The language of war

What is this foray into Iraq? Failed diplomacy. Iraqi liberation from a brutal dictator. An invasion. A coup by force. An Anglo-American war. A U.S.-led military assault to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. A war to control Iraq’s resources. An act of pre-emptive self-defense. And what comes after? Liberation. Occupation. Nation-building. While the fighting continues, we can expect the United States and Iraq to generate widely disparate characterizations of each other’s actions. As this takes place, it is the duty of citizens of the global politic to critically examine the information presented.

Opinions of this war aside, it is important to recognize that differences in media coverage of the war can be attributed to careful government manipulation as well as the media itself. Thinking about why certain words and images are being used to depict events in Iraq, how often, in what context and for what underlying purpose is a good way to achieve a more balanced viewpoint. Without reflecting on why certain images and language have been chosen, the alternative choices available and the connotations resulting from those choices, a skewed perception of reality is likely to develop.

Begin with the simple characterization of the current conflict as a war. Putting aside the formalistic distinction of whether Congress has declared war on Iraq, the current conflict can easily fit under the definition of an invasion. This might raise hackles. The United States does not think of itself as an aggressor nation. Invasion carries along with it pejorative underpinnings. Yet this is precisely the point. Most wars are triggered by a galvanizing event, pitting alliances or nation-states of equivalent power against each other. Here, however, the United States is at conflict because it chooses to be. With its demands of the United Nations not met, it sent forces within the borders of a sovereign state. Despite proffering a host of rationales – regime change, safeguarding U.S. security, aiding the fight on terrorism – the United States is in many minds acting contrary to international law and against United Nations dictates by retaliating before a clearly defined threat has been articulated. Responding to a threat is to enter a war; instigating an incursion is to mount an invasion.

This begs the question: Why does it matter? Whether labeled war or invasion, is not the Iraqi conflict just as desperate? Would not a rose by any other name smell just as sweet? Perhaps. But the coloring of emotion: The nationalism, the symbolism, the unity of purpose which is invoked by the term war falls by the wayside with the negative connotations of invasion. By buying into the language put forth, Americans blind themselves to alternative descriptions and therefore fail in understanding others’ dissent.

Now, look at context. Although the media have done much to drive home President George W. Bush’s oft-repeated remarks about the true brutality of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, it has done little to convey the past involvement of the United States in Iraq. Indeed, that the United States actively supported Hussein with weapons and money in the 1980s, did nothing when he used chemical weapons on Kurds in the city Halabja, and rescinded its offer to help Kurds and Shiites lead an uprising against Hussein after the first Gulf War might explain why many Iraqis might be reluctant to take up arms with U.S.-led forces.

Studies in social science posit the unbiased observer is a myth. Every writer, reporter or cameraman has built-in cultural biases in what they think of as significant and in what terms they understand the world. The hurdle for each individual is to challenge those terms while also challenging their own biases to view the world as others might perceive it. Complete language deconstruction is impossible, yet a more balanced viewpoint is within everyone’s reach. This balance requires a critical orientation toward every media source and all information communicated.

None of this is to offer an opinion on the rightness of either side’s actions. Rather, it is to say that terminology and frames of reference matter. Whether given by the administration, the military, the media or the next-door neighbor, the labeling we ascribe to events influences how we feel about and perceive those events. By accepting without scrutiny definitions as fact, we foreclose understanding why people have different points of view. And then the goal for global understanding is truly lost.