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 The Language of War

Aeschylus maintained that "the first casualty of war is truth". Churchill agreed: “In wartime truth is so precious she must be attended to at all times by a bodyguard of lies” and later, “a lie gets halfway around the world before truth gets its pants on”Warmongers often justify atrocities with the term “the fog of war”

 Tallyrand’s assertion is “that what matters in politics is not the truth, but what people perceive to be the truth”.  Most wars are fought defending an arbitrary version of a truth – a truth that can be a bit fluid, mercurial, or protean. 

Propagandists are adept at using language for "perception management"; they often distort truth by misusing and abusing language. It is generally insidious grand scale subterfuge – attempting to cover up reality. Apologists will use euphemisms to justify the actions of their armies while using the foulest pejoratives to stigmatise, vilify and demonise the actions of their enemies. History is redolent with examples of the abuse of language as a means to “win the hearts and minds” of their own or their enemy’s population.

Propaganda as a means of causing, maintaining and justifying War: 

For a successful war in today’s climate,  Propaganda must accomplish three objectives;

1)   Leaders must convince parents to hand over their sons in the prime of their youth as cannon fodder.  This is achieved by appealing to nationalistic fervour and elevating collective national concerns over private familial interests.  

Patriotism may indeed be, as Dr. Johnson said, “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” but it’s also a warmonger’s first resort. Throughout history, desperate political leaders have cynically used war to unite people behind them or as a distraction from domestic problems.

2)   The army’s first  task is to turn normal civilised youth into hardened ruthless killing machines.  Each of them, if mentally healthy, had a natural repugnance to killing another human. (1) This had to be trained out of them. They had to be trained to believe that their superior officers knew much better than they, so that orders would be obeyed without question. They, and the supporting population, also have to be trained to believe that a certain set of humans is intrinsically inferior to themselves

 This can be achieved by cold heartless and contemptuous drill sergeant’s belittling, degrading and brutalising young recruits and dehumanising or depersonalising the enemy, depicting them as sub human savages.  Examples of this are Bruce Dawe’s Weapons Training or Henry V’s speech to his troops before the Battle of Agincourt.  In 1914, WWI, German soldiers - the Huns - were portrayed bayoneting Belgian babies.  Hitler and Goebbels depicted the Jews as rats while the Rwandan genocide; the mass slaughter of Tutsi by members of the Hutu majority government, was justified by dehumanising the Tutsi as cockroaches making them easier to kill.

For war inspirational speeches here.

3)   The general population’s support for the war effort must be sustained.  In previous times this was not a big  ask, however recent pacifist movements, anti-war sentiments and television images of the effects of carnage in people’s living rooms have necessitated stage managing media access to the brutal effects of war by censuring all media releases and curtailing the  movements of free lance correspondents to ensure supportive reporting. Unauthorised photographs of the Western Front was a court martial offences. Now we “embed” our reporters.

Euphemisms and other language tricks:

Politicians talk of war in euphemism; the fallen, casualties.. or in religious metaphors; crucifixion and martyrdom, while those who were there use more graphic language of slaughter and abattoirs.  Most soldiers resort to silence – the horrors are indescribable – unspeakable – ineffable or as Robert Hughes puts it “the back of language is broken”.

Detaching words from their usual order has long been a tactic of the powerful and in his popular 1989 work on the practice, Doublespeak , US English professor William Lutz shows how even the ancients used language to deceive. Writing of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC, Thucydides was careful to describe acts of cowardice as “courage”. Describing a brutal massacre at Gaul, Julius Caesar used the term “pacification”.

In 1802, Napoleon, in an attempt to spread the seeds of the French Revolution attacked Austria, Italy, Spain, Germany and Russia. Instead of calling it an invasion, he called it a “liberation” with the justification that he was freeing them from the tyranny of Absolute Monarchies to that of the liberal despot.  Robespierre observed: “Nobody likes armed missionaries”.

Propaganda first became a telling force in the lead up to the Crimean War 1854 - 56. Worried that Russia might disturb the delicate balance of power in Europe by invading the Ottoman Empire to gain access to an ice free port through the Black Sea and the Dardanelles, Britain and France organised an Expeditionary Force.

In order to drum up support for their cause, Britain and France used a propaganda campaign that painted the Russian as sub human - a bear - and enthused or stirred their populations and soldiers to such high levels of espirit de corps or morale that when the Russians backed down, the French and British press urged their ministries  to attack regardless and a force of just over 80,000 men was able to conquer a Russian force of over 300,000 serfs on their own territory.  The term Jingoist (one who wants war -a bellicose attitude) is  derived from a song of the time, “By Jingo we’ll show the Russians a thing or two.”  

