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Journalism and The Bomb
Words and War

By Barrie Zwicker


"Wars commence in our culture first of all, and we kill each of her in euphemisms and abstractions long before the first . . . missiles have been launched . . . The deformed human mind is the ultimate doomsday weapon..."

E. P. Thompson

WORDS ARE BULLETS, as the phrase "war of words" suggests. Partisans select their words — opponents say "twist" them — to suit their purposes.

The mainline media are supposed not to be partisan. As a separate article shows, the Canadian mainline media are unhelpfully partisan in a Cold War mould, in selection, play and terminology. But that is not the concern of this article.

The concern here is the language of a less-examined and equally troubling area of partisanship, the arena in which, arrayed on one side, are those who — for whatever reasons — would countenance the use of nuclear weapons. Opposite them are those deeply opposed to the manufacture, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons, so as to prevent their use.

The division, of course, is not that neat. By the same token, the gulf between the two sides is much wider and deeper than these tame words suggest.

The words we use to describe nuclear weapons, the circumstances of their use, their effects, and their victims are not separate from the arguments across the gulf. They are part of it. In choosing — or worse, unthinkingly accepting — certain words, journalists take sides. At stake is survival.

First the word war itself. A commonly-accepted definition of war has been Clausewicz's "pursuit of diplomacy by other means." If the means include the destruction of all life, or even the risk of that, should these means be called war? Would not extermination — as E. P. Thompson suggests — be a more accurate word?

We have, too, various connotations of the word war, naturally enough suggestive of past wars. "The public does not seem to have grasped the fact," Kosta Tsipis writes in the June/July issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "that most of the effects of a nuclear detonation are not just due to the enormity of the energy released, but to the extremely high temperatures (some million degrees centigrade)." Instant heat of a magnitude that vaporizes human tissue, that ignites or melts materials in a radius up to 20 miles, that creates firestorms of up to three thousand square miles, in a typical blast, is not a rerun of World War II.

Nuclear War has not been experienced. The application of the old word is very likely to contain a dangerously misleading element.

Take another phrase given amplified coinage by the media: theatre nuclear war. First is the unarticulated premise that it is a somewhat likely category of reality. But how likely, for instance, is the commonly-trotted-out "scenario" (another pleasant word) of a "battlefield exchange" of "tactical" nuclear weapons in Western Europe?

"Any use whatever of nuclear weapons, on no matter how small a scale, would generate a prohibitively high probability of expansion to large scale, general use," says one group. "The possibility of limitation, restriction or control of any nuclear conflict is remote. We are sitting on top of a volcano." The group is comprised of retired NATO generals and admirals from France, Italy, Greece, the United States, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Norway, the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany. The group, called Generals for Peace and Disarmament, set out its views in a memorandum to the UN in June 1982. (By the way, do you recall learning of this from the mass media?)

Let us tarry for a moment, nevertheless, in the probably imaginary world of a " theatre nuclear war." The word theatre has many positive connotations (from Shakespeare to Neil Simon). The pedigree of the word theatre in conjunction with the old word "war", however unfortunate, is beyond dispute. But in conjunction with the word nuclear? Subliminally, the meaning could come out something like: "Extermination. That's Entertainment!"

Once the psychic contradiction is exposed, the phrase itself is seen as a linguistic theatre of the absurd. Such phrases spell curtains, for life and language. But the average news consuming Joe is subtly conditioned, accepting words as reasonable coinage that he assumes can be traded for equivalent reality.

Consider the terms "conventional war," and "conventional weapons." The word conventional connotes acceptable, normal. The prospect of conventional war takes on an almost reassuring meaning, in contrast to "nuclear war." But stick your average reporter or editor in front of the business end of a Phantom jet, in the midst of a napalm attack or next to an anti-personnel mine and you would have a profoundly threatened person. Someone killed by "conventional" weapons is just as dead as someone killed by an atom bomb, to invoke the reverse of a twisted argument once used to downplay and therefore justify the production and use of atomic weapons.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton coined the term nuclearism to describe devotion to and dependence upon nuclear weapons. Nuclearism, like any faith, has its liturgy, its mythic code, functional words, and taboos. Many of these are adopted and disseminated by the mainline media, insofar as they are in turn adopted uncritically by consumers of the media, the consumers' minds are nuclearized. I don't think most of us realize how far this process has taken place.

The power of naming was exercised in earlier times by priests and shamans. Today, in the heaven-and-hell issues, this power is the would-be domain of our "leaders (one of whom would name a nuclear missile "Peace Keeper"), of "strategic analysts," political strategists, psychological war "personnel," military "public affairs officers" and the like.

The predecessors of these powerful men (very few were or are women) originally with good reason shrouded everything about "The Bomb" in secrecy. They learned its language from the physicists, developed further language to cope with it and then to promote their special interests.

"The masses," wrote Robert K. Musil in "On Calling A Bomb A Bomb" in the March issue of Nuclear Times, "are forbidden to speak of some of "The Bomb's" most sacred vessels and objects; its most holy places can be entered only by the nuclear high priests."

