During World War II, if a person on the home front was being wasteful someone was likely to ask him, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” The question was self-answering.
Everybody knew there was a war on and understood what “war” meant: violence, danger, death. The entire country had mobilized to see off the Axis Powers. Even journalists such as Ernie Pyle reported from the front lines wearing military uniforms.
Today, we’re in the midst of another long war, but it’s far less clear that we understand what we’re up against. One reason is that journalists no longer give us the information we need to understand what’s going on. In fact, whether or not they intended to, journalists have changed the meaning of the words we ought to be using to describe this conflict.
It starts with the word “war” itself.
The media loves to declare war. A Philadelphia television station recently announced a “war of words” was heating up the city’s mayoral race. MSNBC said that investor Carl Icahn had stepped up a “war of words with Motorola” over the cell phone makers’ management. And WTVH-TV insisted that residents of a Syracuse neighborhood were engaged in a “war of words” with a landowner.
What all these “wars” have in common is simple: nobody’s going to get hurt or killed in them. If everything’s a “war” (and in the press, even a simple political debate is likely to be called a “war of words”) then nothing is.
This has real consequences. In March, Iran crossed into Iraqi waters and seized a British vessel that was engaged in a United Nations-sanctioned mission. Iran kidnapped 15 British service members, held them captive for almost two weeks, forced them to admit to “crimes” and eventually allowed them to return home.
This was, simply, an act of war. Yet the Western response was to treat that act of war as we would treat a neighborhood spat, by downgrading it to a “war of words.” A Times of London story announced, “Iran uses female captive in war of words.” And CNN.com offered viewers the chance to “watch the war of words build.” No thanks. Viewers might, instead, want to wait until the shooting starts. “War” is the most important word that’s losing its meaning, but it’s hardly alone. These days, when there’s violent rhetoric in the newspaper, it all too often describes a non-violent event.