The success of this propaganda campaign spread to the Pacific colonies as both New Zealand and Australia reacted in panic to imagined threats of a Russian naval attack.  New Zealand zealously fortified her harbours while in Australia a telegraph line from Darwin to Adelaide hastily built to warn us of an impending attack and Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour and Port Phillip Bay were fortified in fear of a Russian Navy that couldn't make its way out of the Black Sea. 

Other noteworthy consequences of the Crimean War were the contribution of Florence Nightingale organising field hospitals for cholera- stricken soldiers and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, which chronicled a charge of light cavalry under confusing orders against impregnable Russian gun positions, giving us these memorable lines:

“Someone had blundered:

 Theirs not to make reply,

 Theirs not to reason why,

 Theirs but to do and die” .

The French army general Pierre Bosquet famously declared:

C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre: c'est de la folie    ("It's magnificent, but it's not war: it's madness").

The Boer War (South Africa 1899 — 1902) raised the stakes in the war for the minds and hearts of the citizens of the world. The British, in their drive to secure the lucrative gold mines in South Africa were determined to dominate the Dutch Settlers and used the power of language to sway public opinion to their cause and paint  the Boers in as bad a light as possible.  It was waged in the true imperialist mould, revealing an unvarnished desire on the part of an insatiable Britain for world hegemony.  Concentration camps, a brainchild of Lord Kitchener, made an unwelcome appearance for the first time, with women and children interned within enclosures. Neglect proved the ultimate killer -- 25,000 Boer women and children, along with 14,000 natives perished simply to deprive their soldiers food, supplies and comfort -  justified by calling them whelps and dams.  Not Britain's most glorious hour. 

The central message of John Gray’s Straw Dogs is as stark as it is startling. Human progress, declares Gray, was a myth. “If we thought we were steadily becoming more civilised, then we were delusional. Instead, human beings are “weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing”.

From The Trenches: The Best Anzac Writing of World War One, edited By Mark Dapin, examines the use of language to express a new reality.

Moreover this was war where the means of death dealing were more mechanised and lethal than they had ever been. Dapin calls the first part of his book "The Great Adventure", as he succinctly traces the soon-obliterated enthusiasm when war was first declared. Those delusions are admonished by the poem with which the section opens - Walter Turner's Death's Men. These are its chilling last lines: "click, clack, click, clack, go Death's trim men/ Across the autumn grass". Following Turner up the line is Philip Schuler, an Age war correspondent who then joined the AIF. His Australia Answers the Call begins with that pseudo-chivalric language that Paul Fussell analysed in The Great War and Modern Memory: "young manhood", "baptism of fire", "thousands of braves". The Great War killed off this rhetoric, as it would kill Schuler, at Messines in Belgium in 1917.

The more self-aware of the authors whom Dapin selects wrestle with the question - moral as well as stylistic - of what language can be found to register the horrors of war. Sometimes there was a resort to mocking euphemism - the naming of frontal assaults as "stunts". For John Monash, a dry, descriptive mode seemed best: "the front line is not really a line at all, but a very complex and elaborate system of field works". He writes also of those behind the front - field police, liaison officers with the French Military Mission, salvage corps and 200 girls in the laundries.

The favoured figurative device of Great War writing (indeed of much war literature in the century since) hearkened back to Homer. This is the simile. Official war correspondent Charles Bean wrote of "an occasional sniping shot, exactly like the crack of a cricket ball". New Zealander Alexander Aitken likened a tank to "a pertinacious beetle", while for Frederic Manning (whose 1929 novel The Middle Parts of Fortune Ernest Hemingway thought the finest about the war), "the drumming of the guns" was "as though a gale resounded overhead, piling up great waves of sound".

By remaking the unfamiliar through the familiar, the horrible through the benign, simile allows the illusion of escape from war to the distant peaceful land left behind. But literary respite, like time spent away from the trenches, is only temporary. Dapin shows ways of reckoning with war and implicitly invites us to contrast them. We can set Walter Downing's exultant account of the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux on Anzac Day 1918 - "the fierce low growl of tigers scenting blood" - with John Jacob's account of advancing into battle: "We all got up and walked on as if we had suddenly got tired of lying there."


This was followed by increasing sophistication of propaganda of Hitler and Goebbels during the second of two world wars, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Bosnian/Serbian Crisis and finally the current Iraq Wars.  Increasingly to justify the deaths of millions of soldiers, those who were butchered were described by more acceptable terms such as casualties – (were their deaths accidental?), the fallen, losses, wastage…….. to depersonalise their deaths.

The Middle East has people fighting named in ways carefully emphasising a gulf in respectability: Israeli "soldiers" but Hamas "militants". To Israel, naturally, the Hamas fighters were "terrorists". They had built "terror tunnels" passing into Israel, through which more threatening things than funfair ghost trains could indeed roll. Binyamin Netanyahu said, moreover, that Hamas had turned UN facilities into "terrorist hotspots".

