Small Wars Journal

War and Words: The Menace of Meaning

Wed, 05/09/2012 - 5:41am

George Bernard Shaw was a man of letters and perhaps that is why, in his Arms and the Man, he made Captain Bluntschli exclaim: “Nine soldiers out of ten are born fools.” The entire edifice of the profession of arms is founded on jingoism; sloganeering is its cornerstone; and rhetoric the fuel that lights its interior. Despite being a man in uniform, let me admit that we the soldiers of the world deal in excesses, extremes, and exaggerations. We are condemned by the ugly needs of war to distort our enemies into devils whose skulls must be crushed and legs broken. That makes our men see red, breathe fire, and go insane on sight of the two-legged animal called “the enemy.”

We deal in the utilitarian view of the thing called “word”, and happily leave the romance of language to the “wretched” minds of the poets and preachers. To us soldiers, words have uses but we do not like to “waste” our time on the subtle thing called “meaning”.

This is partly why we deal in acronyms, jargons, catch phrases, and clichés. We have an incurable and ever-so-aggravating romance with Microsoft’s power-point because the thing makes it easy for us to make a mince-meat of words and crush-pack them into graphics that only “men-of-action” like us can make any sense of. The rest of the fools that there are in the world out there – uselessly called the academia, the scholarly types – end up exhausting their rather foggy eyes on understanding them.

Driven by our ceaseless desire to engage in “action,” we build perilous bridges over words, scorn the “miserable” merchants of ideas, and stay clear of the thing called “thought.” That leads also to a disdain for the fat books of words called dictionaries. When dictionaries are divorced, or are treated like a mother-in-law overstaying for a second day on the run, we end up using words that hurt. We also end up lumping together a whole idea into a wordless graphic that mocks Shakespeare’s assertion of brevity being “the soul of wit.”

We can get away with thoughtless bravado and mindless yapping in a conventional conflict where two evils called states are equally capable of hauling their nations into the fields of death. States have enough machinery to repress as well as emotionally blackmail their societies. Therefore, in such conflicts, fighters and managers of war can get away with a whole lot of verbal excesses about the enemy when trying to whip up frenzy in order to make decent human beings go insane. In World War-II, the allies and the Axis attributed the most hideous names to each other and yet the effects of that name-calling ended with the war.

COIN, on the other hand, is a different ball game. Our hard old habit of tossing words carelessly hither and thither distresses us the most in COIN. It is the world of gross military asymmetries. It invariably has a strong, organized national military fighting against rag-tag insurgent groups. The insurgents therefore rely heavily on means other than weapons. Insurgents keep dictionaries that teach how to manipulate words: not just the ones spoken by the insurgent commanders themselves but also those spoken by the ones they want their target audience to see as its enemies. 

While the conventional militaries attempt to snuff the life out of words in favor of spicy graphics, checklists, and fancy-looking campaign plans, insurgents sleep with words, and pet them with care we shower on our dogs. While the conventional militaries fight on the back of machines worth heaps of gold, insurgents hunt for words and are invariably hungry for ideas. This is so because necessity is the mother of inventions and needs drive notions. Powerful machines intoxicate and absolutely powerful machines intoxicate absolutely. When one is sitting on the back of a stallion, there is an uncontrollable yearning to cast aside all care and charge headlong into the enemy ranks. This is perhaps why most cavalry charges in military history have been inherently foolish. However, if you are a wretched foot-soldier resting on your left knee with your haunches on the back of your right foot and what stands between your life and death is the right placement of your shield and correct positioning of your lance – you are bound to think real hard.

The recent COIN struggles have seen so many words stampeded thoughtlessly. Needless to say that some of them, if not all, have come back to haunt the users. Though it is an aphorism now that COIN is political in nature, military men continue to consider “jugglery of words” as the “evil art” reserved for those impish, mischievous politicians. Such disregard of the art of saying the right thing rightly, not saying the wrong thing, and not saying the right thing wrongly (missing Donald Rumsfeld?) leads to an “oral hemorrhage” that has no known cure.  

Of all the mauled words, “Victory” is one example that appears foremost. Much as I dislike the thing called dictionary, let me take heart and see Merriam-Webster on this. Victory is defined as “the overcoming of an enemy or antagonist.” There are so many pitfalls in this one word used so often in the context of COIN. It involves overcoming and “vanquishing” an “enemy”. The military fighting the insurgents is, by dreaming up this word alone, imposes upon itself the need to find an enemy, say nasty things about him, and antagonize all elements that have, present or prospective, influence with the “enemy.” What a pitiable arraying of forces where none is needed! And then, one must win and, more importantly, be seen as winning. One’s “winning” inevitably implies elimination of the “enemy” and all those associated (or believed to be associated) with him.

