Episode 192: How Military Jargon and Cliches Make Mass Death Seem Sterile (Part I)

Citations Needed | November 8, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
36 min readNov 8


Barack Obama speaks to troops in El Paso, Texas, in 2012. (Tony Gutierrez / AP)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima:Israel Called Them ‘Precision’ Strikes. But Civilian Homes Were Hit, Too,” The New York Times equivocated back in May 2023. “US Military Footprint in Australia Expands to Counter China,” Bloomberg announced in July 2023. “NATO to Launch Biggest Military Exercise Since Cold War,” the Financial Times reported in September 2023.

Adam: Far too often, American media accepts and parrots terminology of the Pentagon, never pausing to consider how deceptive and pernicious this language may be. War reportage is regularly littered with euphemisms, metaphors, jargon and esoteric acronyms that obscure the enormity and the human costs of war crimes waged by the U.S. and its allies, warping public perception of the violence happening throughout the world and service of U.S. militarism.

Nima: Some major news outlets, such as The New York Times, have adopted policies not to use certain terms like ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ a Bush-era phrase that’s used to sanitize the committing sanctioning and outsourcing of literal torture by the U.S. government. More recently, the BBC has said it will no longer use the term ‘terrorist,’ as it is “a loaded word which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally.” But still, many more loaded, euphemistic words and phrases remain in the vocabulary of leading news media, painting a woefully inaccurate and incomplete picture of both the past and the current state of U.S.-led and U.S.-backed violence around the world.

Adam: On today’s episode, Part I of a two-part series on the language of war, we will examine five of the 10 most insidious terms that U.S. media and government officials use to sanitize military aggression worldwide, and discuss how journalists, writers and others in media can use terms that are clearer and more representative of the human stakes of war. And next week, we’ll complete the list with Part II.

Nima: We’ve discussed the power of the language of war before on Citations Needed, for instance, in a two-part series, Laundering Imperial Violence Through Anodyne Foreign Policy-Speak, in March 2019, and another two-part series in June 2021 on what we called Thought-Terminating Enemy Epithets. Well, it’s been another two years. And so we have another two-part series on the words of warfare. And we are honored to have with us Drs. David Vine and Maha Hilal, who study these words of war quite closely. In fact, they have contributed to the recent report, Words About War Matter: A Language Guide for Discussing War and Foreign Policy, which was released just this past September and which you can find at wordsaboutwar.org. And as the Israeli genocide of Palestinians in Gaza continues, and the words of war are, again, being weaponized in our politics and press, not only is this a very timely topic, but they have also released a companion guide to Words About War Matter related to Gaza specifically, which you can find at www.wordsaboutwar.org/gaza. So with that, David and Maha, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

David Vine: Thank you so much for having us. It’s really a pleasure.

Maha Hilal: Thank you so much for having us. It’s great to be here.

Adam: All right. So let’s get to it. We’re going to do a format a little different on this week’s episode. We’ve done this a couple of times in the past when we have an episode about specifically language and clichés and verbiage used to sanitize and to obscure the political and moral content of words, where we take the Top 10, in this case a two-part episode — five and five — we take the words, we’re going to cite some examples of the use of that language and how it can obscure reality, then we’re going to discuss that with our two guests. Because this episode is based largely on their work, largely on their research and how they frame this issue, and since this is literally what our show does, we’re very excited to have you on and begin. And this is one to start off with is a favorite/the worst thing in the world, for me. As a media critic, you come across this a lot, which is “boots on the ground.” So “boots in the ground” is a term that is used to kind of imply that if there’s a lack of “boots on the ground,” as is typically expressed is that, this is somehow not a real war, right? It sort of doesn’t really sort of count. But of course, there was no “boots on the ground” at Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima, right? There’s no “boots on the ground” right now as a child is killed every 11 minutes in Gaza. So, this is kind of a classic way to obscure how violence, specifically aerial violence, can take place. According to U.S. Army historian Matthew Seelinger, the term first appeared in April of 1980 in a Christian Science Monitor article quoting General Volney Warner regarding the Iran hostage crisis in which he said,

Many American strategists now argue that even light, token U.S. land forces — “getting U.S. combat boots on the ground” — would signal to an enemy that the U.S. . . . can only be dislodged at the risk of war.

This became really popular as the Obama administration began to pivot more to the use of drones and airstrikes and cruise missiles to kill the sort of baddies wherever they were, whether it be al Qaeda, AQAP or ISIS, and these airstrikes, specifically in Syria, were sold as kind of an anodyne alternative to “boots on the ground.” So I want to open it up to y’all, your research into this term. It’s a very popular term. Where do y’all see it and what do you see its impact on public perceptions of war?

