The Language of War: Does Jargon Conceal the True Nature of Conflict?

In a recent BBC op-ed, journalist Will Self argues that euphemism and jargon are used by political “spin doctors” and arms manufacturers alike to conceal the true, dark nature of armed conflict. Terms such a “defense,” "surges,” "operations," and "tactical strikes" are, in Self’s opinion, an attempt at active deception, designed to misinform and sanitize perceptions of war.

I disagree. If armed conflict and its related policy affairs have a distinct vocabulary, the reasons are primarily historical. Mankind has always endowed the technically complex and dangerous business of war with distinctive language. Self is allowing an obvious anti-war rhetoric to distort why we use special terms to describe armed conflict.

As long as you are capable of comprehending the real life implications of those terms, they are not inherently deceptive.                                                       

Self’s argument is that there is a certain category of “highly-toxic euphemisms” employed to hide the true face of military activity. To Self, this is a highly modern phenomena — the deliberate use of jargon as part of a wider process of deceit, or “spin,” as a journalist would call it.

I think this perspective lacks appropriate historical context.

For a start, many of the terms Self attacks are in fact technical. If policy makers turn to the phrase “tactical strike,” for instance, it is because that term is used by air force personnel to describe their technically complex actions. “Dropping explosives from the sky” just isn’t short enough.

More importantly, the use of jargon to describe war is not new. As John Keegan persuasively outlined in his seminal work The Face of Battle, you cannot begin to read a description of combat in history without stumbling into euphemisms and jargon.

For instance, when one reads Thucydides or Caesar, do the terms “advance,” “fall back,” and “occupy ground” not belie the meeting and killing of men armed with sharpened metal weapons? When we read of musketeers’ “opening fire” or Napoleonic cavalry “turning a flank,” is it not obvious that both actions involve death on a large scale?

In Keegan’s perspective, there is nothing modern or conspiratorial about using jargon to describe military affairs at all. It is as old as the written word; part of a society-accepted code by which a complex and emotionally charged action – such as “working through the enemy stabbing them to death” — becomes “penetrated the enemy line.” It is simply how warriors and historians alike describe the activity of war.

So where does this historical perspective leave us?

It behooves us to use the complex language of war correctly. If we allow terms such as “target” or “collateral damage” to become attached to inappropriate subjects — such as civilian lives, for example — then this long established code is being abused. Self is right to query how language is used, and to dig deeper in the true meaning of “targeted bombardment” or “humanitarian intervention” if the outcome will be widespread suffering. 

But the overall conclusion is that, as with all language, as long as the true meaning is understood, there can be no deception. Self thinks that war’s jargon is used to lie to us. That is only true if we let it. As long as we do not turn a blind eye to the real-world outcomes of “civilian casualty” or “blue-on-blue,” then there is no conspiracy.

So whilst armed conflict’s serious ramifications deserve scrutiny, language is not the primary obstacle.

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