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 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.