Operations don't kill people. People do.
'The US has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden'.
At 11.35pm last Sunday, the White House tweeted this sentence. On TV, we saw Obama say the same thing, word for word, in his address to the world.
It might just be the most debated, edited and redrafted sentence there’s ever been, because they absolutely needed to get it right. They weren’t describing a big, amorphous war, where hundreds die and hardly anyone notices. It was a group of soldiers sent in the night to put a bullet in a man’s head.
All of which makes it a fascinating linguistic case study. Let’s think about the raw content. If we turn the statement into a clear description, it becomes: ‘We have killed Osama bin Laden’.
But with Obama’s version, all ‘the US’ did was ‘conduct an operation’. We’ve seen in the clear version that there’s actually no need for ‘operation’ at all. It serves no descriptive purpose. It’s a stooge, heroically taking the blame for the killing.
But operations aren’t sentient beings. Having them do things, like kill people, is a rhetorical device called anthropomorphism. Authors generally use it to do surreal things with their writing. They never use it to describe something clearly and accurately.
Same goes for euphemism, tool number two in a writer’s repertoire of dishonesty. An ‘operation’ is just an event, an assignment. It says nothing about assassination. Obama’s statement shows he’s well aware of the dodgy territory he’s wading through. But this isn't the only time the big dogs in The White House have fudged their words after making a controversial decision. Here’s how they described the war in Libya back in March:
‘A time-limited, scope-limited military action’.
Don’t even get us started on that.