L.I.E.S.    Language in Extreme Situations

A web against the use of Language as a Weapon of Mass Deception




La Guerra de la Palabra

War-Speak Worthy of Milton and Chuck Norris
Geoffrey Nunberg,The New York Times
April 6, 2003

The first casualty when war comes is truth." With due respect to Hiram Johnson, the Progressive senator who made that famous remark in 1917, the first casualty of war is less often the truth itself than the way we tell it. Coloring the facts is always simpler and more effective than falsifying them.

The modern language of war emerged in the Victorian age, when military planners first became concerned about public opinion. One linguistic casualty of that period was "casualty" itself, a word for an accidental loss that became a euphemism for dead and wounded around the time of the Crimean War, in the mid-19th century, the conflict that gave birth to the war correspondent.

By World War I, the modern language of warfare was in its full euphemistic glory. The mutinies among French troops in 1917 were described in dispatches as "acts of collective indiscipline," and the writers of the daily communiqués from the Western Front were instructed to use the phrase "brisk fighting" to describe any action in which more than 50 percent of a company was killed or wounded.

What's notable about the current war isn't the toll it's taking on language — all wars do that — but the obsessive attention we pay to the matter. There has never been an age that was so self-conscious about the way it talked about war. Barely two weeks into the conflict, more than a dozen articles have appeared in major newspapers speculating about what its effects on the language will be, as if that would reveal to us what story we would wind up telling about it.

In part, that is simply a reaction to the jumble of images and reports we've been subjected to, and of the need to make sense of them. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld complained that the abruptly shifting impressions of the war's progress were due to viewers seeing "every second another slice of what's actually happening over there." He waxed nostalgic for World War II newsreels that wrapped the week's war highlights in a stirring narrative.

Mr. Rumsfeld wistfulness is understandable. True, domestic support for World War II was never as solid or uncritical as we like to imagine — as late as 1944, almost 40 percent of Americans said they favored a negotiated peace with the Germans. But there is no trace of those doubts in the language the war left us with, or in the artless enthusiasm of those newsreels: "Then, by light of the moon, a thousand mighty bombing planes take off, flying to their marks and releasing their fatal loads."

That was the tail end of a purple thread that ran back to those Crimean dispatches about gallant British troops pouring fire on the terrible enemy. The effusive metaphors of the newsreels were already shopworn in 1969, when Mr. Rumsfeld joined President Richard M. Nixon's cabinet, and war reports had to be tailored to an increasingly skeptical and knowing public.

Today, no journalist would hazard a reference to mighty bombers dropping fatal loads. Embedded reporters produce embedded language, the metallic clatter of modern military lingo: acronyms like TLAM's, RPG's and MRE's; catchphrases like "asymmetric warfare," "emerging targets" and "catastrophic success" — the last not an oxymoron, but an irresistibly perverse phrase for a sudden acceleration of good fortune.

I prefer that jargon to the mighty bombers. It's truer to the nature of modern warfare, and it sometimes rises to a kind of brutalist poetry, as in, "Their units have been significantly degraded or attrited." (Milton would have recognized "attrited" as the past tense of attrite, meaning "grind away"; the verb has merely been lying low for 300 years.)

When it comes to penetrating the fog of battle, though, the words are rarely new. They're recycled phrases drawn from earlier wars and conflicts, trailing vague clouds of glory or obloquy, and smoothed by the selectivity of historical memory.

"Liberation" evokes the image of the soldiers on American tanks sweeping up pretty demoiselles in their arms as they rolled through Normandy, not the guerrilla wars of national liberation that troubled American foreign policy for much of the cold war.

President Bush's father would probably have thought twice before talking about Saddam Hussein's "death squads," lest the phrase recall the Guatemalan and Salvadorean regimes that the Reagan administration supported when he was vice president. His son can use the words in the confidence that time has attrited their historical resonances.

And a decade or so ago, Ari Fleischer's assurance that "slowly but surely the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people are being won" would still have evoked disconcerting memories. But Mr. Fleischer was barely 15 years old when Peter Davis's anti-Vietnam War documentary "Hearts and Minds" won an Oscar in 1975.

Even "shock and awe" sounds vaguely familiar, like the name of some heavy metal tour from the early 90's.

The ambient war-speak strikes the individual consciousness as an odd jumble, patched together from the half-remembered motifs of old Chuck Norris movies and documentaries from the History Channel, and tweaked from hour to hour to accommodate the latest developments. It's pastiche, the genre that the literary critic Fredric Jameson described as a statue with blind eyes; the language doesn't so much remind as reverberate.

With words as vague as these, truth is less a casualty than an irrelevancy. Is this really a liberation? Compared to what? It's always a mug's game trying pin down the meanings of these labels. ("That depends on what the meaning of `cakewalk' is.") Asking whether people believe the words is like asking whether they believe the drum tattoo that MSNBC plays, as the screen fades to commercial breaks, under the names of soldiers who have made "the ultimate sacrifice."

There's a paradox in the way we think about political language: the wiser we are to its tricks, the more we worry about its manipulative power — not over ourselves, but over the innocents who are still stirred by words like "mighty."

There aren't many linguistic innocents left in America, of course; "1984" is probably the only novel that all of my students have read. But we tell ourselves that language still has power over those who haven't had our advantages. The Bush administration dropped its references to "fedayeen" last week when it was reminded that the word has heroic connotations in the Arabic-speaking world, and began to refer to the militia fighters as "terrorists" or "thugs" instead. Not that Americans need those hints, an official explained, but "in other parts of the world, labeling helps to put it in perspective."

WORLD War II contributed hundred of words to our vocabulary: beachhead, blitz and blockbuster; battle wagon, blood bath and bogey. Korea and Vietnam left their marks on the language, as well: brainwash and chopper, grunt and friendly fire.

But the language of recent wars has faded very rapidly, like the memories of our reasons for fighting them. Within a short time, "shock and awe" will be a Trivial Pursuit item — like "mother of all battles" from the 1991 Persian Gulf war. War language does a different kind of work now. What remains with us isn't the words, but the tunes they were meant to bring to mind.

But recent history has taught us that language doesn't have to linger to shape our feelings, even when we think we're wise to its pitfalls. It's like that corny tattoo on MSNBC: you see right through, and it raises a shiver anyway.

(Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford linguist, is heard regularly on NPR's "Fresh Air" and is the author of "The Way We Talk Now.")


Poema: No a la guerra
Life under the chief doublespeak officer
Dubya war glossary
Kid Row
Truth is strongest weapon in war
Loyalty oath
Did our leaders lie to us?
War watch. Claims and counter claims made during the war over Iraq
War-speak worthy of Milton and Chuck Norris
Metaphor and war, again
Language of war.Decoding the jargon of war
Fighting war with words
With God and the Bard on our side




Back to topBack to top