Dirty Words and Dirty Wars

Philip Graham once said that journalism is the rough draft of history. If this is to be believed, then the way that every event is described is of paramount importance. The absolute...

Philip Graham once said that journalism is the rough draft of history. If this is to be believed, then the way that every event is described is of paramount importance.

The absolute senseless tragedy of the MSF hospital bombing on Saturday has once again brought to light the potential power of language in making meaning out of war. The attack, despite the fact that MSF issued a distress call, went unabated for another 30 minutes, resulting in the death and carnage that is so blatantly a violation of International Humanitarian Law. The army spokesman’s clinical and detached statement that the airstrike “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility” was shocking, but unfortunately not surprising. For an entire day there was a deafening silence from any official US source on the matter. Since then, however, their official account of the event has undergone continuous transformation in ways that are only slightly less disturbing but just as evasive. Terms such as ‘collateral damage’ are destructive, obscure, and completely inappropriate when referring to something as important as a human life. It is one of many such euphemisms that have dominated ‘war-talk’: enhanced interrogation, neutralise, precision strike are only a few examples. These increasingly impotent terms have infiltrated the way in which we think about war, and have acted as a numbing agent to many controversial incidents throughout history. This sterility extends to the way in which war is fought today- the evolution from air strikes to drone strikes, and the dramatically increased use of PMCs[1] for example, ensures that there is yet another degree of separation from the situation on the ground. Instead of being face to face with one’s enemy and seeing the direct consequences of one’s actions, the proliferation of airstrikes and drone strikes mean that the enemy can be killed without even standing up. This changing nature of warfare has served to render the business of war all the more tolerable. The reality is of course not nearly as innocuous as it is often made to seem. The use of these weapons that remove one further and further from one’s target are complemented by language which functions in the same way. Although we are a lifetime away from the muddy trenches of WWI, the business of war is no less dirty.

This evolution towards a more detached form of warfare is damaging and irresponsible on many levels. It functions as a subtle form of censoring by ensuring that many otherwise reprehensible acts are transformed in a way that is sufficiently palatable to be a feature on the evening news. The possible consequences of this, however, are significant. Citizens have a right and a responsibility to know exactly what is being committed in their name. If the reality is too difficult to swallow, the chances are that the actions being committed are unjustified or simply unacceptable. It is important to understand what exactly terms such as ‘collateral damage’ encapsulate. In the case of the MSF tragedy, it involves the senseless murder of a dozen relief workers who spent the preceding days assisting almost 400 patients after fighting broke out in Kunduz. They are on the frontline, risking their lives daily in a place that the majority of the world either fears or has forgotten. The consequence of this devastating attack are eloquently captured in a statement issued by MSF International president, Dr Joanne Liu:

The attack does not just touch MSF but it affects humanitarian work everywhere, and fundamentally undermines the core principles of humanitarian action. We need answers, not just for us but for all medical and humanitarian staff assisting victims of conflict, anywhere in the world.

In addition, it involves the trauma, endangerment and death of dozens more civilians seeking urgent assistance and refuge after being caught in the crossfire. It is irresponsible to hide this fact. Supporting something as destructive, long term, and as extreme as a war necessitates a full understanding of all of its implications. As such, if one supports the coalition in Afghanistan, this should mean supporting everything that entails. The transformation of war both physically, and in its portrayal, serve to sustain this ‘fog of war’ that often inhibits this engagement.

This strategic choice of words does not stop here, however. It works on another, complementary level and involves the portrayal of the enemy. In addition to ‘sanitising’ one’s own war, this assists in dehumanising and demonising whichever opposition force the government is against. In doing so, if the framing of one’s government’s own actions aren’t enough to convince that all of their actions constitute ethical conduct, the lack of empathy and support for the ‘enemy’ serves to eliminate any residual unease. This strategy has been enormously successful and has propagated countless wars over time, and will continue to do so unabated if the public continues to accept these strategic narratives as representations of reality. The building hysteria among Western media and governments over Russia’s recent involvement in Syria perfectly epitomise this discrepancy: Putin has recently been called upon by NATO members to ‘immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians’ which they argue constitutes a violation of various laws and treaties. While responsibility for the MSF attack has, however, finally been taken, the initial responses were appalling. Even now, it is apparent that insurmountable obstacles stand in the way of an independent investigation, rendering it likely that accountability will be largely deflected. In both of these cases, however, the consequences are the same: innocent lives, diplomacy and basic humanity have been caught in the crossfire. There can be no place for high horses and self-righteousness in war today.

In a world as precarious at it is at present, we will do well to remember that the war of words can have consequences as devastating as war itself.

[1] NDR- There has been a dramatic increase in the use of PMCs (private military companies) since the end of the Cold War. Their use is however, extremely contentious. It has been alleged by politicians, practitioners and scholars alike that their use allows governments to commit actions that circumvent proper processes of approval, deflects public scrutiny and falsifies number of casualties due to their hybridised civilian-combatant status.
Dirty Words and Dirty Wars
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Laura Naude

Laura is originally from South Africa and recently graduated with a master's degree in conflict, security and development from King’s College London. She is particularly passionate about refugee issues, human rights and humanitarian assistance. Previous experience includes Amnesty International and various organisations in the UK and South Africa. Her skills include photography, journalism, advocacy, social media, international relations and research. Laura is currently working for Lighthouse Relief, a refugee organisation in the Idomeni area in Greece. She can be reached at [email protected] or through LinkedIn.
3 Comments on this post.
  • Roger Hawcroft
    Roger Hawcroft
    12 October 2015 at 3:30 am
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    Great article, Laura, and so very apposite. I have my own pet name for this age – I call it the “age of euphemism”.

    I am appalled at how readily we manipulate language to disguise or divert from the reality or seriousness of what is happening. Yes, we have probably always used euphemisms, for it seems that we are conditioned to feel it impolite to mention body parts, elements of sexuality, or anything that may seem rude or unpleasant of make someone else feel uncomfortable. Perhaps that was ok. when the extent of it was to avoid the use of the word “penis” or “vulva” or “defecate” or some such – perhaps, for I’m not sure that even then we aren’t setting the tone for deceit.

    What I have no doubt about is that death is death, that murder is murder, that decapitation is decapitation, etc.

    So, yes, I agree with you completely: Language is extremely powerful, much more so than most of us realised – wasn’t there somebody famous at some time who said, “the tongue is mightier than the sword”? – Certainly there are may who rob with a fountain pen.

    I have witnessed the inexcusable and reprehensible rhetoric of our last Australian Prime Minister and the hatred and anti-Muslim sentiment that it has promoted in this country.

    It needs to stop.

  • Laura Naude
    Laura Naude
    14 October 2015 at 12:28 am
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    Thank you so much for your comment Roger. The “age of euphenism” is all to accurate unfortunately. In the context of something as serious as war, this outright manipulation of language and meaning is just so inappropriate.

    Your example of anti-Muslim rhetoric is so apt here. Related to this is the dehumanising and demonising rhetoric over the influx of refugees to Europe. The fear-mongering language many European leaders have adopted has been appalling, and has only served to strengthen anti-immigration sentiment. In the UK, hateful groups like Britain First and the EDL have garnered so much support, largely because the rhetoric of our own politicians enable it.

    Language has such power to influence the way in which people perceive the world. It is high time we realise that.

  • Compassion for Suffering – Suffering for Compassion.
    20 October 2015 at 2:56 pm
    Leave a Reply

    […] as strange as it might seem, there was a sense for him that an even worse tragedy was that of a senior American spokesman speaking of the tragedy as “collateral damage.” What had happened to the minds of human beings that they could euphemistically dismiss the […]

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