Loose language, real wars

Posted: May 04, 2007 12:01 AM
Loose language, real wars

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.

Here are some lines from a recent New York Times story: “For a few days, it seemed as if Don Imus would somehow pull out of the death spiral. After all, once he came under fire, Mr. Imus said he was sorry.” Soon, though, the story adds, “the media began to lock and load.” The story says Imus was “fighting for survival,” and it concludes, “Mr. Imus never caught a breath because he was in the middle of a 24-hour news cycle that kept him in the cross hairs. It is the kind of media ceremony that generally ends in a human sacrifice.”

There are at least six violent metaphors in that story. Several of them, including “death spiral,” “under fire” and “in the cross hairs” would have been familiar to earlier generations of Americans as symbolizing the impending end of a human life. Today, they mean nothing more than the temporary end of a radio shock jock’s career. Imus may have lost his job, but he’s hardly a “human sacrifice.”

Or consider this gem from The Washington Post online. Writer Dan Froomkin speculates the Bush administration may be, “letting [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales’s limp corpse take fire that might otherwise be aimed at the White House directly.”

It’s an image that would be disgusting if we took it literally. Luckily, readers are so immune to the incorrect use of violent imagery that we recognize Froomkin really means “the White House is keeping Gonzalez around to take the pressure off Bush.”

Ironically, even as war-like talk heats up, actual war is cooling down. As Gregg Easterbrook reported in The New Republic two years ago, actual war is in decline around the globe. “All told, there were less than half as many wars in 2004 as there were in 1991,” he writes.

But even as incidents of actual warfare have gone down, the media’s use of violent metaphors has gone up. And when there’s an actual act of war, such as Iran’s attack on British personnel or the long war against international terrorists, the media isn’t sure how to respond. We need more journalists embedded with American troops, to report all the good things they’re doing in Iraq and elsewhere. And we need to ease up on the violent rhetoric unless it’s used to describe actual violent events.

After all, there’s a war on. And it’s not a “war of words.”