That is why, Musil continued, the trial in 1981 of the "Ploughshares Eight," nonviolent religious activists including Daniel Berrigan, "was something of a heresy trial."

The centrepiece of the trial was an MK12A "re-entry vehicle." The eight had entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, dented the MK12A with hammers, dishevelled some papers and poured their own blood upon the MK12A.

"During the trial," Musil wrote, "the dark, conical, 4-1/2 foot re-entry vehicle, capable of carrying 10 nuclear warheads, each with the power of 17 Hiroshima bombs, was brought to the courtroom.

"Representatives from General Electric refused to acknowledge the name or purpose of the object . . . The company spokesperson . . . referred to the cone as 'the product.' (The warheads themselves are known in the military-industrial sector as 'the physics package.')

"Once coded as 'the product,' the H-bomb carriers gain all the legitimacy and status that a society that venerates property can bestow," Musil wrote.

Such evasion of reality serves a serious purpose beyond providing another layer of anesthetic for those engaged in the design and manufacture of "unspeakable" machines of death. As Musil observes, the evasion is not to fool the intended victims, human beings in the Soviet Union. ". . . the policies are designed to mold the minds of the public (in 'the West') through the suppression and distortion of language."

To begin to examine this nuclearist language entwined with Cold War terminology is to realize how pervasive it is. We have "strategic analysts" who are accorded great respect, called "authoritative," and who are paid very well to consider, ostensibly on our behalf, "scenarios" of oblivion. Their arcane specialty requires an arcanely-specialized vocabulary. Included are words such as mega-death, throw eights and yields; acronyms such as MAD (Mutual assured destruction) and a host of abbreviations including DOE (death of earth).

These terms originate somewhere. That somewhere is primarily in the minds of people in the military-industrial-academic complex of the United States. In his frighteningly well documented book With Enough Shovels, journalist Robert Scheer names scores of these people. Based on his tape-recorded interviews with them over several years, he concludes: ". . . most of these men are academics at home in academic settings. I have been struck by the curious gap between the bloodiness of their rhetoric and their apparent inability to visualize the physical consequences of what they advocate."

The language of the nuclearists confuses, distracts and misleads. It is intended to. As Scheer writes: "The neohawks refuse to acknowledge (the) reality (of nuclear war). But it is one thing to talk oneself into accepting that the nuclear arms race and the game of threat escalation are not so dangerous and quite another to convince ordinary voters to go along with this madness. This is why (they) invoke the chaste vocabulary of 'vulnerability' and 'deterrence' rather than the blunt language of death and disaster."

Scheer writes: "Instead of talking openly about nuclear war fighting, as they did in the first year (of the Reagan administration) — before their poll takers advised them to soften their rhetoric — they now stress the need for 'credible deterrence' . . . But the neohawks have already said and written too much to conceal their true intentions."

Scheer's not entirely right there. Every time a journalist chooses to use a nuclearist phrase rather than the ordinary English equivalent, he or she is joining in the concealment.

Less grand obfuscations than "deterrence" and "window of vulnerability" meanwhile are commonplace. The military conduct "war games" (often, in the media, outside of quotation marks) and the phrase "unarmed cruise missile" has become standard in our own Canadian nuclearist media wordscape.

This phrase, which the newspapers insist upon using, carries an implication that the described object is not particularly dangerous. An unarmed man is not taken to be dangerous, at least in comparison to an armed one, and rightly so. But a conventional word in an unconventional setting can bounce oddly.

The distinction between an armed and an unarmed cruise will have real meaning for those in the immediate area of the testing. No question about that.

But the nub of the cruise controversy has to do with the missile as a strategic nuclear weapon, with all that implies. Keeping in mind the purpose of the weapon, then, the more appropriate term is "cruise missile." The machine is a deadly and integral component of a death-dealing package. The "unarmed cruise missile" is not, after all, being developed to deliver mail. Even President Reagan does not request funds from Congress to test "unarmed MX missiles."

Examining our language is a never-ending challenge. Outside the scope of this article, other than to mention it here, is for instance denial, the individual psychological defence mechanism which has become an Achilles heel in our present danger.

Another thing journalists might keep in mind is that a growing share of the public is increasingly sophisticated in detecting mind manipulation through phraseology. In my opinion, nothing causes the credibility of a media outlet to plummet more precipitously than when it parades as the reality of a crucial issue a version the reader or viewer knows to be profoundly bogus.

To note that in many cases we're only quoting a misleading phrase does not constitute an acceptable excuse. Such a defence is legally useless in libel and morally useless in the arena of nuclearism. When words and phrases confuse or mislead people about life-and-death issues, lead them down the paths of powerlessness rather than help them find their way toward survival, journalism becomes a deathly craft.

It is not so much that any one phrase used one time is a great danger. Rather it is the cumulative power of repetition in the mass media — what the advertising people call frequency and reach — that unquestionably could help seal our doom.

Frequency and reach sell soap, ideas or bombs. And, yes, extinction.   

See related article Journalism and The Bomb

Published in Sources Summer 1983 

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