Linguistic deodorant
The language of war

April 24, 2003
The Iranian

Throughout history, war-makers have created Orwellian euphemisms to sanitize the gruesome realities of war and, in the process, neutralize or deflect public sentiment in favor of their actions. "Blitz" was used in World War II, "friendly fire" in the Vietnam War, "the mother of all battles," in Persian Gulf War I, and "shock and awe" in Persian Gulf War II.

Words are symbolic representations of human thoughts, actions, and feelings. Their shared meanings, by members of a particular group, form language. Language, to use a dictionary definition, is "the expression and communication of emotions or ideas between human beings by means of speech and hearing." Psychologically, words are as powerful as icons, signs, and flags. Hence to reduce their emotional impact, especially in war, the army generals and the Pentagon's propaganda planners devise new words and phrases that are often unfamiliar to the general public and are, therefore, devoid of any emotions or feelings.

The process is that government and military officials unveil their concocted terms in their pronouncements prior to war; mass media reporters incorporate them into their daily reports and, through repetition, the mass audiences (public) add them to their conversations, often without knowing their true meanings. In other words, military lingo, hyped by the mass media, becomes public lingo. Consider the following military jargon, from the two Persian Gulf wars and the War on Terrorism, which have become common public expressions:

"Collateral damage," civilians killed or injured; "friendly fire," allied soldiers killed or injured by their own coalition troops; "shock and awe," scaring the wits out of the Iraqi regime and people to cause them to surrender to the Anglo-British forces; "pre-emptive strike," attacking a nation or group, unilaterally, based on assumptions that they pose a threat; "just war," justifying an attack based on assumptions of eminent danger; "coalition of the willing," the countries -- about 30 of the nearly 200 nations -- that are assisting or supporting the American-led attack against Iraq; "embedded reporters," journalists who are willingly cooperating and are literally "in bed" with the military forces; "the mother of all bombs," a 20-ton weapon of mass destruction; "Operation Iraqi Freedom," getting rid of the Ba'ath regime and replacing it with a regime which would ensure the interests of the invading forces, multinational corporations, and oil companies; "Operation Desert Storm," invading and partitioning Iraq without removing the dictator, Saddam Hussein, or his regime; "theater of operation," battleground; "turkey run," randomly killing a massive number of people; "body bags," killed soldiers; "bunker buster," bombs dropped on safety shelters or other public buildings; "daisy cutter," a bomb capable of penetrating and destroying caves and their occupants; "sorties," bomb runs on various targets; "carpet bombing," indiscriminate bombing of selected locations; "peacemakers," soldiers and/or weapons; "attacking positions," attacking people; "attacking targets," attacking buildings; "decapitation," killing and destroying opposition leaders; "terrorists," any individual, group, or nation that one may dislike; "the patriot," a missile; "patriotic," an individual who supports the government and military actions, even if they are contrary to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, international laws, human rights, UN mission, and world public opinion.

The language of war is intended to soften the tragic realities of human blood and gore through highly sophisticated manipulation techniques involving the creation of words, phrases, euphemism, and images that are intended to sanitize and, in the process, desensitize human feelings toward mass killings and destruction. In other words, in order to achieve their goals, government and military leaders, aided by mass media professionals, displace reality with fiction, fact with symbolism, and truth with propaganda. Indeed, truth is always the first casualty of war.

In this so-called "Information" or "Communication" Age, ironically, the missing components are reliable information and meaningful communication. Perhaps the terms "Disinformation Age" or "Babble Age" would more accurately describe this gloomy period in human history. Today, more than ever before, we need to devise mechanisms for making sound decisions for resolving domestic, regional, and global conflicts through dialogue rather than through imposing a particular agenda, plan, or perspective on the entire world through military force, bribes, persuasion, and sophisticated propaganda techniques. Moreover, it is absurd to think that a people's hearts and minds can be won by missiles, bombs, destructions, and death. To even envision and plan for a better future, we must replace the language of "hate" with "love" and the language of "war" with "peace." Otherwise, we bring George Orwell's nightmare world of 1984 to life in the 21st Century.


Yahya R. Kamalipour, PhD, is professor of mass communication and head of the Department of Communication and Creative Arts, Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, Indiana. He is editor of the book, Global Communication (Wadsworth, 2002) and editor-in-chief of Global Media Journal.

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