In war, for the troops, bullets and bombs are crucial to the fight. But for the political figures behind the soldiers, words, too, are considered vitally important. Getting the right words in Operation Iraqi Freedom is often a challenge.
This is a story about those Iraqi irregular forces, the ones called the Fedayeen Saddam, Saddam's "Men of Sacrifice."
Numbering 15,000 or more in strength, this group, often called paramilitary, has been leading guerrilla-style attacks on U.S. led coalition troops in southern Iraq. But 'paramilitary' doesn't sit well with the Pentagon's Chief Spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke. She said it sounds, well, too nice.
"We're trying to figure out what we should call them; I know some people have referred to the special military that Saddam Hussein uses as "paramilitary," which I don't like using," she said. "It just, it sounds too positive in some way."
She went on at a news briefing this week to label them "thugs" and linked them to a host of brutal and deceptive actions including fake surrenders, the use of civilian human shields, torture and repression.
Before the briefing ended, she dumped "thugs" as the most appropriate description, apologizing for what she called her imprecision.
"I'll apologize for any imprecision in words that I may have used. I just, and I'm struggling with this because they are the worst of the worst, in my opinion.
That probably would have ended the semantic struggling.
But less than 24 hours later, Ms. Clarke was trumped by her boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In an exchange with reporters following a congressional appearance to discuss defense spending, Mr. Rumsfeld addressed the issue of what to call the Fedayeen Saddam and ultimately made clear he has rejected not only 'paramilitary' and 'thugs' but also 'the worst of the worse.' "In fact, what they are is death squads, enforcers, they're vicious," he said.
Despite the escalation in what might be described as the war of the words, Pentagon press officials say they have been given no formal orders to call the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary, irregular, guerrilla, terrorist or enforcers. In fact most Pentagon officials don't even appear caught up in the name game one way or the other, save for one thoughtful military commander who told VOA he thought the whole affair was ridiculous.
But that official went on to say he also thought it was the type of thing that could prove counter-productive in the all-important struggle for global public opinion.
That is a struggle that will ultimately prove as important as the actual war on the ground. And while the military is confident of defeating the Fedayeen Saddam and other Iraqi forces on the battlefield, the outcome of the battle for hearts and minds worldwide remains unclear.