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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

surgical strike

(late 1980’s | miltarese | “raid”)

I had thought this phrase first appeared during the Vietnam War, but most probably it came along earlier, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when some high up in the administration advocated “surgical strikes” against Soviet installations (they were overruled). Several authors who were privy to these deliberations recorded the phrase in later memoirs, although it doesn’t seem to have made it into the public record that early. Every few years, an event would breathe new life into the phrase. A proposed but unexecuted Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear plants in 1969. The raid on Entebbe (1976). The hostage crisis in Iran. The war in Panama — when it was decided that a surgical strike to kill or capture Noriega was too risky, so we had to send in troops. By 1990 it was turning up often enough in the mainstream press that an informed reader had to know what it meant. By the new millennium, it could be used to talk about situations other than warfare, as in economic policy, politics more generally, and even labor-management conflict (as in an action where a small group of vital employees walks out). A reliance on drone warfare in recent years has given the term another boost. Actually, it’s hardly ever used in the sense of “work stoppage.” The “strike” has to do always with an attack of some kind, whether against missile silos or undesirable people or urban poverty.

Originally, surgical strikes denoted attacks on places — one of the things that made them “surgical” was that there weren’t supposed to be any dead people littering the landscape — but now the term is at least as likely to refer to an attack on a person or a small group of people. The onset of drone warfare has cemented this association, although all the loose talk of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities demonstrates that the old meaning has not gone anywhere. One feature both kinds of strike have in common: a tendency to kill unintended victims, whether because a bomb goes astray or the wrong people happen to be near the target.

The vision of clean, precise death and destruction is very beguiling, and surgical strikes do pay off sometimes. But generally they work best in the fantasies of hawks and their adherents. We like the idea because it seems to get around the indiscriminate nature of warfare. Take out one lousy reactor, or terrorist cell, and everything would be so much better. A few bombs, a couple of deaths, a little ruined acreage add up to a small price to pay for peace in our time. In real life, the payoff isn’t usually as big as advertised. A surgical strike is pretty much impossible in an urban area, and even when it works, it creates blowback down the road. But the real problem is how easy it is for a few bombing runs to lead to protracted, inextricable wars, overt or covert. We must tread very carefully around anything that makes offensive military action seem tempting. Most of the time, the surgical strike is nothing more than a shortcut to more useless violence, more senseless death.

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