Thursday, 12 September 2013

The language of war

One of the abiding mysteries of the ongoing Syrian chemical weapons issue is why it is that the US and UK governments apparently got so exercised over the deaths of a few hundred victims of an apparent chemical gas attack in Damascus that Cameron and Obama were prepared to risk (and in Cameron's case suffer) political humiliation by threatening military intervention. What made those few hundred deaths so different from the estimated 100,000 that preceded them?

I cannot pretend to have an answer to that question but it is interesting to look at the issue at the level of language (it is what this blog is supposed to be about after all). The most obvious phenomenon of course is the use of extreme language to describe the attacks: "horror", "moral obscenity", "outrage" etc. but that sort of thing is hardly surprising, and much of this language was used post hoc in an attempt to whip up international outrage to justify intervention.

What I think is more interesting is the language that we have all quite naturally come to use to differentiate chemical or biological weapons from the nice friendly high explosive kind. The former are, for instance, described as "weapons of mass destruction," despite the fact that their main attraction to unscrupulous dictators is that they actually cause very little destruction indeed, simply removing the inconvenient people from a landscape that is otherwise left untouched. Explosive weapons, by contrast, are universally defined as "conventional," and therefore presumably uncontentious and socially acceptable, if perhaps a tad passé for the really hip military commander.

What is more, while the use of chemical weapons is usually described as "indiscriminate", the use of conventional weapons (particularly when carried by the maybe-not-that-conventional-really drones) is generally "clinical," "focussed," or even "surgical." This carries through to the nouns used. The use of chemical weapons is almost invariably described as an "attack", whilst the use of explosives (when carried by drones, cruise missiles or laser-targeted bombs) is usually a "strike."

On the face of it, these two words look similar, but in fact the difference between them is profound. As I have argued in a number of earlier posts about poetry (here or here for instance) it is the connotations of words that give them their power and the connotations of "attack" and "strike" are quite different. "Attack" has a fairly straightforward set of connotations in both its verb and its noun form. An attack can be violent, unprovoked, vicious, frenzied or bitter. However you look at it, the word has connotations of an animalistic loss of control and the suspension of careful judgment and even of morality.

"Strike" is much more nuanced. For a start, its verb form is now seen as archaic and is rarely used to mean anything close to "attack" (when did you last strike someone?) Oddly, it does seem to have survived in the almost unconnected sense of "striking a pose." In its noun form it has a slightly wider range of meanings than  "attack", with some straying well away from the sense of violence. One could argue that a labour strike is almost the antithesis of violence as it involves the suspension of physical activity.

It is also interesting to look at what adjectives can pair with the noun form of "strike." A strike can be preemptive and decisive, as well as the previously mentioned attributes, "clinical," "surgical" and "focussed." What is clear is that the attributes of "strike" and "attack" cannot be interchanged easily. An attack cannot be clinical any more than a strike can be frenzied, or even vicious. The word "strike," it seems, carries with it connotations of careful, analytical precision that are a world away from the connotations of the word "attack."

So there you go. Chemical weapons evoke "horror" and "moral outrage" because their use involves an "attack." Explosive weapons on the other hand are "conventional" and therefore by implication morally acceptable, and their use takes the form not of an "attack" but of a much more rational and carefully thought through "strike."

I am sure that was of enormous comfort to the untold thousands killed by explosive weapons, not just in Syria but in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Yemen and wherever else.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, for the swift, controlled, well-defined violence of striking a match.