Dead Civilians and the Language of War
TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 24 Jul 2017
In certain parts of the world — where we and our allies are waging war — the expendable people come in two categories: terrorists (good riddance!) and civilians, whom we only kill if and when necessary, and whose deaths often elicit official apologies (if there’s no way to deny it was our fault).
Indeed, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, according to the Daily Beast, “There has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties.”
We care about civilians so much — especially children — that we actually inconvenience ourselves in our efforts (don’t ask for details) to avoid killing them. This is true even though civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq have risen more than fourfold since Donald Trump has been in office — according to a study for the Daily Beast conducted by the research organization Airwars — and Trump has famously unshackled the military so that, as Mattis put it, “we can annihilate ISIS” (or as Trump put it, “bomb the shit” out of ISIS).
The only way not to notice the insanity of all this is to believe, even reluctantly, in the need for the U.S. to keep on waging war in the Middle East and eventually defeat terrorism and evil. This is how much of the media report the news of war, even when they report it critically. The need to seek victory remains unquestioned. The role of the military in “keeping us safe” remains unquestioned. And the language of war remains unchallenged, which means the death of civilians — indeed, the death of anyone who isn’t American or European — remains, however regrettable, nothing more than a cold abstraction.
I say this in the belief that murder begins with language. Words can convey the truth, but mostly they convey, at best, part of the truth. And that’s not enough.
Consider this matter-of-fact account, from a recent article in New York magazine, of the controversy over how many civilians have been killed in the Iraq-Syria war zones. Airwars put the figure, since 2014, at about 4,500, almost half of which have occurred post-Trump, while the official U.S. count is just over 600. “But,” the article notes, “the official numbers also reveal a sharp uptick in civilian deaths.”
And suddenly I have to scream: Stop!
Every dead person is a human being. At some point . . . at some point . . . this has to matter. An uptick in civilian deaths? When I deconstruct this language, I encounter a shrug of indifference, a detached sense of necessity: What can you do?
If the dead were Americans (white Americans), would the words be so cold and detached? On Sept. 11, 2001, there was an uptick of dead office workers in New York City . . .
Do moral issues cross political and cultural borders? Not when we call it war — though there has been a bizarrely tepid change in consciousness even about this in the last half century, at least in the uber-armed, planet-colonizing Western world.
Last May, for instance, Samuel Oakford’s article in Foreign Policy informed us:
“The United States’ coalition partners in the war against the Islamic State are responsible for at least 80 confirmed civilian deaths from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. military officials. Yet none of their 12 allies will publicly concede any role in those casualties.
“These dozen partner nations have launched more than 4,000 airstrikes combined, the vast majority of which were undertaken by the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. However, they have so far claimed a perfect record in avoiding civilian casualties.”
Why? In today’s world, killing civilians — or publicly acknowledging these deaths, at any rate — is somehow morally iffy.
And the Daily Beast article about civilian deaths, also by Oakford, contains this grim paragraph:
“The deadliest incident so far admitted by the Coalition in either country took place on March 17 in the al Jadida neighborhood of Mosul. According to U.S. investigators, at least 105 civilians were killed when an American jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building where they sheltered. The U.S. said its forces aimed for two ISIS fighters on the roof, but the entire building gave way — a clear sign, claimed investigators, that the building had been rigged with explosives by ISIS. Survivors and Mosul civil defense officials denied the U.S. narrative, insisting they had seen no evidence of ISIS explosives.”
Globally, we’re still investing trillions of dollars in the means of killing civilians, including, my God, nuclear weapons, but government spokespersons are now tasked with the job of making the public believe the actual use of such weaponry takes out only certified enemies. This says to me that despite all evidence to the contrary, war — the reality of it, if not the PR-sanitized presentation of it via the status quo media — is obsolete in the collective human mind.
The language of war is what keeps it alive. This is the language of strategy and domination: words without grief, words without compassion. Speaking truth to power — the true work of the media — cannot be done if reporters write in the language of power, this alien tongue in which some human beings are expendable.
Robert C. Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based peace journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is still available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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