Bring back the Department of War

Where does it come from, this Orwellian insistence on not calling the things we do in war things we do in war? The literary historian Paul Fussell, in his book “The Great War and Modern Memory,” traces the trend toward surrounding war with euphemism to World War I, “perhaps the first time in history that official policy produced events so shocking, bizarre, and stomach-turning that the events had to be tidied up for presentation to a highly literate mass population.” Letters home from the front were characterized by a literary style he calls British Phlegm: “The trick was to fill the page by saying nothing and to offer the maximum number of clichés.”

Perhaps there is something to this. As the military historian John Keegan has pointed out, many countries that fought in World War I left no treasure trove of letters home for scholars to examine because their soldiers were mostly illiterate. Their soldiers were illiterate because their populations were illiterate. Widespread literacy might indeed create a closer public attention to the details of the war, and a greater need (in the eyes of political leaders) to obfuscate hard truths.

And there were other aspects of World War I that brought peculiar euphemisms into public discourse.