Saturday, October 11, 2014

War-talk in the 21st century: High-tech, hybrid forms of conflict are changing the language of warfare

A good look at our terminology and rhetoric.

Excerpt:

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
High-tech, hybrid forms of conflict are changing the language of warfare, from Putin’s rhetorical land-grabs to violent videos and tribal tweets
Images from a video of a Royal Air Force strike on an Isis truck in northern Iraq on September 30 2014
©PA
Images from a video of a Royal Air Force strike on an Isis truck in northern Iraq on September 30 2014
B
ack in 1982, the British science-fiction comic 2000AD ran a story in which its hero Judge Dredd survived a nuclear war. Surveying the glow-in-the-dark wreckage of his city, Dredd was clear about the lesson that had been learnt: “Next time,” he said, “we get our retaliation in first.”
It’s a funny joke – and it’s funny because it arrives at its mordant candour by little more than tweaking the conventional public vocabulary of war. Every country has a “defence” budget, and what the money gets spent on (guns, bombs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, etc) looks “defensive” only in a distinctly extended sense.
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 sceptical 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.

In the second place, as Obama’s example shows, today the implied audience for any given speech can be assumed to be multiple: you are speaking to (or at least will be overheard by) not only your own people but also to the enemy and a wide number of interested parties, including the “international community”. As literary critic Wayne C Booth argued in the academic journal JAC, “two revolutions – they could be dubbed awkwardly as ‘media globalisation’ and ‘globalisation of weaponry’ – have transformed the narrow audience of classical war-talk into a multiplicity of audiences”. Obama was ostensibly addressing an audience in Tallinn; but his most important overhearer – his
 intended overhearer – was in the Kremlin.In the first place the word “war” itself is very often off the table. For politicians – mindful of legal and constitutional pitfalls, let alone public relations – “military action” is as close as they tend to get. Recently, President Obama made clear that a Russian incursion into any of the Baltic states, which are members of Nato, would result in a declaration of war. But what he actually said was: “We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With Nato, you will never lose it again.” Compare Churchill, who vowed to rescue “mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history”.
The most commonly remarked-on feature of the rhetoric of war is euphemism. Each modern conflict spawns new ones – the voguish metonymy of “boots on the ground”, for instance, has the reassuringly human-free undertone that all we need to send is boots.
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.
According to the British military historian Antony Beevor, “When one sees the introduction of armed humanitarianism – don’t you love it? – [one] did see a fundamental change. The American idea that you can police the world from the air with low-bodybag, high-tech warfare.”
Beevor says the idea of what US military strategist Edward Luttwak has called “disposable sons” – the levée en masse of ground troops – has ceased to be part of the vocabulary of modern warmaking: “It continued up to the end of the second world war and, obviously, a little bit longer in the Far East. But we’re beyond that: we’re now into a much more high-tech warfare.”
That technological aspect shapes the language – we now hear “armed services” used in free variation with “armed forces” – and gives us new ways to remove the idea of vulnerable human bodies from the conversation. Nowadays we hear a lot about the need to “degrade capacity” – which has a reassuringly technical and inorganic feel to it: war as resource-management rather than killing, a sort of export-grade reverse-Taylorism.
(Continued at the link below)

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