David Vine

David Vine: It’s a great and terrible example of how important language is in the context of war and foreign policy, and how, in some quite literal ways, words about war can have life and death consequences. There is one good way to spin its emergence or to understand its emergence. And that is that it comes in the context of the post-Vietnam War era, when there was increasing criticism and concern about sending U.S. military personnel to war. In the wake of the unprecedented protests against the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, the military has had to work harder to disguise the presence of military forces and disguise war itself. And this has only become more pronounced in the wake of what’s effectively Vietnam Part II, that is the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. You mentioned the Obama administration, which, you know, is sort of a kinder, gentler version of George W. Bush’s War on Terror — itself a terrible phrase. With increased criticism and dramatically declining support for large scale U.S. wars, the U.S. military and U.S. leaders, U.S. elites have had to disguise the presence of U.S. wars, with technologies like drones, as well as special forces, special operators deployed around the world. And, linguistically, with terms like “boots on the ground,” which of course, the term itself distracts attention from what the people wearing, the boots are actually doing. Similarly, it is actually really unkind, is putting it lightly, to the people who wear the boots. That is, it doesn’t pay attention to the lives of the human beings who are deployed into war zones, who are wearing the boots, that is the lives of the U.S. military personnel. But most importantly, and most frightening and most dangerously, it distracts attention from what U.S. military personnel are doing around the world, including the wars, explicit, overt and covert that they are waging.

Maha Hilal: You know, I think what’s always interesting about the United States and the rhetoric and narrative that it uses for war in general is that, while it’s creating and deploying terms are meant to disguise the brutality of the war, and the extent and scope of the war, it’s also simultaneously always dehumanizing the populations who are going to be targeted by the war. So it’s sort of taking these two approaches such that, if there is some sort of way that we know that the United States is fighting a war, right, there are “boots on the ground,” so to speak, you know, in quotation marks, that it doesn’t even matter, because the people that are being killed deserve to be killed. And you know, one thing I also think about with this “boots on the ground” terminology is also “over the horizon capabilities,” which is now being used right to talk about drone strikes. And obviously, that makes it seem even more removed, and that the violence is even less in scale. And that, really, what only matters is that people in the U.S., the military, are the ones that are being protected. And it doesn’t actually matter who’s being harmed, who’s being killed. And in this case that we’re talking about, right, the U.S. government is killing civilians in mostly Muslim majority countries at this point and throughout the war on terror.

Adam: The moral hazard of not having boots on the ground presents its own problems, as many have noted in terms of the technological outsourcing of violence, makes it risk-free, which does carry them I think, a pretty clear moral hazard which we’re seeing increasingly with the way that Israel handles “Palestinian territory,” specifically Gaza where it’s there is literally no risk in lobbing a bunch of airstrikes at civilians in Gaza, because they are protected by the Iron Dome, the protected by metal fencing, obviously massive power asymmetry. And this idea that somehow it’s because it’s not close up, right? And you saw this with like, oh, the barbarity of the Hamas attacks kind of language. And it’s like, well, now that 2500 children have died in Gaza, I’m sure by the time people are listening to this, it’s going to be two or three times that to be honest, because it doesn’t look like it’s stopping. From the perspective of the dead child, I’m not really sure what difference it makes, whether or not it was done with “boots in the ground” or “surgical strikes.”

Nima: Yeah so, that actually gets us to our next phrase, our next term to discuss a really one that goes hand-in-hand with this “boots on the ground” idea of sanitizing the reality of violence of, you know, raining death from above, and this is the idea of “precision” or “targeted strikes.” So, “precision” is often used as a descriptor for bombing and missile attacks, of course. But, as you both, David and Maha, have noted, the term really does such an incredible job at branding and PR to encourage people, as you’ve written, “To think war can be clean and to avoid questions about death, injury and destruction caused by bombs, missiles, and other munitions.” Now, you know, we’ve been talking about Israel’s nonstop assault on the people in Gaza. And, David, you mentioned kind of how so much of this language comes out of the Vietnam era, you know, the first televised war. Similarly, this notion of “precision” bombing of “targeted” strikes comes out of that time too, really first surfacing in the media in the late 1960s and reappearing at various times throughout the ’80s and ’90s, becoming obviously far more common than the 2000s with the increasing development of aerial warfare. One example from December of 1982 from the Chicago Tribune and the article is headlined “Pentagon Eyes Robot Planes After Israeli Success.” The article says this:

For years, despite pressure from intelligence and congressional experts, the Defense Department’s development of remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) has lagged even though the unmanned planes are cheap and save the lives of pilots. The Pentagon’s renewed interest in the Army’s RPV development program follows the phenomenal success of Israel’s deadly drones this summer in pinpointing Soviet-made SAM antiaircraft missile batteries in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley, permitting precision airstrikes against the Syrians.

There’s a lot to unpack in those two paragraphs for sure, especially because this was published in 1982, the same year of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, of the Israeli war on Lebanon, the killing of so many civilians, of course. Just would love to kind of open up the conversation with this idea that aerial bombardment of human beings can be “precise” and “targeted,” potentially “surgical.”

Adam: Yeah, and specifically, what’s really bizarre about this recent war of Israel and Gaza is that the actual Israeli officials and Defense Minister and President and Prime Minister running the actual war. Don’t even act like it’s precise. Like it’s sort of the first war I’ve seen where they’re, they’re openly saying that it’s not, but the U.S. media is still running with that narrative. It’s kind of muscle memory. The Israeli army spokesman said of attacking Gaza, “Our focus is on creating damage, it’s not on precision.” So, this is the first time they’re like, No, we’re here to kill civilians. But obviously, much of the media still talking about it as if they are, so if you could comment on precision and targeted.