Language, can also be an effective inspiration in times of War.  Shakespeare recognised the power of rhetoric in his History plays as he contrasts the positive techniques with negative ones, especially in Julius Caesar, Henry V, or Richard III. 

Richard III’s call to arms is consistent with Shakespeare’s portrayal of a Machiavellian tyrant.  He first resorts to denigrating Richmond’s followers as desperate nobodies who are guilty of envy and then appeals to his followers by assuring them of his secure protection for their lands and wives as long as he remains their sovereign.  After derisively referring to Richmond as a paltry fellow and milksop, he turns to the device used by all insecure tyrants – FEAR. 


The threat that  “these rats will lie with our wives and ravish our daughters.”  It is more of a rant, an abusive diatribe rather than an uplifting or inspiring call to arms.


As a contrast, look at the positive inspiring tone of Richmond’s address to his troops or that of Henry V before the battle of Agincourt.

For a contrast between Brutus and Antony check out this:

Contrasting the Orations of Brutus and Anthony

During  World War II," Stephen Sewell demonstrates:

both Britain and Germany were led by men who were artists - they were both painters and both great orators." In a sense they summoned each other up.

"And at the very moment that Churchill was delivering his 'We shall fight them on the beaches', the Foreign Office was drawing up plans for capitulation and saying that Churchill's speech was a load of old cobblers. And yet it was the magnificence of Churchill's language - that magnificent rhetoric - that gave them a pathway through to winning the war."

Richard Flanagan on the language that takes us into War:

Richard Flanagan said that "everyone is a fool in war, and everyone suffers. It is humanity at its worst and best. It’s not a question of blame; we should never go to war except for the strongest of reasons. Unfortunately Australia seems to go to war for the weakest of reasons."

"The war in Afghanistan has been a monumental catastrophe," he added.

The writer said he deplored the way asylum seekers had been described during the last federal election. "We should never allow that because once you start [promoting] these ideas, you take the same steps that end up on the Death Railway. Poisonous language can seep into the soul of the national body, and that's wrong."

Examples of distortions of language in War:

Military parlance is often bureaucratic, anodyne, sterile – demotive -  "Escalation of force" = the killing of children - full of:   Euphemisms, Pejoratives,  Abstractions,  Ambiguities, Metaphors, depersonalisations and vilifications.

Once you transform people into objects with language that dehumanises them, we can justify the cruelty we inflict on them.  We need to use words that  respects their humanity and dignity.




French Communes  1870’s

Our troops were assassinated while we summarily executed the enemy

Pejoratives for the enemy-euphemisms for our side

Boer War 1901

Whelps and dams for the Boers, women and children for our side.

“Concentration camps” for enemy combatants.


Russian Revolution

Atrocities of Red Army – wise severity of White Army

Pejoratives- euphemisms

Spanish Civil War - 1930’s

Rebels or insurgents for Franco – loyalists for those defending the government.


World Wars

Gave us the words trench warfare and  attrition – to wear away in prolonged battle.  Casualties, fallen and wastage  for dead. (There was nothing casual about their deaths.)

“Force”:  Peace-loving countries must sometimes use “Force”  to protect democracy.

WWII – Blitzkrieg, kamikaze and “final solution” for genocide.

The Bosnian war changed this to “ethnic cleansing”.






Shock and awe



Coinage of wordsmegadeaths, overkill, Vietnamisation – withdrawal of troops.

Escalate, scenario and pacify used to escape from the reality of their actions.  Pacify, waste, frag, zap, offing, greasing, hose down, termination with extreme prejudice and destroy came to mean Kill. 

Hanoi Hilton for Prison camps.

Officials talked of Winning hearts and minds” Shortened to WHAM.

A memorable phrase by a commander: “In order to save the village we had to destroy it.”  To pacify a village you often had to kill everyone in it.

 Vietnamese referred to as “slants, slopes, Charley, White Mice (local police), boonies of Nam,  







Iraq Conflicts
















Second Iraq War

2003 ……


















Gazan Conflict or clash (not a war)

War on Terror

New Vocabulary to disguise new weaponry.

CW – Chemical Weapons, Smart bombs, Cluster bombs, Daisy Cutters.

EPW – Enemy Prisoner of War .


Civilian deaths – “collateral damage” later morphed into “friendly fire”.

Attrition used as a verb  “to attrit” – blast the hell out of

Enemy assets – roads, bridges, weapons, tanks, communication networks …and soldiers. 


Bridges not blown up but “collapsed” and they talk about the  “useful erosion of military capability”  Instead of demolition.


Pentagon Media Liaison Unit – Spin doctors:

  “embedded” Journalists who reported favourably on the war.  We know what can happen if you get into bed with someone.  Fox News glamorised the American efforts and some media were caught digitally enhancing images to favour their side.  Ironically, graphic images of the atrocities at Abu Grab prison were taken by American soldiers.


