March 21, 2003

The Language of War

A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, I wrote an op-ed piece that I also called "The Language of War." It addressed the idea that each war generates its own lexicon, some of it military, some of it political, and from that vocabulary we define our own views and those of others about the war. I wrote:

"Soon, the anger, fear and sorrow over the bombings on our soil will begin to subside and if indeed Colin Powell and George Bush take us into a new war in a far off land we will need a common vocabulary to understand what is happening - and to choose sides in either support or defiance of these actions. When some be-ribboned Pentagon spokesman speaks to us of collateral damage and friendly fire and unaccounted American assets, we need to know what this jargon means. We need to know how to react, how to wage the political war at home that will be guaranteed to accompany the physical war abroad." [ Read The Language of War ]

I was reminded of that piece today when I read an essay by Poynter Institute staffer Keith Woods, who warns journalists against adopting the language of the military in reporting on the war.

"Language," Woods writes, "has always had a power that tilts toward those who define the terms. Journalists interested in maintaining their independence - real and perceived - have to pay attention to the difference, say, between a war and a 'campaign;' between 'collateral damage' and the killing of innocent people."

He urges reporters to "recapture the language with specifics and precision," reminding them that "as people die and buildings fall and the unpredictable future unfolds, remember that the words you use to tell the story will tell a story of their own."

This is wise advice. Jargon reflects laziness and false authority, both of which undermine good journalism. To see military jargon embraced without reserve, channel surf between CNN, Fox and MSNBC for an hour and count the references to "shock and awe."

(Speaking of shock and awe, note this Department of Defense treatise on how to achieve it: "The basis for Rapid Dominance rests in the ability to affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary through imposing sufficient Shock and Awe." Is this where Rumsfeld got the phrase?)

The best journalism doesn't hide reality behind obfuscation. If it shocks or leaves a reader in awe at all, it does so because the writing is direct, unflinching and descriptive.

UPDATE: Andrew Cline of Rhetorica, always in the know on issues of language, said yesterday that " 'shock and awe' provides an excellent example of the power of words as weapons of war." He also pointed to the source of the phrase more clearly than I did -- a 1996 Pentagon report.

 The Guardian: The opening article in what it calls an effort to decode the language of war.
 PBS: Terms and acronyms from the Vietnam War. Fighting Words: The War Over Language
 Poynter Institute: Take Back the Language

Posted by Tim Porter at March 21, 2003 08:28 AM

Last night I heard an NBC journalist "embedded" with the Third Infantry report that on entering Iraq, they had to "take out" (you could hear the quotes in his voice) an observation post, so that they couldn't report back to headquarters. It was very creepy.

Posted by: Barry Parr on March 21, 2003 11:02 AM
Post a comment