11.08.2013

noah richler on the language of war propaganda, and the dishonesty of present ideology

From Noah Richler's What We Talk About When We Talk About War:
We have a duty to be honest and rigorous, with ourselves and with others, and to be able to brook contradiction and argument in our discussions of past wars and the present one in Afghanistan. But instead, in today's Canada, we have arrived at a point where the use of any language that is not euphemistic is greeted as an assault on the work of soldiers, on a singular view of our past, and therefore on the character of the nation itself. Ideology thrives. History hardly comes into it.

. . . .

Among the traditional words and phrases prone to high diction that [Paul] Fussell [author of The Great War in Modern Memory] lists are:

Friend... comrade

Obedient... brave

Earnestly brave... gallant

Cheerfully brave... plucky

Bravery considered after the fact... valour...

Not to complain is to be... manly

A soldier is a... warrior

The legs and arms of young men are... limbs

The dead on the battlefield are... fallen

The object of deliberate semantic confusion behind these turns of phrase is familiar to anyone who has followed the reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such deftly evasive and ultimately propagandistic terms have only proliferated over the course of a century in which mass communications have been on the rise and the best fightback of government needing to dampen the emotive effect of war's bloody truths spreading via newspapers, then radio, television and the Internet, has been to control words and images, and to the extent that is is able, the media that proffer then.

The first Gulf War and the earlier one in Vietnam added to the deflecting lexicon greatly, even before the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Collateral damage, a euphemism believed to have originated in the Vietnam War, is probably the most notorious of these terms. . . Friendly fire is another stellar euphemism (and one that has acquired a particular resonance in Canada) that describes the inadvertent shooting of one's own troops.

. . . An appendix to Fussell's list, easily added to after a trawl of the Web, would include these and others terms accumulated over the course of the Vietnam, Gulf and Afghanistan wars:

Torture... enhanced interrogation

Torture by interrupted drowning... waterboarding

Bomb... soften up

Bombing... air-campaign

The use of preponderant force against an enemy interspersed with a civilian, usually rural, population... asymmetric warfare

Lethal precision bombing... surgical strike

Journalists who cover a conflict in the prescribed company of armed forces and according to strict rules of censorship... embedded

Sending terrorism suspects to states that practise torture... extraordinary rendition

Prisoners... detainees

Popular uprising... insurgency

Escalation of a war going badly... mission creep

Occupation... liberation

Kill... neutralize

Government overthrow... regime change

3 comments:

johngoldfine said...

Fussell's is a wonderful book, and any reader of Orwell has to appreciate his list of euphemisms.

I'd disagree with two of the updates.

As I understand it, 'mission creep' is not necessarily sending in more troops; it is changing the rationale for the war and expanding its goals while the war is under way .

And IMO neither 'lethal precision bombing' nor 'surgical strike' do justice to the imprecision and lack of surgical care that actual bombing entails.

laura k said...

My understanding of "mission creep" is in line with yours, John. I almost elipsis'd it out of this list.

Indeed, surgical strike is a sorry euphemism, but then, so is "enhanced interrogation".

Another terrible euphemism not on this list: "ethnic cleansing". The other day Allan and I were remembering when that came into use (Yugoslavia), taken from the perpetrators, and used always with quotes and a shudder. Now just used.

laura k said...

And I will check out Fussell's book if I can find a copy. I am somewhat of a student of WWI (from a peace perspective) or at least of that era in history.