Bush’s “Axis of Evil”  speech.

Hussein’s “Mother of All Battles” and “Send them home in body bags”

WMD – Weapons of Mass Destruction

EPW – Enemy Prisoner of War – became “illegal combatants” To evade conditions protocols of the Geneva Conventions.

HVT – High Value Target.

Renditions – Removal of EPW to countries that condone the use of torture in interrogations. “Black site” neutral non-signatory to any torture prohibiting treaty.

EIT “enhanced interrogation techniques”) or” coercive interrogation”

GWOT – Global war on Terror

Military “degraded” 70% of enemy combatants or deconflicted or attrited  for KILLED.

Condelessa Rice flat footedly  denied additional deployment of troops was an “escalation” preferring “augmentation“ later becoming a “surge”.

Suicide  bombers referred to as a Person-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (PBIED)


The people fighting were named in ways carefully emphasising a gulf in respectability: Israeli "soldiers" but Hamas "militants". To Israel, naturally, the Hamas fighters were "terrorists". They had built "terror tunnels" passing into Israel, through which more threatening things than funfair ghost trains could indeed roll. Binyamin Netanyahu said, moreover, that Hamas had turned UN facilities into "terrorist hotspots".

The Howard Government refers to Asylum seekers as “illegal migrants” and Rudduck referred to a young detainee as “it”.

Acronyms – sanitise death.


Weasel words


Avoids reality and neutralises emotions on killing people.


Media releases become more sophisticated to stage manage the perception of combat and the process becomes manipulated and corrupted.










Reduction to Acronyms to demote.


Metaphors used to make them more













 Demonisation and depersonalisation



Though Terrorism has been around for more than 100 years, our leaders unscrupulously use it as a fear tactic to control and manipulate the masses.

Lyndon England had enlisted when she was 17, and she had gone through basic training during her last summer of high school. She had always wanted to be a soldier and to serve her country. In basic training, they broke you down and built you back up into a person whose actions and inactions had consequences for an entire system.

This was the principle of command responsibility: every soldier is accountable to and for her buddies, and every officer is accountable for the welfare and good conduct of his soldiers; you answer to your officer so he doesn't have to answer for you, in every hierarchy and sub-hierarchy, at every link in the chain of command. England admired this order of duty.

Reporting on Afghanistan: media v the military

Monash University School of English, Communications and Performance Studies' Kevin Foster writes:  Crikey – 004/09/08

When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, the population clamoured for details of the British Expeditionary Force’s exploits in France and Belgium. But the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, refused to accredit a single correspondent to accompany British forces. Instead he appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton of the Royal Engineers, to furnish reports from the front.

Swinton had few illusions about where his allegiances lay. His primary aim, he observed, was not "the purveyance of news to our own people" but to "avoid helping the enemy": as a consequence, he determined to tell only ‘as much of the truth as was compatible with safety’.

Having gathered his information, shaped his account and purged it of any tell tale details, Swinton passed his material to his senior officers for vetting. They handed it on to Kitchener who, after putting his own blue pencil to work, approved it for release to the press, where it appeared under the ironic by-line ‘Eye witness’.

More than ninety years later, in Australian media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, we find ourselves back in "Eye-witness" world. Not a single Australian correspondent is based there. As such, the news we get from Afghanistan, "almost every picture and video of Australian troops, every audio 'grab' and almost every quote from a digger comes from Australian Defence Forces 'public affairs and imagery specialists'". These are soldiers ‘trained to use cameras and write press releases’.


Tex Guinan: A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.

Rudyard Kipling:  If they ask why the young men died, tell them because the old men lied.

Larry Heinemann, an American Vietnam veteran turned novelist writes:

"We were the unwilling, doing the unnecessary, for the ungrateful"


On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col Dave Grossman. Most soldiers are reluctant to fire their weapons when confronted by the enemy:

"During World War II, U.S. Army Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall asked the average soldiers what it was that they did in battle. His singularly unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 'would take any part with their weapons.' This was consistently true 'whether the action was spread over a day, or two days or three.'

"Marshall [and his team] based their findings on individual and mass interviews with thousands of soldiers in more than four hundred infantry companies, in Europe and in the Pacific, immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops. The results were consistently the same: only 15 to 20 percent of the American riflemen in combat during World War II would fire at the enemy. ... The question is why. ... [The answer] is the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it. 

Propaganda posters of the First World War from The Guardian:   https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2018/apr/22/war-and-pleas-propaganda-posters-from-the-20th-century-in-pictures?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+AUS+v1+-+AUS+morning+mail+callout&utm_term=272758&subid=14416962&CMP=ema_632

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