Nima: As well as our politics, like Ro Khanna saying, you know, he totally supports the bombing of Palestinians. But, he wrote this on October 12, 2023, “This must be done surgically, with minimal civilian casualties, concern for Palestinian children, and the need for water, food and fuel for the 2 million in Gaza.”

Maha Hilal: Well, this is a very disturbing term, obviously, because we know, as you both have mentioned, right, that there is no precision, there is not even the pretense of precision. And the only reason this term is used is to make people believe, right, that fewer people are getting killed than what’s actually happening, right? And if you look at the United States, and in particular in Israel as well, the way they fight wars, the policies around it and the infrastructure of the narrative around it doesn’t actually support that anyway. So, when you had, under Obama for example, in the rules governing drone strikes, one of the reasons you could target someone is if they were a military aged male, for example. That is a lot of people in the Muslim majority countries that were being targeted. How do you then take the idea and the wording of “precision” and “surgical” and apply it to that, if your conception of who can be targeted and killed is so broad, that it includes numerous civilians? And, you know, it’s just a really disturbing term because, again, when we look at drones strikes with the United States, the United States barely does anything to even count how many civilians are being killed. So it literally doesn’t care. So when it’s using those terms, there isn’t even a mechanism in place to think about, to actually count, well, how many people were killed as a result of our surgical and precise strike?

Maha Hilal

And again, you know, you have to think about that, in terms of the dehumanization that’s always in the backdrop. The demonization of the people where it doesn’t even really matter. And the narrative and the War On Terror, that isn’t always what I’m most familiar with, you can take apart terms here and there. But in order to get the biggest picture, right, and to understand what is actually meant to be conveyed, right, this wholesale dehumanization of people that are being targeted by the War On Terror, the fact that the United States does not care about the deaths and murders of civilians, right? And so they have to sort of play this game, where, on the one hand, they care about who’s being targeted, on the other hand, not really, because we’re not going to do anything to remedy or rectify it. And if everything was so precise, and so targeted, why then are they so comfortable using the term “collateral damage”? Why is there so much collateral damage, then, if it’s so precise, and so surgical? And even when they report the number of people who are killed, first of all, they’re not going to say “killed,” they’re going to say “died,” and second of all, usually, there’s not even a precise number of people who are being identified as having been killed. So, you know, there’s all these contradictions in place. But at the same time, you have to really, carefully be listening to and analyzing the narrative to know exactly what we’re being primed to think about these terms.

Adam: And the internal numbers themselves. In 2015, Jeremy Scahill at The Intercept got a cache of a bunch of internal documents on the U.S. drone program and found that — I’m reading from the report from 2015:

Documents detailing a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, Operation Haymaker, show that between January of 2012 and February of 2013, U.S. Special Operation airstrikes killed more than 200 people, of those only 35 were the intended targets. During one five month period of the operation, according to documents, nearly 90% of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be worse. ‘Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilt by association,’ the Pentagon source said. ‘A drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserve their fate, so it’s a phenomenal gamble.’

And so these numbers I think, are, like you said, it’s the precision element just truly seem to be. It’s a soothing balm, and kind of makes people feel better, but it has no real world value, because this concept has no definition. You know, there’s not like 50% of the people we kill are the baddies, which again, like you said, even that’s a reverse engineer definition a lot of times because they just say if you’re an adult male between the ages — I think it was, what, 16 and 35 or something? — you’re per se guilty. They unilaterally decided to execute you. There’s no real media definition of the term, but it’s a term very much still used.

Maha Hilal: In light of what the discourse now has been between the United States and Israel, in particular, Biden advising Israel to not repeat the same mistakes that the United States supposedly made after 9/11. Of course, he didn’t specify exactly what those mistakes were, but it’s surely not about the number of civilians who’ve been killed and murdered, and how that directly contradicts any façade of precision and targeted strikes that the United States tried to push.

David Vine: And I would just add that I think we can be even more direct in describing the talk of “precision” airstrikes, precision bombing, “targeted” bombing, etc. This is propaganda. This is, you know, a nicer word, I suppose, would be branding or public relations. But this is propaganda to encourage people to believe a kind of fantasy that military attacks can be precise and only killing the “bad guys” language that we should also abandon language of bad and good, evil and good in the like. The U.S. Army’s own Military Review Journal, described the “vaunted precision” of drones as, “sheer fantasy, if not literally, science fiction.” And this is precisely the kind of language that we, in our guide, The Words About War Matter Language Guide, are encouraging people to abandon. And it’s not asking people to do very much at all, just not repeat the language that we are fed by the Pentagon and other militaries, other government officials, and just describe what’s going on in simple, plain, direct, honest language, rather than talking about “precision” bombing, just call it what it is a bombing or an airstrike.

Adam: Well, it’s to differentiate them from the evil regimes.

Nima: Well, yeah, exactly. Adam, like I mean, because inherent in saying that, you know, some bombings are targeted or some are precise or some are surgical, the assumption automatically is that the other side or the enemy — or before we got more sophisticated and kinder and gentler, and smarter and more tech savvy — that those old kinds of airstrikes are imprecise, right? That’s where collateral damage happens, quote, unquote.

