According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of Collateral Damage is : injury inflicted on something other than an intended target; specifically : civilian casualties of a military operation.
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.”
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. 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.
If you Google images of “Collateral Damage” you will get row upon row of this:
rather than this:
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 Journalists 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. Drones are used for “targeted killing,” a government-military euphemism for execution without benefit of judge, jury or due-process but, media sources say, “always with the approval of the president.”
The more obvious propaganda often escapes us purely because we’re so immersed in it. Early in the Iraq war, The New York Times and other papers misused the word “insurgents” for people who attacked US troops. The term lent the US side more legitimacy than it legally deserved. If Webster’s is to be believed, insurgents rise up against a recognized authority, and not against an occupying force that defied international law by invading.
Reuters, which prides itself on being the only true internationalist news organization, made a point of banning the word “terrorist” in reference to the September 11 attacks, with the argument that one man’s murderous extremist is another’s freedom fighter. The news agency aims to avoid emotive labels so that customers can come to their own conclusions based on facts. Reuters’ decision highlights what is, perhaps, an obvious point: The way conflict stories are written can substantially affect the public debate around those conflicts. Words matter.
It is important to understand how and why language gets twisted by those who would market war. Those in favor of attacking Iran would like to sell any potential assault as a preemptive war. Let’s not forget that war can be an abstraction to politicians, but not to those who fight and live through it. To soldiers and conflict-zone residents, war is bloody and devastating, and it’s hard for news consumers to realize this when the stories they read are stuffed with bloodless clichés.
With today’s media intentionally sanitizing and dehumanizing words, it is important to remember, that one man’s collateral damage is another man’s murdered son.
- John Pilger: Humanitarian Interventions – A Reframing of the War On Terror
- Faking It: How the Media Manipulates the World into War