I was walking my kids home from school last week when a third-or-fourth-grader passed us in a shirt that caught my eye. In bold, block letters, next to the Nike swoosh, was written “SHOCK & AWESOME.”
a comparable version of the shirt that I found online — I did not accost the poor kid about his shirt!
How interesting, I thought. The phrase “shock and awe,” to my knowledge, came directly from the most recent Iraq war — the initial phase of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I kept turning this over in my mind on the walk home, wondering how such a phrase had made its way into children’s athletic wear, of all things, eleven years later.
That evening, I told my husband about it. “Hm,” he said, frowning. “I don’t know how I feel about that. It makes me kind of uneasy.” I asked him why. (He asked, warily, “Is this for your blog?” I said, “Maybe.”) “Well,” he said, “it’s a reference to a war strategy that sounds final but wasn’t; it was only the start of a decade of war.” When I asked him if he’d let one of our kids wear such a shirt, he said, “Of course not, no.”
I did a little more research into the phrase “shock and awe” and discovered that it was originally coined by Harlan Ullman and James Wade of the National Defense University in 1996. It only became widely known, however, in 2003. In a startling link between commercialism and war politics, Sony corporation registered the trademark for “shock and awe” the day after the announcement of the invasion, but later withdrew their application, calling it “regrettable bad judgment” (a scruple that Nike apparently does not share). A quick Wikipedia search of the term (yeah, I know) claimed that, “Miscellaneous other uses of the term [shock and awe] include golf equipment, an insecticide, a set of bowling balls, a race horse, a shampoo, condoms, and heroin. The phrase was also suggested by the title of the Toby Keith album Shock’n’Y’all, the hit from which was the pro-military ‘American Soldier.'”
I wondered why the shirt bothered my husband and me, and if we were overreacting. I try not to get on a “military high horse” over various aberrations of pop culture, mainly because I haven’t earned the right to; my family emerged unscathed from the last two wars, unlike many other families, and we are not directly part of the “warrior culture” that might have more justification in caring about such things. I also try to cut the civilian world some slack because they cannot be expected to view life through a military lens, and because I hope that in return they will cut the military some slack, trusting that we all generally have each other’s best interests at heart. But we are lifers in the military and I am interested in words, so I can’t help but notice these sorts of things when I encounter them. And the T-shirt bothered me at the same time that it gave me a sort of dark amusement. Was there an implicit absurdity, a self-deprecation in the message that I was actually missing because I was taking it too seriously? Is a nine-year-old in a “shock and awe” T-shirt already poking such (possibly self-aware) fun that the message stands apart from its initial, war-related meaning?
I don’t think so, alas. I think this is a direct entrance of a war phrase into the lexicon, and I think it’s a reference that would be missed by its wearer, who was not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye when the phrase was first uttered or the invasion began. Why, then, would his parents purchase the shirt? More troublingly, to me, what in our culture allows corporations to use war lingo to sell sports clothing, drugs, and condoms, and lets us accept this without batting an eye? Are there any circumstances under which using the phrase would be acceptable? (I entertained the thought, briefly, of scrawling it across my toddler’s diaper before sending my husband upstairs to change her. This made me chuckle. But it wasn’t really any better than the T-shirt.)
If you look closely, remnants from the last two wars are everywhere.
Most of us can remember them, phrases such as “Let’s Roll,” the last recorded words spoken by Todd Beamer as he and others tried to overpower the terrorists who’d hijacked Flight 93, later repeated in George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union (possibly one of the most successful such speeches ever delivered — in which he debuted the phrase “axis of evil,” declared the war on terror and was interrupted by audience applause 76 times in 48 minutes).
There are more obscure entrances into the lexicon, too, one of my favorites being Nancy Pelosi’s use of the very-military-phrase “embrace the suck” when speaking to Democrats about the 2013 budget deal. (She wouldn’t repeat it, later, when CNN’s Jake Tapper tried to get her to.)
Slate magazine was onto the connection soon after Pelosi’s speech:
When did military types start talking about embracing the suck? Capt. Benjamin Tupper, who contibuted to Slate’s military blog The Sandbox, remembers first hearing “embrace the suck” in 2001, soon after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. ..”Their Zen-like approach was to ’embrace the suck,’ a strategy of treating the hardships as friends, not enemies, and driving on.”
“Embrace the suck” is probably still confined mainly to military and political circles and is not too familiar to the general public (though it’s vivid enough for immediate comprehension). It hasn’t had the wild popularity of the infinitely-adaptable “the mother of….,” which was trotted out by Saddam Hussein in 1991: “The great showdown has begun; the mother of all battles is under way!” Despite Saddam’s obvious flair for overstatement, this 2000-year-old saying reached many American ears for the first time via our longtime arch-enemy, and hasn’t it been a hard one to shake? How many times have you said, “It’s the mother of all tax forms,” or “It’s the mother of all shopping malls,” or “It’s the mother of all workout videos,” or some such adaptation? Darn you, Saddam, for this reverse-colonization, this devilishly delightful fall-back that can be used in so many situations.
It’s natural for the language of current events to enter the popular lexicon. Maybe it’s a good thing, in some ways; maybe it shows that the populace is paying attention. (I remember learning the phrase “SCUD missile” from the 6th grade, during the Gulf War.) If they’re listening, then they care on some level, and that’s a good thing.
What rubs me the wrong way is when corporations capitalize on what soldiers have done: buying rights to war words(!); using soldier-related schlock to sell products (the new Zillow ad particularly gets my goat — I hate surprise-reunion b.s. in any form, mainly because it is my worst fear that my husband will return home after many months to find me caught completely unawares, unshowered, unshaven, living in sweatpants flecked with Cheet-o crumbs and possibly unable to locate my “abdominals” anywhere on my person). When the human experience is generalized that way, there’s no fostering of understanding, there’s no critical thought involved — just the easy-chair of stereotype.
Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia. (February 2014). Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved June 3rd, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shock_and_Awe.
Slate magazine. (December 2013). “Nancy Pelosi Told House Democrats to ‘Embrace the Suck.’ Where Did That Phrase Come from?” Retrieved June 3rd, 2014 from http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/12/13/embrace_the_suck_nancy_pelosi_used_a_slang_military_phrase_when_urging_house.html.
In a final, somewhat amusing incidence of the military in popular culture — I bring you Godzilla. My husband is currently working with an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) unit, and it turns out that one of the main characters in the film is supposed to be a young Navy lieutenant who is an EOD officer. A man from my husband’s unit was actually tapped to advise on the film; he even got to attend the opening night premiere. Fancy! Here’s an article about how the U.S. military really would take down Godzilla. Enjoy the comfort that comes with knowing: if Godzilla reared up from the San Francisco Bay tomorrow, America, you would be safe.
Posts like this are why I love your blog! You nailed it when you said, “when corporations capitalize on what soldiers have done.” Yes. In a culture where the military’s struggles feel mostly forgotten and we are only trotted out for someone else’s profit or to give people warm fuzzies (the surprise reunion videos that everyone ‘likes’ get my goat, too), it feels…gross to think of the “commercialization” of war.
Amy, I love your thoughtful and substantive comments!!
Glad to hear I’m not some lone, crotchety grouch for disliking all the surprise-reunion videos. I’ll throw some popcorn at the TV in your honor.