Adam: Well, the Gaza bombing has really brought this to its kind of absurd nadir, I think, which is to say, Israeli military officials are a little bit more honest. I mean, frankly, they’re way more honest than a lot of people in the United States. There’s a vengeful ethos –

Nima: Yeah, there’s a righteousness to it.

Adam: But they want us to believe two very contradictory things. Again, Israel defenders stateside have been making the claim that they are doing precision bombing. They want us to believe that they know exactly where all the Hamas fighters live precisely and they’re bombing, they’re sending their boutique, artisanal bombs into their exact apartments and blowing them up. So, they have that level of intelligence and insight into the comings and goings of Hamas in Gaza. But yet, they didn’t know that 2,000 Hamas fighters were amassing at the borders with pickup trucks and submachine guns. So, one of those things can be true, they can’t both be true. Either they have a window into each individual movement of “Hamas members,” and they know exactly where they live, and their address and their exact location, or they’re just guessing, which I think it’s probably fair to assume at this point, given the horrific body count. So again, the whole the whole logic of precision bombing is completely belied by the fact that an invading force, for want of a better term, amass on their “border” — of course, it’s not really their border, because it’s their country — to attack Israel in a way that they supposedly didn’t see coming. None of this makes any sense, right? The degree to which they have precise intelligence varies widely on what the narrative needs at that particular moment.

Maha Hilal: I mean, it’s also just nonsensical, but because they always say that Hamas is using Palestinians as human shields. And the whole point of propagating that idea is to say that whoever we kill is basically on Hamas. And everyone is Hamas anyway, which is what the narrative is that the Israeli government tries to toe. They’re propagating these two narratives in tandem and simultaneously, but they’re creating the conditions where they don’t actually have to justify surgical or precision targeting and you know, insofar as we’ve been discussing it, and then saying that they’re doing that to acquiesce who it’s not clear, because they’ve already propagated enough hateful, dehumanizing narratives that no one even really cares how many Palestinians are killed in the process.

Adam: It also makes it difficult to sell the whole precision thing when you’ve cut off electricity, fuel, medical supplies and water, right? It’s sort of hard to, like that’s obviously not, that’s not precise. By definition.

Nima: To your point, Maha, I mean, this idea — and as you both note in The Words About Gaza Guide — even saying, “civilians die” in Gaza, even in the most creepily generous way, “civilians are killed.” That is also in stark contrast to what often we hear about Israelis who have been “killed.” Not only our words like “murdered,” “slaughtered,” “massacred,” “killed” us so much more often. But we hear about children and families in a way that civilians are kind of a sanitized, anodyne phrase, you get you know, the statistics about civilians, but you get stories about children and families

David Vine: Sure, I think it reflects the unequal valuing of life that one sees and that operates unconsciously, sadly, in the minds of many members of the media in the United States and Europe and elsewhere. An equal valuing of Israeli lives, Jewish Israeli lives in particular, compared to that of Palestinians. And it’s disgusting and racist and Islamophobic and more and worse, and that’s part of what we’re trying to call people’s attention to. That, again, language matters profoundly when it comes to war. Because the unequal valuing of life makes it easier and the dehumanization that goes along with so much of the terminology of war makes it easier to kill some and to protect others.

Adam: I want to move on to the next word, which is one that I think is quite subtle and overlooked. It’s not one we’ve really touched on in our show, but obviously, you all have done a lot of work on this, which is “military footprint,” which kind of gets by the sensors that sounds so vague and anodyne. And this is sort of a reference to like military presence on a military base or a fleet of ships or an actual occupation or a peppering of military bases that are maybe, you know, 20–30 soldiers. And this makes the hostility, the inherent hostility, of military presence and aggressive military presence massing at the borders of other countries, it makes it sort of seem like a cultural attaché, almost like it’s sort of, you know, it’s like a playhouse we’re sponsoring or like poetry beat night. It sounds like we’re opening up a McDonald’s franchise. You say, what’s your footprint in southern Ohio? This is used very commonly. TIME Magazine, February 2023: “Why the Philippines Is Letting U.S. Expand Its Military Footprint in the Country Again.” Bloomberg Magazine, July 2023: “US Military Footprint in Australia Expands to Counter China.” We could do a whole episode on “counter.” And this sort of makes it all seem like we’re kind of just there to be traffic cops, that there’s nothing inherently hostile about this. Now, of course, if China amassed a bunch of footprints in Canada and Mexico, we would maybe have a different opinion about what that means. So, can you talk about “military footprint”?

David Vine: Yeah, I think the example of China placing a military footprint in the countries neighboring United States is helpful because it hopefully helps people to put the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, to see how it would feel if any countries had a foreign military base anywhere near our borders, which there aren’t. Meanwhile, there are some 750 U.S. military bases encircling the globe outside the 50 states and Washington, DC, in about 80 foreign countries and colonies. And “military footprint” is a term that has been used for decades to disguise that occupation of foreign lands. And what it refers to, really, is military bases and military forces and all the weaponry that gets deployed to those military bases. But it’s easier and becomes a kind of linguistic subterfuge, a way to hide that presence, and as you suggested, make it sound sort of kinder and gentler and like they’re just, you know, kind of tourists almost.

