Let’s Call a Weapon a Weapon

A ground crew unloads weapons and other military hardware from the U.S. at Boryspil airport near Kyiv. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

We’re doing it again. It seems as if every time the U.S. shows some muscle in some corner of the world — this time in Ukraine ahead of an expected Russian invasion — the White House convinces journalists to borrow its preferred term for the big weapons that could be used. This year’s models are lethal aid and defensive security assistance, phrases that have popped up in headlines all week.

Rather than parrot the bureaucratic voice, let’s take a look at what we’re actually sending to Ukraine as Russia and the U.S. fall into the familiar rhythms of the Cold War. While the administration declined to list all the specific weapons sent over, the haul includes 300 shoulder-fired anti-tank Javelin missiles, anti-armor artillery, and tens of thousands of pounds of ammunition. And although the U.S. is not directly supplying Kyiv with anti-aircraft missiles, NATO members Latvia and Lithuania are sending Stinger and other surface-to-air missiles as well as thermal imagers for firing them in the dark. Along with $2.7 billion in military aid to Ukraine since 2014, the Pentagon has put 8,500 troops on “higher alert” in case of an invasion.

It’s in the nature of government officials to use the ugly, inaccurate language of bureaucracy to obscure the meaning of state actions, as anyone who has come across the phrase officer-involved shooting would know. And while the terms are legally relevant — nonlethal aid, which includes everything from Humvees to medical supplies, can be handed out via the State Department, while the distribution of lethal aid requires a full presidential finding and congressional briefings — people who aren’t in government don’t have to use them. There’s no good reason for the news aggregators of the world to describe the deliveries as anything other than the heavy weapons and ammunition that they are. Doing so could further obscure the events on the ground in yet another proxy conflict that few Americans may care about.

Let’s Call a Weapon a Weapon