Nothing seems to have hurt the present and past COIN campaigns more than the careless conception and use of this one word. The need to look like a “winner” to the voters and those under command, the political and bureaucratic windfall of rubbing it into the “enemy,” and the mere need to have or maintain an enemy, have all stemmed from the lust to say the word victory and not necessarily out one’s need to achieve what one fights for. Isn’t winning of wars all about achieving the goals set for it? Don’t words like “achieving and stopping” sound less offensive than “winning and vanquishing?” Dictionaries, if and when consulted with patience and empathy, will throw up words that are even better.       

Another word so often misused by soldiers and “soldierly civilians” is “Population.” Our wise war- managers and mongers talk day in and out about winning over the population, protecting the population, or winning the hearts and minds of the population. We deal with population as an object instead of an entity. We look at it as a commodity that can exchange hands instead of a collection of living and breathing human beings with every single one of them having his or her own aspirations, self-esteem, and identity.

For those who feel (“ah! This world…is a tragedy to those who feel” [Horace Walpole quoted in Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1954), 315]), calling the two legged homo-sapiens in the war-zone as “population” is like calling one’s mother “a woman.” It is technically correct but emotionally explosive. A mother is invariably a woman unless die-hard feminists finally succeed in achieving gender-equality in sharing the godly burden of reproduction. But somehow use of the word woman destroys the spirit of the whole idea attached to the word “mother.” When I call the lady who bore me in her womb as “mother” or “mom”, there is a glow of attachment, love and care that shines through her blurry eyes. I cannot imagine calling her “hey this woman!” That is the difference between calling human beings caught in the war zone, torn between their sympathy for insurgents who belonged to them and the military that occasionally comes to them, as “people” as against “population.”

Recourse to Merriam-Webster may be helpful again. People means: “human beings making up a group or assembly or linked by a common interest.” While population is the “hey, this woman” alternative of people. Population describes “the whole number of people or inhabitants in a country or region.” People is subtler, more personal and accords a meaning to the group of human beings one is dealing with. Population sounds impersonal, imperialistic, and even offensive.

So next time when I, the soldier, gird up to go out there and knock the **** out of my “enemy” to achieve a decisive “victory” for my country, I must take a dictionary with me. Before I go out to patrol in the neighborhood to protect “the population of the area,” I must consult the local “people” on how best to do it. COIN is a war more of words than bullets. In this kind of warfare, achievement (not victory) comes through “firing” more right words instead of few terrible ones. 

Categories: strategy - Pakistan - COIN

About the Author(s)

Mehar Omar Khan has graduate degrees in International Security Studies (Kansas State University) and International Relations (Balochistan University Quetta).  He blogs on issues related to security with a focus on insurgency.  Views expressed are his own.  He can be reached at


Imran Khan Babar

Mon, 09/17/2012 - 3:43pm

The profession of arms demands unmatched bravery from the expendables of war to be known as "Soldiers". The word "bravery" explains nothing but the perseverence and courage of soldiers to endure all odds to attain the objectives setforth for military campaigns designed to meet the ends of national policy bench marks. Now the question arrives that how a state can attain its strategic military objecitves driven through the policy guidelines albeit with minmum cost in men and material. The answer perhaps lies in realm of making these expendables worthy of dying and killing in the name of nationalism, patriotism and various brands of ideologies built around religon, ethnicity and social classes.
The readiness to lay ones life and to kill the monster of other tribe, country or community in the name of state requires little "foolness" by them. So never mind such labels as "bravery" mostly breeds through the womb of little foolhardiness. The bravery of soldiers is usually exploited to gain "victory in war". The attainment of victory is portrayed only if the perceived enemy is vanquished or annihiliated. Total victory demands annihiliation of enemy but off course with a stratgem to reduce its blow back and accomplishment with little cost. Thus the objectives set at strategic, operational and tactical levels of military operations can not be defined less than the word "VICTORY". Any objective not defining victory as its pime purpose may need to be re-defined for driving troops to the battle field. Though the word "winning" as compared to "achieving" may sound more aggressive in tone but the former will surely ignite the passion that is required to lay and kill lives on both sides of dividing line. Each form and nature of war has its own dynamics and dictates of words to paly with. At times "vanquishing the enemy" may actually lead to thunder storms of aggression built around the revenge by soldiers. The aggression with passion will surely lead to victory. After all, psychlogy does have some role to play with emotions; the driving force for vengence. But at other occasions like COIN, the "stopping" instead of "vanquishing" may prove better as the battle field changes in such war. Now the capture of particular area gets little significance as compared to the "People" inhabiting that area. It has been correctly highlighted that "People" over "Population" should get preference and set the sence of direction for soldiers.
So, it is game of perceptions about the enemy that how it should be made, created and treated to attain all those policy ends as the enemy and battle field changes with changing nature of war. Words will keep on playing their dirty tricks in each form and the policy makers embodying "ultimate wisdom" will continue to exploit them in the name of statehood.


Sat, 06/16/2012 - 11:12am

I personally would not call it a rant, I would say it is spot on and pretty well describes the majority of the GPF.

This should be required reading by everyone. More importantly it should be part of every school curriculum, including USASMA, CGSC and The War College

The rant actually leads to a substantial lesson, well said.