Nima: Yeah, in your work on Base Nation, David, did you come across this phrase a lot? I feel like it is exactly the kind of way that the imperial U.S. presence all over the globe is just sort of deemed to be like a, you know, kind of like a logistical note like, Oh, yeah, there’s, you know, there’s like, like a bunch of those US military franchises everywhere.

David Vine: Yeah, it’s one of the ways that the U.S. military presence around the world is normalized, normalized for people in the United States and normalized, often for people living in the countries where U.S. forces, U.S. bases are occupying foreign lands. And again, that’s part of the kind of language that we are encouraging people to discard completely, to just be honest about what’s going on in the world and what’s going on with U.S. military policy, US foreign policy. There is one example that has come up in my research about U.S. bases around the world that is particularly egregious that I have to mention, and that is the term “footprint of freedom,” which is the nickname for the U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia, a small isolated island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where there’s a very large U.S. Navy and Air Force Base, and they call it the “footprint of freedom,” which is absurd at many levels, beginning with the fact that the base was established by forcibly removing the entire Indigenous Chagossian people from Diego Garcia and the surrounding Chagos Archipelago. It’s also absurd, of course, because what is this base on Diego Garcia done? Why does the United States need a military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean thousands of miles from U.S. borders? This base has played absolutely zero role in defending the United States, and instead has been a launchpad for absolutely catastrophic wars in the greater Middle East, all of them since roughly 1979–1980, with the disastrous effects, taking the lives, killing — it’s hard even for me to sometimes remember to be as precise as possible with my language and direct and non-euphemistic — killing of hundreds of thousands, millions of people, when we add them up in total.

Bombers on Diego Garcia. (Rebeca M. Luquin)

Maha Hilal: Yeah, definitely. So, we’ve obviously been seeing this specific rhetorical tactic have “died” versus “killed” in a sort of acute way with Israel’s a genocide on the Palestinians. And it’s interesting when they’re used specifically together and a headline. So, sometimes they’re used separately, right, to say that X number of Israelis were killed. And then in a separate headline, it’s X number of Palestinians died, but sometimes they’re in the headline together. And so, on top of the use of the two terms and when they’re used, it’s also about the power that it conveys, as David said. But it’s interesting because no matter what the Israeli government does, right, they’re never held responsible for what they do. And that’s why you have the use of “killed” versus “dies,” right? Or that’s why you have this, you know, headlines will say, like “Israel-Hamas war,” and then “the humanitarian crisis looms on,” as if Israel is not responsible for the humanitarian crisis, right? When it comes to Palestinians, we never know. It’s always a mystery. It’s a hurricane. It’s a tornado. It’s not Israel, that’s directly inflicting state violence onto the Palestinians. And then secondly, with the question of this constant repetition of “Hamas kills children,” right? Hamas kills grandparents, etc., etc. Whenever you make that distinction, or you’re trying to make that distinction, you’re expressly stating that unlike Hamas, Israel does not do those things. And we know that Israel does, in fact do those things. It kills children. It kills families, it decimate cities, it decimates entire generations of families. But there’s this constant emphasis on what Hamas does, okay. And then the of course, the larger piece of this is to erase the fact that there’s complete and total asymmetry between Israel and Hamas. When you say Israel, Hamas war, it’s not a war between Israel and Hamas. It’s Israel’s genocide against the Palestinians. And that part gets erased. And this is layers upon layers of when we start with died versus killed.

Adam: Speaking of that, I want to talk about this word genocide. Because we’ve used it in this episode, we’ve used it in previous News Briefs, it is a word that is obviously very charged, very provocative, but I think it is also accurate, and it’s when it is accurate, it seems very useful to use it. And it’s something we’ve used in this episode. And I want to specifically in the context of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, bombing of Gaza and siege of Gaza, there’s been some internal debate and like publications and editorials, as I’m sure you all are aware of, like whether or not we should use the “G word,” because it sort of seems to some people who are maybe not really paying attention, right, you’re kind of lay viewers, this seems like oh, these are just these screedy leftists, they call everything genocide. And it’s a word that I sort of have to be careful to use but it is legally and very precisely applicable in this conflict for various reasons. Number one of which is because it is an apartheid state, the violence bleeds from a certain kind of racist intentionality, as evidenced by the, you know, “human animals” quote from the Defense Minister, other language, but also forcible population transfers, and of course, the broader context of the Nakba, which is ongoing. So if you could, if you wouldn’t mind commenting on why you think that language is precise when discussing the –again, by the time you’re listening to this, that the numbers may well be obviously much higher — but I want you to talk about, if you could, why that’s a word you decide to use, and what it means in the context of Israel siege and bombing of Gaza.

