A good look at our terminology and rhetoric.
But if that’s an old story, it bears asking whether there are new ones. From the second half of the past century onwards, the sorts of war we have been fighting have changed. The old model had nation-states facing off with standing armies of uniformed professionals. The wars we fight now are interventions, proxy engagements, counterinsurgencies, peacekeeping missions, police actions, asymmetric engagements and hybrid wars. You may sprinkle your skeptical inverted commas through that list according to taste.Our wars now, like our politics, are more tangled; our means of communication both further-reaching and more plural. That has implications for the way in which the rhetoric of war works....These euphemisms evolve – sometimes in response to redundancy, sometimes in response to ridicule. Google’s enormous corpus of data from scanned books, available via its Ngram viewer, graphs how phrases wax and wane. “Surgical strike” first registers in 1962 and climbs to a peak in 1988 before dropping sharply off. By 2000 it was showing up about a third as often as it had 12 years previously. “Blue on blue” – US military slang for friendly fire – is nowhere before the early 1980s, peaks in 1993 and plummets to half that by 2000. We reached peak “freedom fighter” around 1985. New wars bring a new language....All rhetoric is, at root, identity-speech. It is tribal. And war is as starkly tribal a situation as one can come across, informed by the dichotomy between us and them. The basic figural mode of war rhetoric is therefore antithesis. A good instance is the neat near-chiasmus that the IDF’s Twitter feed volunteered during this year’s conflict in Gaza: “Israel uses the Iron Dome to protect its civilians. Hamas uses civilians to protect its rockets.”
October 10, 2014 1:41 pm
War-talk in the 21st century
By Sam Leith