‘Kinetic’ As a Euphemism For ‘War’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes came under fire recently for saying that imposing a no-fly zone in Libya “involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end.”

The word “kinetic” was mocked by some as a euphemism for war.  Interestingly, though it is a euphemism, the term is certainly not soft.

As Timothy Noah explained back in 2002,

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.)

Those who believe the military should strictly be about “breaking things and killing people,” as opposed to the notion of “soft power” — winning hearts and minds — should actually embrace the concept.

In his book, “The Future of Power,” Joseph F. Nye, Jr. notes,

In a famous post-Vietnam War dialogue, American colonel Harry Summers pointed out, “You know, you never defeated us in a kinetic engagement on the battlefield.”  And his Vietnamese counterpart, Colonel Tu, accurately replied, “That may be so.  But it is also irrelevant because we won the battle of strategic communication and therefore the war.

Matt K. Lewis