Maha Hilal: I mean, I think it’s pretty clear at this point, in case it hasn’t been clear for the last 75 years, that Israel is dead set on eliminating the Palestinians, getting rid of Palestinians. I mean, the rhetoric this time around has been extremely explicit, whether it’s “We’re trying to create another Nakba,” “They’re human animals,” “We don’t care about precision,” etc, etc. Or, basically, implying or outright stating, right, “We are going to turn Gaza into a place for Israeli settlers.” I mean, there’s no doubt about what is exactly happening, right? And we know genocide is about specific intent to destroy a people, in this case, the Palestinians. And, you know, the sad thing about this is, even when we call it a genocide, and even if we say, okay, maybe it’s ethnic cleansing, which is just genocide at this point, right? Even in spite of what is a very obvious genocide unfolding and happening, that still it doesn’t elicit support from the global communities in the forms of states and government. And we know there’s many reasons, right, why this is happening, but even with the gravity of the statement. First of all, a lot of progressives are debating whether or not it is genocide. And it’s not actually on the merits of what genocide means. It’s really just about can we afford Palestinians any humanity, even at this juncture in time, when we see what is happening every single day? And so, it’s a big term, but at the same time, it’s as if it’s not even big enough to warrant people coming to the defense of Palestinians. And at the end of the day, right, even if it was something lesser than genocide, is that what it takes? Is that threshold? Are we still there at this point in time in history, that it’s okay for hundreds of thousands of people to get killed? Like, what is our threshold at this point?

David Vine: Yeah, I think Maha puts it very powerfully. I mean, clearly, we’re seeing mass killing mass murder, which of course, it’s important to remind everyone that that’s what war is. That’s what military reaction does. It is not just killing, but murder. And it is sad that the language of genocide still does not evoke the kind of just basic human concern for Palestinian lives that one would hope it is a difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around in any context, but I think especially for some Jews and other defenders of the State of Israel, and I say this as a Jew who grew up in the United States, it’s difficult to grapple with, as the survivors and the descendants of survivors of genocide, that the State of Israel would be itself committing and pursuing a genocide, when that is, of course, the conclusion. And that is when that is what is happening and when that is the conclusion of, in fact, many Jewish Israeli critics in Israel, among other places, and among other critics, who have clearly labeled this a genocide of people of all groups.

Adam: Yes, specifically, Raz Segal has done the rounds. And he’s an Israeli Holocaust scholar, and he sort of says, this is like, not even this is open and shut. This is like black letter genocide. And yet, still, it’s a word that you just don’t see in mainstream discourse. Because I do think people assume it’s like, oh, that’s just something that other people do. And that’s not something that our allies do.

Nima: The term under international law, defined, since we’re talking about it might as well read this out, defined as “the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such.” That’s from the December 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. That even in that way, it’s like, well, this is something that happens elsewhere, we have seen this happen. And then the inevitable and deliberate connections that are made to justify anything Israel does.

David Vine: I guess I would just add that I am pleased to see at least some Jews calling upon the Nazi Holocaust language, that is the language that followed the Nazi Holocaust of “Never Again,” that if we believe in “Never Again,” we have to practice that in any in all cases, and that includes in the genocide that the Israeli state is now pursuing against Palestinians.

Adam: Yeah. And the perversely there I mean, again, I know that many Palestinians have called for humanitarian quarter as a temporary measure, but it seems like it’s being pushed as a permanent measure to push Palestinians into the Sinai, and remove Palestinians from Palestine. Because, obviously, I think it’s fair to say that in the ideological axioms of Israeli leadership, or at least the current Israeli leadership, Palestinians don’t exist. They’re just kind of frustrated Egyptians and frustrated Jordanians, so it’s like someone from Illinois going to New York, it’s not really ethnic cleansing, because they’re not there’s another note, you can’t ethnically cleanse that ethnicity that it was in their minds made up. And so you really have this intentionality, at least with that, right?

Maha Hilal: I captured a quote from Netanyahu on October 17 and he said, “And just as a civilized world united in fighting the Nazis, united and fighting Daesh/ISIS, then the civilized world should unite behind Israel in fighting and eradicating Hamas.” So obviously, he’s equating the Nazis with ISIS and then Hamas. The point here is right, like, not just that there are these incomparable things that he’s sort of saying that are comparable to each other, but also, it’s like a way of galvanizing support from the whole entire world, because he’s saying these things are the same thing, knowing full well that they’re not the same thing and knowing full well that there is a particular reason why Hamas is resisting. And there’s a particular reason why any group, if it wasn’t Hamas, would be resisting. And that’s obviously because of 75 years of brutal occupation and genocide.

Nima: Yeah, there’s an incredible power of analogy, which we could do an entire show on. You know, whether it’s equating the dark, evil forces with each other, right, something that is so visceral and instantly understandable, but also on the other side, like, where we saw Biden say, you know, the success of Ukraine and Israel are essential for our own safety for America, etc., etc., thereby, you know, connecting one struggle against an invasion with one genocide against an Indigenous people.

Adam: So, the next one is one that kind of, again, snuck under my radar, but it’s it is quite sinister, which is “enemy noncombatant,” which is a great I mean that is just so good.

Nima: This, from a very widely syndicated and quite sociopathic Charles Krauthammer column, unsurprising for Charles Krauthammer, from January 2, 2009. This is the headline applied when this was syndicated in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The headline is “Israel careful, fair with foe sacrificing its own civilians.” Yes, that’s a headline. And the article says this:

Israel is so scrupulous about civilian life that, risking the element of surprise, it contacts enemy [italics in the original] enemy noncombatants in advance to warn them of approaching danger. Hamas which started this conflict with unrelenting rocket and mortar attacks on unarmed Israelis deliberately places its weapons in and near the homes of its own people.

