Mick Clifford: Along with the truth, language is one of the first deaths when a despot goes to war

Mick Clifford: Along with the truth, language is one of the first deaths when a despot goes to war

When is a war not a war? When it’s a conflict. When is an invasion not an invasion? When it’s a special operation.

So it goes in the war on plain speaking once the bombs begin to explode and people die.

Russia’s assault on language in the name of propaganda got into full swing within days of the invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s government brought in a law banning the publication or broadcast of what was described as “false information against the armed forces”. The penalty for breaking the law is a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

This “false information” includes describing what is occurring in the neighbouring state as “war”, or referencing the “invasion” of Ukraine. Such plain language might give pause for thought to the Russian people who appear, at best, to be lukewarm at the efforts to recreate a former empire. There is no war or invasion, the official line goes in Russia, it’s just a special operation to take out some criminals in the neighbouring country.

An example of how the Russian people are being conditioned occurred during a televised meeting between Putin and a group of female Aeroflot pilots. One of the women politely inquired of the president about how things were going.

“We all support your actions, the special military operation that is proceeding there,” she said. “We know that civilians do not suffer but please reassure us what is at the end of this path.”

Putin responded, according to the New York Times, with a litany of his grievances against Ukraine. The most charitable thing that can be said about his inquisitor is that she was under duress to spout that waffle. How does she know that civilians aren’t suffering in cities being bombarded with missiles? Is it because Russian state media tells her so?

Bad and all that the The Irish Times but, during the week, it turned out that the UN is buying into the propaganda. Russian people are being subjected to such self-censorship’ Europe correspondent reported sight of an email in which staff at the UN were instructed not to refer to the situation in Ukraine as a war or invasion in order to balance political sensitivities.

For anyone who wants to follow this up, the evidence that the UN did not use “invasion” as a matter of policy before I started asking them for comment on Monday is there in plain sight.
“Situation” “military offensive” “hostilities” “conflict”
Never “invasion”, rarely “war”. https://t.co/mGvz2MmIUp pic.twitter.com/gJac4WkokD

— Naomi O’Leary (@NaomiOhReally) March 10, 2022

“Some specific examples of language to use/not use at the moment,” the email read, according to Naomi O’Leary. “Use ‘conflict’ or ‘military offensive and NOT ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ when referring to the situation in Ukraine.”

Later, the UN first tried to discredit the story and then admitted that the mail had been sent but that it wasn’t official policy. A later email suggested the language policy regarding Ukraine was now being updated to reverse the initial instructions. By attempting to appear neutral, the international body had effectively played into Putin’s hands, linguistically downgrading the slaughter of innocents to a military offensive.

From ‘the final solution’ to ‘enhanced interrogation’

It has always been thus.

Whenever wars have occurred, wherever regimes know that the real facts will be at the very least embarrassing, they have attempted to wrap it up in relatively soft language.

Torture was rebranded as ‘enhanced interrogation’ at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, Iraq, in late 2003. File picture: AP

One of the most appalling examples of this was the ‘final solution’ enacted by the Nazis during the Second World War, which in actuality was the genocide of 6m Jews. That a system of efficient, systemic murder could be described as a solution sums up the moral hellhole in which the Nazis resided.

The Vietnam War gave rise to the concept of ‘surgical’ airstrikes, in which US-backed forces claimed that the bombing in which they engaged was carefully targeted. As is always the case when bombing from the sky, there is never any prospect of complete accuracy, whatever about the morality of the action in the first place.

At one point during the 1960s, when surgical strikes were much favoured in the US administration, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser to John F Kennedy, noted that while the term might suggest decisive attacks confined to vital targets, they would be “like all surgery — bloody, messy, and you will have to go back for more”.

Other US exploits in faraway lands really brought the language of war on to a new plain. The ‘war on terror’, as might be expected of such a mislabelled venture, gave rise to all sorts of terms far removed from the reality of blood, guts, and pain.

‘Collateral damage’ first surfaced in the original Gulf War in 1991 as an expression for the killing of innocents. This has the benefit of avoiding terms such as civilian deaths or even casualties which could, if falling on the wrong ears, prompt a little indignation or even outrage. By the time the second war in Iraq came along, the vocabulary had been greatly expanded on.

So it was that we were given ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, a term to describe the infliction of extreme pain on human beings, otherwise known as torture

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