During the War the Media Was Deliberately Vigilant in their Choice of Words
Monday 28 April 2003
"Conflict in Iraq", "war against Iraq", "Anglo-American offensive" The terminology testifies to the newspapers' trouble situating themselves. According to the linguists, "politically correct" has been proscribed, and terms such as "hyperpower" and "unilateral" should remain.
The war: weeks before the first bombardments of Baghdad on March 20, those whose profession it is to inform, had begun to prepare for the war. Not only the written press, but also radio and television had planned special pages or editions, organized the departure of their reporters, and considered what they were going to say.
On February 25, Patrice Bertin, Assistant Editorial Director at France-Inter, warned in a memo: " War is an 'exercise' which no journalist and no station may boast of having polished". Self-proclaimed "Colonel Bertin" for the occasion, he called his troops to vigilance with regard to those "key words which are so many propaganda contrivances" and noted as examples: "martyrs", "Crusades", "innocent victims", "cowardly attacks", "hateful offenses", and "smart bombs".
Aside from this last expression, which is, all the same, the least paradoxical, French media for the most part banned terms designed to give the war a disembodied image, such as the famous "collateral damage" and "surgical strikes" of the first Gulf War in 1991.
That conflict and others, notably the one in Kosovo, have obviously taught a lesson. For Alain Rey, reporter on the France-Inter channel and Editorial Director at the publishing house, Le Robert, French media treatment of the conflict has been "decent" and military discussion "very neutral", compared to other eras. With the exception, of course, of the harangues of Mohammed Sa d Al-Sahaf, Saddam Hussein's information minister, which were probably intended primarily to buck up Iraqi morale, according to Mr. Rey.
The second Gulf War began as soon as the Americans gave it a name: "Iraqi Freedom". Then began the massive bombing operations baptized "Shock and Awe", or "Operation Decapitation". Names that have practically brand name value. "This communication tends to give military operations a certain coherence", emphasizes Alice Krieg-Planque, University Lecturer at Paris-XII University and author of "Ethnic Cleansing, a Formula and its History"(CNRS Communication, 2003, 35 Euros), a book about the Yugoslav conflict.
The absence of "politically correct vocabulary" surprised Mr. Rey. As a result, he notes the return of classic military terminology, such as "bombardments" or "looting", known variables for wartime, in short. For those medi anxious not to transform war reporting into a simulated video game, it's necessary to also be on guard against military terminology rich in technical terms that are also highly evocative. From Tomahawk missiles to Abrams tanks by way of the Apache helicopter, war fittings often refer back to heroic American characters, while the Nebuchadnezzar or Hammurabi divisions recalled Iraq's prestigious past.
The war also makes new or notable terms stand out, some of which may pass into ordinary speech. The list of Mr. Rey's nearly daily reports on France-Inter delivers a bouquet of them, while providing a rather precise chronology of the Iraq war: from "oil" on March 3 to "vital" on April 15 (as opposed to "central") to qualify the UN's role in the reconstruction of Iraq and "pragmatic" April 16 to describe the telephone call from Jacques Chirac to George Bush, or even to "smudge" with regard to the "missilage"-he coined the term-of the journalists at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel. Mr. Rey entertains himself by noting as he goes along some military euphemisms, such as the "strong message" sent to Saddam Hussein, which was intended to finally eliminate the recipient of the message in question.
The use of "securiser", which comes from the English verb "to secure", angers him. "Perhaps that word is more bearable in English," he allows. "In French, it applies to a person. How can one claim to secure a city by preemptively destroying it for fear of the retort !"
This construction has also drawn Mme Krieg-Planque's attention; she explains its success with the media by virtue of it polyvalence: "It can simultaneously mean 'occupation', 'demilitarization', 'disarmament', but also the destruction of a military or civilian population."
Another wildly successful word, "reconstruction", should also be used with caution. "This complex term comprises all the dimensions, economic as well as political and social. That it should have appeared at all before the conflict is shocking ", affirms Mme Krieg-Planque. In contrast, Mr. Rey predicts a quick end for "embedded" however frequently used in articles to designate journalists who were "integrated", i.e. shipped out with the American army.
From this conflict, the linguist is more likely to retain terms like the American "hyperpower" which, according to him, should durably brand"world imbalance", and "unilateral", which shows "the catastrophe of international law". In another register, supposed to be diplomatic, he is surprised by the tone Jacques Chirac uses when he evokes "the occupation armies" to designate the Anglo-American troops in Baghdad.
For the media as well, the choice of terminology testifies to their trouble situating themselves. Between the war in Iraq, the Iraqi conflict, the Anglo-American offensive, the American-Iraqi conflict, nuances of interpretation are not lacking. Similarly, how should the troops in Iraq be called? Out of the question to refer to "the allies", current during the first Gulf War, but too evocative of the Second World War. To "coalition forces" the expression in use by the Americans, the French media often prefer "Anglo-American troops". "The diversity of these expressions testifies to the ambiguity of being against the intervention without hoping for its failure", analyzes Mme Krieg-Planque. French journalists also allowed a certain irony to show through when commenting on the expression "friendly fire", those fatal American mistakes in which American or English soldiers were targeted.
However, in Mr. Rey's eyes the strongest word remains "war". Once it's pronounced, it's already too late. Unlike at the beginning of the Twentieth Century when it stood for a positive value, "this is a word that discomfits its hearers, otherwise why would George Bush have spoken of the "most humane war possible"?
Translation: TruthOut French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher
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