And this idea that “enemy noncombatant” is almost like a clearly from a Pentagon PR guide, much like the term “officer-involved shooting” was from the LAPD PR guide.

Adam: It was used during Vietnam very often, up until the 2000s, 2010s. It’s used in the context of Afghanistan and Palestine. Can you talk about enemy noncombatant? And what it’s sort of trying to convey what it’s trying to obscure?

Maha Hilal: Yeah, so guess when you have this term, right, enemy noncombatants. But so a way of suggesting that, first of all, like most people are enemy combatants. And when you describe people against that, it doesn’t actually make you think that they’re civilians, it makes you think that they’re combatants. And it’s kind of similar to when people use or qualify Palestinian civilians as “innocent.” Because then what does it actually mean about civilians who are not qualified as innocent? So you’re basically taking this term that’s meant to convey something that’s presumably distinguishing this group of people from the people you’re targeting or fighting against, but in reality, you’re entrenching another specific narrative to negate the possibility that they could be “innocent,” and therefore, are not suitable targets. But in the end, right, the goal is the same. The goal is to render, in this case, whether its enemy noncombatant or civilians without that qualifier, to render them killable. That’s the point. And again, because it’s not used across the board, right, in any particular war or conflict, it’s used on the population specifically that’s being oppressed, it is to serve that purpose, again, to make them killable.

David Vine: I guess I would just add that the word “enemy” itself is worth thinking about, because it gets thrown around so easily by so many politicians, you know, describing the enemy in Iran, the enemy in China, the enemy in Russia. And it’s a kind of language, I know, I grew up the during the original Cold War, with the Soviet Union and Soviet people being described as the enemy and it took a while for me to sort of deprogram myself from thinking of people in the Soviet Union as the enemy, when, of course, this is just again a kind of propaganda and labeling and really kind of slandering of an entire people and, as Maha was saying, ultimately makes it easier to kill people labeled as enemies, as well as labeled as enemy noncombatants, that is just civilians. But, you know, the people of China are not my enemy. The people of Iran are not my enemy. The people of, now, Russia are not my enemy. There are some particularly powerful people in those countries who I very much dislike and very much oppose the policies that they pursue and the various forms of violence that they’re inflicting, on both their populations, their own populations, and other populations. But the average person in China, the average person in Russia, Iran, and the United States for that matter, has very little if any control, of course, over the policies of their governments. And I think this is another point that our Words About War Matter Language Guide tries to emphasize: that we shouldn’t conflate the actions or behaviors of a government with an entire people. And that we shouldn’t, of course, talk about entire peoples in homogenous terms when no people is homogenous and when language like enemy is, again, another way in which politicians, usually powerful people, military officials, seek to dehumanize other people and thus make them easier to kill or inflict pain upon violence upon in one way or another.

Maha Hilal: If this is part of your communication strategy, right, to the community, the population, I mean, is the society that you’re, you know, propagating these narratives to actually going to feel that much less afraid when you say, enemy noncombatant? As David was highlighting, right, there’s still the enemy piece of it. And we know that, again, when they’re used on specific populations, I mean, there’s not exactly a strong dividing line between who’s considered the enemy versus the not enemy, right? The civilian versus not innocent civilian. So I mean, I think that it’s kind of important to also highlight that piece. And then the last thing I’ll say is, you know, this made me think of how Muslims in particular are constructed as inherently evil. And when it comes to the potential of committing acts of violence, it’s not about if Muslims will commit an act of violence, it’s about when they will commit an act of violence. So if you’re going to tag on this term, like enemy noncombatant, it’s only just going to signal one thing that you should still be afraid of them. And the other thing is that because of the additional layers of constructions, that pretty soon they’re going to become an enemy combatant, because that’s the whole goal, right is to malign and construct all of these people — Muslims, Palestinians, etc. — as enemy others who are bent on destroying and committing violent acts against their oppressors.

Adam: To the point about enemy combatants versus noncombatants, what’s also interesting, I’m gonna, for the sake of kind of maybe putting a finer point on it, I want to read two consecutive Tom Cotton tweets from October 24, because I think they both do something very interesting. The first one I’m gonna read civilianizes the military and the second one I’ll read militarizes the civilians. So he says, this is the senator from Arkansas, he said, “40 years ago today, terrorists killed 241 American servicemembers in Beirut. We should never forget their sacrifice.” Now, terrorism, sort of, at least in principle, right, obviously, that’s a whole other episode we could do, a whole four-part episode we could do, is theoretically an act of attacking and targeting civilians, but blowing up a Marine barracks, those aren’t civilians, those are Marines. So the Marines magically become civilianized when they’re killed by Muslim terrorists. And then, on the other hand, we have this other tweet from a few hours later, it says, “Anyone who claims to support the people of Gaza but not Hamas should remember that Gazans elected Hamas.” And so here he’s basically militarizing the entire 2.3 million people in Gaza by saying they voted, I guess, 18% of the population 17 years ago, voted for Hamas, therefore, they are collectively guilty. And we see this collective guilt is a narrative that, again, has boiling to the surface more than usual. So, comment if you could real quick on this issue of enemy combatants, and the sort of fudging of the distinction, how we militarize civilians and how we civilianize the military,

