Nicholas Goldberg: The Concealment of War

Russia has ramped up its fight against truth and transparency by several notches when it enact a law Earlier this month she banned the words “war” and “invasion” to describe her behavior in Ukraine. The law provides for prison sentences of up to 15 years for anyone who dares to utter these words or spread other “fake news” about the conflict.

It’s a throwback to the country’s ugly totalitarian past and suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin is afraid of his own people and concerned about his power.

But let’s keep things in context. Although the United States and other democracies do not generally prosecute their citizens for speaking openly and honestly, there is nothing new about governments trying to control the language of war. In fact, the packaging and marketing of war through obfuscation, euphemism, and even dishonesty is almost as old as war itself.

Stipple style portrait illustration by Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.

It is ridiculous that Russia insists that its brutal behavior in Ukraine, which has already killed thousands of civilians and soldiers, is not a war or an invasion, but merely a “military special operation,” whatever that means. But the United States maintained for years that the Korean War was not a war. President Truman referred to it as a “police action” and Congress said it was merely a conflict.” More than 2.5 million people died, including more than 30,000 American military personnel.

Governments don’t like to admit starting wars because wars are not very popular for obvious reasons. In fact, in 1949 the former U.S. Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense, although most Americans, if they bothered to think about it, knew that the Department’s work involved more than just defense.

I am not claiming any moral equivalence between what Russians do when they jail people for telling the truth and what democracies do when they use misleading language. But the underlying goals are similar.

Every Madison Avenue publicist knows that when you name something, you set the terms of the debate. When it’s something as unpopular as war, wrapping it in jargon or acronyms, calling it the opposite of what it is, or making it sound clinical and less disturbing can serve your purposes.

Call civilian deaths “collateral damage.” Don’t call a coup a coup; Call it “regime change.” War Department rebranding.

This type of misnaming goes back at least until the Romanswho expanded their empires through a process they called “pacification.” (Similar to how Russian news programs last week called the Ukraine invasion “a peace-restoration operation.”)

The Nazis referred to the murder of Jews in gas chambers as “Special treatment.”

According to the late Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, during the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, the bloodless word “victim” was used to refer to the maimed and dead.

The aim in each case was to sanitize or justify a bloody and unpleasant business.

“Different linguistic frames can affect people’s moral judgments.” wrote a group of Canadian researchers last year in one of many studies on the subject. They found that substituting different verbs, adding more agreeable phrases, using euphemisms, and adopting the passive voice can make morally objectionable behavior more palatable to people.

A week after the start of the war in Ukraine, almost 6 out of 10 Russians supported him and only 23% opposed it. according to an independent survey. That’s because propaganda and double entender, combined with near-total control of the media, are powerful tools to win hearts and minds.

We call this abuse of the language Orwellian because it was George Orwell, the British journalist, critic and novelist, who wrote about it so clearly in 1984 and elsewhere.

“Defenseless villages are bombed from the air, the inhabitants are driven out to the countryside, the cattle are machine-gunned, the huts are set on fire with incendiary bullets: that’s what we call it pacification‘ he wrote in his 1946 classic essay ‘Politics and English Language. “… Such a mode of expression is needed if one wants to name things without taking mental pictures of them.”

Two outrageous euphemisms stand out during the George W. Bush administration. The first is “extraordinary rendition,” to refer to snatching terror suspects off the streets of foreign cities and sending them to so-called black sites in foreign countries. The second is the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which refers to torture. (Andrew Sullivan argued in The Atlantic in 2007 that the latter expression had its roots in the Gestapo interrogation method known as “enhanced interrogation,” which roughly translates to “enhanced interrogation” or “enhanced interrogation.”)

And to some extent, news organizations followed the government’s example: The Times used the phrase “enhanced interrogation” for a time, albeit usually in quotation marks with an accompanying phrase like “what some people consider torture.” Some other newspapers adopted government language or used their own euphemisms, labeling waterboarding, sleep deprivation and wall-beating suspects as “tough tactics” or “rough treatment.”

So far, President Biden seems to be more straightforward than many of his predecessors, despite his use of at least one hackneyed, misleading Cold War-era anachronism: “the free world.” On the other hand, the US did not start the war in Ukraine and is not directly involved in the fighting, so it needs less cover-up.

The problem with spinning and manipulating the language of war is that if you make harmful actions sound harmless, the more likely they are to continue.

If war is not hell, but disinfected, harmless and bureaucratized, why not engage in it more often? If my country is not an aggressor behaving brutally, but is involved in pacification or enhanced interrogation, or in a “special military operation,” why shouldn’t I support it?

Honesty is rare when governments go to war. Journalists, scholars and citizens on all sides must listen carefully to separate fact from lies if they hope to understand realities and know when they are being manipulated. Then they must bring it to the attention of others – if they can do so without being imprisoned.

@Nick_Goldberg Nicholas Goldberg: The Concealment of War

Caroline Bleakley

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