TCS Daily

Word War I

By Melana Zyla Vickers - February 18, 2002 12:00 AM

Ever since George W. Bush spoke the words "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address, Washington's chattering classes have busied themselves with their favorite pastime - slicing and dicing the meaning of a phrase as well as its utterer. This dyspeptic axis-parsing is so all-consuming, its significance taken so seriously, that it really should have a name: war of words of war, or armchair speechwriting, or Beltway Scrabble, perhaps.

A capital city hasn't expended this much manpower on definitions since Buckingham Palace let slip in London that the word game Balderdash is a favorite of the Royal Family. Correction: Hasn't expended this much manpower on definitions since Bill Clinton's slippery deposition in the Paula Jones case.

In any event, February's philological fits over what to call the evil regimes of Iran, Iraq and North Korea have obscured several other adventures in vocabulary. Among them:

Warehouse of Terror. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the armed services committee, got all hot and bothered Thursday over Pentagon plans to store some of the 4,000-odd nuclear warheads the U.S. will decommission under President Bush's agreement with Russia's Vladimir Putin. "It's warehoused terror rather than immediate terror," the senator said, indicating not only his somewhat unorthodox view that terrorism and nuclear deterrence are synonymous, but also his preference for the Russian suggestion that U.S. warheads be destroyed.

Of course, the reason why the Russians prefer that the U.S. destroy its warheads - rather than store them for a future in which a greater deterrent might be needed - is that the bankrupt country's own stockpile is disintegrating so rapidly it couldn't store extra warheads even if it wanted to. Memo to Sen. Levin: In Russian, "nuclear warehouse" is "Cupboard of Mother Hubbard-ova."

Unmanned versus unwoman-ed. The Pentagon's unmanned combat air vehicle first flew into a firestorm of gender politics in the Clinton years, when some sensitive soul officially renamed it the "uninhabited combat air vehicle." What was perplexing then and now, though, was that even while that moniker changed, another aircraft called the unmanned aerial vehicle - that's the, uh, unarmed unmanned one - remained "unmanned." Similarly, the Predator never became a Predatrix, and the drone's first test flight was never called the maiden voyage of the Queen Bee.

Perhaps because of those oversights, gender-equity for the remotely piloted aircraft is enjoying a resurgence in the Pentagon. In a trade-press interview published last week, Secretary of the Air Force James Roche refers to the aircraft as "unattended vehicles."

Actually, "unattended" is pretty apt. With his comment, Roche appeared to be deflecting a question that has been plaguing him and other Pentagon officials at press events: Given the success of long-range bombers in Afghanistan and Kosovo, why doesn't the Air Force have plans to build more of them? Roche answered vaguely that he'd "love to go to the era of unattended vehicles for the bombing role." But considering that the Pentagon budget devotes scant money to bombers in the '03 budget yet the country has only 21 stealthy B2s, it seems the era in which "bombers" go "unattended" has already arrived.

Compared to these two efforts to define defense downwards, "axis of evil" looks positively succinct. Unless of course we all need to argue about what the meaning of "of" is.

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