David Vine: I think, first we should just as the guide, the words about war language guide suggests, abandon and avoid at all costs, the language of terrorism and terrorist it has lost really all meaning it’s just a label, like “Communist” during the original Cold War that has been used globally to label anyone that a government leader usually doesn’t like. And again, to label them as eligible for killing for murder or for arrest and incarceration, for life in many cases. So I think we really should just not use this language and one of the many very profoundly sad things about what’s going on the violence in Gaza and Israel/Palestine right now, is that it has given new life to the War On Terror rhetoric, the language about terrorism, indeed, language in addition to just being a label that is slapped on anyone that a leader doesn’t like. It also is used with incredible inaccuracy as the Tom Cotton quotations suggest. That the frequently, including with the attacks of 9/11, these were attacks that targeted both civilians and military personnel. And under no definition is terrorism defined as an attack on military personnel. Again, it’s just used to label an attack that someone doesn’t like. I think it’s just language we should abandon and encourage people to think critically about. And so too, that Hamas is attacks were attacks on both military personnel and civilians. And we should just be plain about that.

Maha Hilal: And, you know, I was just going to reflect on this proverb, right, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I mean, I’m sure all of us have heard that a million times. And, you know, I think it gets to part of what we’re trying to impart here. But at the same time, it’s not really that simple, right? And the point of using the label and characterization of terrorist is to say that the people that are “the terrorists” don’t have any reason or legitimate explanation for why they’re resisting the violence that they’re resisting. And that’s obviously a clear tactic to diminish the possibility that this could be the case. And then, when you call someone or call a group’s behaviors or label them as terrorism, then it gives a state the ability to then call their actions counter terrorism in response to that, and then it sort of takes on a different sort of life as it were. So it’s not as if we can then evaluate the U.S.’s violence on its own, but now it’s in the frame of “counterterrorism,” and the narrative that’s typically used right and has been used throughout the War On Terror. And also now that Netanyahu has been speaking a lot more as this idea that we didn’t bring this on ourselves, these terrorists brought it on to us. And then that language, that of counterterrorism, essentially means that we don’t need to be and we won’t be held accountable.

David Vine: Yeah. And putting it just another way, the language of terrorism, as Maha showed us just now, it’s a way of labeling some forms of violence as legitimate and other forms of violence as not. And just to be clear, again, we, in our Words About War Language Guide, and in the Gaza edition of the guide, we encourage people to just use simple alternatives that again, more honestly, more directly more clearly, label what and describe what is going on. People should just describe the actions that groups are engaged in. Rather than “terrorism,” you can just refer to acts of mass violence, perhaps attacks on civilians, but only when they are indeed attacks on civilians and not on attacks on military personnel. And rather than the language of “terrorists,” militants is certainly one, or fighters, soldiers. There are a number of alternatives that do not carry the ideological baggage that are much clearer.

Adam: Yeah, but they don’t convey the right racist tenor that they’re trying to go for, I mean, it’s really what it is right? Let’s be honest, yeah. It’s really just about evoking the reptilian part of people’s brains. And I remember when the attack of 10/7 happened, Ken Roth went on Twitter and says, “Hey, media, don’t use the word terrorist.” You know, it’s sort of meaningless, racial, racially charged racist term. And people are like, Whoa, you’re not calling 10/7 terrorism? And it’s like, even if you accept that it is, the whole point is that they never call bombing a place of 2.3 million people living, you know, they never call that terrorism, which again, if I’m sure if I interviewed the average person in Gaza right now, they would say they’re living in terror. So I’m not sure how useful this term is. This point, of course, is that it’s asymmetrically applied. And anything that’s asymmetrically applied, you should like you said you should abandon because it’s obviously just a way of tickling people’s kind of 9/11, 24 Jack Bauer brand. It’s a racist term. I mean, everyone fucking knows that.

David Vine: Very well put, thank you for calling out the racism, so clearly.

Nima: That is a great place to leave this first part of our Words of War series. We’ve been speaking with doctors, Maha Halal and David Vine about the words of war. They’ll be back on our next episode as we discuss five more troublingly common phrases that mask the true human cost of violence. Dr. Maha Halal is a researcher, writer and organizer, founder and executive director of the Muslim Counterpublics Lab. Maha is also the author of the book, Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War On Terror and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11, which was published by Broadleaf Books, and Dr. David Vine, Professor of Political Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC, the author of a number of books about war and peace, most recently, The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State, which was published by University of California Press. David and Maha, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed and we’ll see you again next week.

David Vine: Thanks so much, Nima and Adam.

Maha Hilal: Thank you so much, Nima and Adam, it was great.

Nima: And that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed, the first of our two-part series on the language of war. We’ll be back with more awful phrases and terms next week, but until then, of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded and, as always, a very special shoutout goes to our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julian Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, November 8, 2023.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.