabinet had been dancing around the basic question: how long could they wait after September 11 before the U.S. started going "kinetic," as they often termed it, against al Qaeda in a visible way? The public was patient, at least it seemed patient, but everyone wanted action. A full military action—air and boots—would be the essential demonstration of seriousness—to bin Laden, America, and the world.

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In common usage, "kinetic" is an adjective used to describe motion, but the Washington meaning derives from its secondary definition, "active, as opposed to latent." Dropping bombs and shooting bullets—you know, killing people—is kinetic. But the 21st-century military is exploring less violent and more high-tech means of warfare, such as messing electronically with the enemy's communications equipment or wiping out its bank accounts. These are "non-kinetic." (Why not "latent"? Maybe the Pentagon worries that would make them sound too passive or effeminate.) Asked during a January talk at National Defense University whether "the transformed military of the future will shift emphasis somewhat from kinetic systems to cyber warfare," Donald Rumsfeld answered, "Yes!" (Rumsfeld uses the words "kinetic" and "non-kinetic" all the time.)

The recent war in Afghanistan demonstrates that when the chips are down, we still find it necessary to go kinetic. Indeed, for all its novel methods of non-kinetic warfare, today's military is much more deadly than it ever was before. For the foreseeable future, civilians and at least a few soldiers will continue to be killed in war. "Kinetic" seems an objectionable way to describe this reality from the point of view of both doves and hawks. To those who deplore or resist going to war, "kinetic" is unconscionably euphemistic, with antiseptic connotations derived from high-school physics and aesthetic ones traceable to the word's frequent use by connoisseurs of modern dance. To those who celebrate war (or at least find it grimly necessary), "kinetic" fails to evoke the manly virtues of strength, fierceness, and bravery. Imagine Rudyard Kipling penning the lines, "For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!'/ But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the U.K goes kinetic." Is it too late to remove this word from the Washington lexicon? Chatterbox suggests a substitute: "fighting."

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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