State warfare, be it instated by Israel, India or the United States, is increasingly couched in euphemisms that are malevolently designed to hide the ravages they wreak on innocent civilian populations
In his latest statement, Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said regarding Israeli motivations for the strike on Gaza, “we have many reasons, both moral and political to make sure our strikes are as surgical as possible”.
There is, of course, much to be said about Israel’s latest offensive into Gaza, but one notable aspect of this latest onslaught is the recurrence of the term “surgical strike”
With the civilian death toll in Gaza rising steadily and with no seeming end in sight to the airstrikes, Israeli officials have recounted time and again their heavy reliance on precision-guided weapons in reducing the number of civilian casualties.
However, according to reports from the United Nations, nearly 25 percent of the casualties have been civilians, including nearly 38 children and 25 women. There is little surprise in this occurrence. Those at the receiving end of airstrikes, be they carried out by precision-guided missiles or unmanned predator drones, are well aware of messy reality of the supposed circumscribed attack promised by such weapons.
Israel has not been the only country responsible for popularising the term “surgical strike” in the last few weeks of 2008. As the tumultuous year wrought to its dejected end, Pakistan continued to remain embroiled in the post-Mumbai stand off with India and theories and conjecture were abound about the use of “surgical strikes” against Lashkar-e-Tayba militants holed up in Pakistan. Indian media reported that the Indian military was considering the use of squadrons of Mirage, Jaguar or Sukhoi fighters in strikes on the Lashkar headquarters in Azad Kashmir and the Jama’at-ud Dawa headquarters in Muridke.
So serious was the speculation that on December 24, 2008, the leader of the house in the Senate, Mian Raza Rabbani, issued a statement saying that there was no basis to rumours that Pakistan had been instructed by United States Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman to not retaliate against a surgical strike carried out within its territory.
The Indian and Israeli contexts are undoubtedly different and involve varying strategic, territorial and geopolitical objectives. However, despite their substantive differences, the tenor of the Israeli offensive underway in Gaza and the impending Indian offensive suggestively bandied in the air by India involves the introduction of a new term to disguise the bloody carnage levelled by military air strikes.
The grotesque semantic irony of the term “surgical strike” a term that evokes images of a healing operative intervention that can excise a corroding evil and then palliate the ills of the ailing body is the latest in the rhetorical battle over defining warfare. Powerful states like Israel backed by their unflinching allies can thus kill and pillage with impunity, leaving scored of women and children dead in their wake and yet justify the carnage as somehow healing and restorative.
Surgical strikes are not alone in the marketing effort to make war more palatable to a Western public to whom the tribal areas of Pakistan and the streets of Gaza are little more than an abstract reality. Joined by their cousins “smart bombs” and “collateral damage”, hey extend the argument that in the case of civilians living in the semi-real “otherness” of places like Waziristan and Ramallah,death is somehow less tragic, less worthy of international outcry and, most disturbingly, justified because it emerges out of the strategic objective of state interests rather than the terror wielded by non-state actors.
The bloody end of 2008 is a testament to the efficacy of this effort in allowing the powerful of the world to construct not simply the military paradigms of defeat and victory but also the moral paradigms of good and evil. Smart bombs and surgical strikes, while lethal, are invested with a moral goodness that justifies the death and destruction that they leave in their wake. The war waged at their behest is thus made not only moral but also intelligent and even health-giving with the loss of life being a mere incidental occurrence unworthy of mourning or outcry.
Jostling for attention on the first day of 2009 was another reminder of this effort to redefine war and occupation and its attendant misery in positive, even optimistic terms. On January 1, 2009, the United States turned over the administration of the “green zone” to Iraqi authorities. This “green zone” as is well known is no environment-friendly garden designated for the citizens of Iraq but rather the security cordoned headquarters of the American occupation of Iraq.
The irony of the title, enduring for six years again a reminder of how the bleak realities of destruction and occupation are encapsulated in terms that evoke images of a lush and even friendly paradise. At the time of this handover, six years after the initiation of hostilities, the Iraqi civilian death count is estimated to be between the ranger of 90,000 and 98,000 lives.
The crux of the argument is simply this: state warfare, be it instated by Israel, India or the United States, is increasingly couched in euphemisms that are malevolently designed to hide the ravages they wreak on innocent civilian populations. The objectives of the recasting of war are similar, democratic nations rely on popular support and have political victories to be gained by focusing on external enemies.
Couching war in terms that present conflict as morally justified, even healing and palliative, presents the perfect solution insulating populations from the moral costs of state supported warfare while still providing politicians with effective rallying cries to unite populations behind fear induced hysteria. The most significant casualty of the rhetorical onslaught of war, however, is the loss of moral ground that pretends that couching war. Terms like surgical strikes, smart bombs and green zones eliminate their terror.
In this failure to recognise the moral failures of state-sponsored warfare, states lose the ground to construct the moral war against non-state warfare, thus blurring a moral boundary whose tangibility is crucially necessary in an ethically depraved world. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at