Last year, I visited Bogotá, Colombia, to teach a seminar on conflict reporting. Afterward, a soldier missing two legs and most of one arm rolled up in a wheelchair. As we spoke about land mines and their evils, I asked where his “accident” had occurred. My choice of words provoked a fierce outburst from the soldier, whose voice sounded strangled as he asserted that he had been maimed not by a random mishap, but by a premeditated attack.
“Landmines aren’t placed by chance,” he explained as if I were a small child—which was how I felt at that moment. “Someone sought to kill me.”
The woman pushing his wheelchair added, “You really should mind your language.”
She was right. For that is what we journalists covering armed confrontations must remember to do. Words are weapons, as much as any gun or bomb, and you’d better believe that governments treat the language they use to describe a war as seriously as they take the war itself. A phrase can create an image of righteous strength to replace fear and trauma, as we saw with “Operation Freedom.” Similarly, clashes can be described in neutered terms that normalize violence and blunt the impact of war. From the tame “regime change,” with its implications of order instead of violent overthrow, to the false “victory” in Iraq claimed by George W. Bush, words embed themselves in the national psyche and affect public perception of conflict and its consequences.
This isn’t a new problem. Almost 70 years ago, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell observed how governments manipulated public opinion by describing violent, inhumane policies in imprecise, euphemistic terms. “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification,” wrote Orwell. “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
In 2007, CJR devoted an entire issue to the uses and abuses of political and martial rhetoric. Almost five years later, the topic bears revisiting. Conflict reportage ought to give an accurate picture of war and its costs, to counteract official euphemisms with clarity and precision. But too often, reporters veil the stark, uncomfortable truths of combat in opaque language and terminology. As we prepare to leave Afghanistan, possibly enter Iran, and intervene in myriad other conflicts, and as political rhetoric surrounding these conflicts amps up in the final days of the American presidential campaign, editors and reporters must do their best to reclaim vocabulary from those who would use it to obscure and mislead.
Spend any time in a combat zone or triage ward and you’ll realize that, at its most basic level, war is carnage. Yet the words that officials use to describe conflict are chosen to minimize this fact, either by portraying the violence in bland, neutral terms, or with language designed to stoke feelings of anger and revenge.
It’s no surprise that governments and political interests want to frame conflicts in ways that are most favorable to their own goals and objectives. Covering conflict often entails hanging around political and military officials—at briefings, at press conferences, during embeds—and reporters can absorb the jargon without even realizing it. These sterile euphemisms are familiar to any news consumer. The sanitized and manipulative “collateral damage” refers to an unintended killing of civilians; one has to look beyond the words to photographs of massacred wedding parties to fully understand what actually happened. The phrase “smart bomb” conveys intelligence instead of carnage. My 11-year-old son was astounded to hear that “friendly fire” was not friendly at all. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he nearly spat when he learned the definition: killing fellow troops by accident. “I thought it meant you shot at but didn’t hurt someone. Why don’t they just say it’s like a home goal?”
Other times, officials want to inflame rhetoric rather than defuse it. In 2008, a US government memo counseled personnel to avoid using words that have a positive association for many Muslims, such as “mujahidin,” “salafi,” “ummah,” and “jihadi.” It prescribes instead such English phrases as “terrorists,” “extremists,” and “totalitarians.” During the 50 years of Basque separatist uprising, the Spanish government tried to convince journalists not to describe the violence as a “conflict.” To deploy that word would legitimize the ETA guerrillas, whom Madrid generally prefers to call “criminals.” Similarly, during Angola’s 27-year civil war, the government often described UNITA rebels as “bandits,” a trivializing expression for a formidable force that was amply armed by the US and South Africa.