Images from a video of a Royal Air Force strike on an Isis truck in northern Iraq on September 30 2014
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Back in 1982, the British science-fiction comic 2000AD ran a story in which its hero Judge Dredd survived a nuclear war. Surveying the glow-in-the-dark wreckage of his city, Dredd was clear about the lesson that had been learnt: “Next time,” he said, “we get our retaliation in first.”

It’s a funny joke – and it’s funny because it arrives at its mordant candour by little more than tweaking the conventional public vocabulary of war. Every country has a “defence” budget, and what the money gets spent on (guns, bombs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, etc) looks “defensive” only in a distinctly extended sense.

But if that’s an old story, it bears asking whether there are new ones. From the second half of the past century onwards, the sorts of war we have been fighting have changed. The old model had nation-states facing off with standing armies of uniformed professionals. The wars we fight now are interventions, proxy engagements, counter­insurgencies, peacekeeping missions, police actions, asymmetric engagements and hybrid wars. You may sprinkle your sceptical inverted commas through that list according to taste.

Our wars now, like our politics, are more tangled; our means of communication both further-reaching and more plural. That has implications for the way in which the rhetoric of war works.

In the first place the word “war” itself is very often off the table. For politicians – mindful of legal and constitutional pitfalls, let alone public relations – “military action” is as close as they tend to get. Recently, President Obama made clear that a Russian incursion into any of the Baltic states, which are members of Nato, would result in a declaration of war. But what he actually said was: “We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With Nato, you will never lose it again.” Compare Churchill, who vowed to rescue “mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history”.

In the second place, as Obama’s example shows, today the implied audience for any given speech can be assumed to be multiple: you are speaking to (or at least will be overheard by) not only your own people but also to the enemy and a wide number of interested parties, including the “international community”. As literary critic Wayne C Booth argued in the academic journal JAC, “two revolutions – they could be dubbed awkwardly as ‘media globalisation’ and ‘globalisation of weaponry’ – have transformed the narrow audience of classical war-talk into a multiplicity of audiences”. Obama was ostensibly addressing an audience in Tallinn; but his most important overhearer – his intended overhearer – was in the Kremlin.

The most commonly remarked-on feature of the rhetoric of war is euphemism. Each modern conflict spawns new ones – the voguish metonymy of “boots on the ground”, for instance, has the reassuringly human-free undertone that all we need to send is boots.

These euphemisms evolve – sometimes in response to redundancy, sometimes in response to ridicule. Google’s enormous corpus of data from scanned books, available via its Ngram viewer, graphs how phrases wax and wane. “Surgical strike” first registers in 1962 and climbs to a peak in 1988 before dropping sharply off. By 2000 it was showing up about a third as often as it had 12 years previously. “Blue on blue” – US military slang for friendly fire – is nowhere before the early 1980s, peaks in 1993 and plummets to half that by 2000. We reached peak “freedom fighter” around 1985. New wars bring a new language.

According to the British military historian Antony Beevor, “When one sees the introduction of armed humanitarianism – don’t you love it? – [one] did see a fundamental change. The American idea that you can police the world from the air with low-bodybag, high-tech warfare.”

Beevor says the idea of what US military strategist Edward Luttwak has called “disposable sons” – the levée en masse of ground troops – has ceased to be part of the vocabulary of modern warmaking: “It continued up to the end of the second world war and, obviously, a little bit longer in the Far East. But we’re beyond that: we’re now into a much more high-tech warfare.”

That technological aspect shapes the language – we now hear “armed services” used in free variation with “armed forces” – and gives us new ways to remove the idea of vulnerable human bodies from the conversation. Nowadays we hear a lot about the need to “degrade capacity” – which has a reassuringly technical and inorganic feel to it: war as resource-management rather than killing, a sort of export-grade reverse-Taylorism.

“Strike” – albeit no longer “surgical”, a clumsily mixed metaphor – remains useful. The word’s penumbral associations – birds of prey; snakes; lightning; RMT members – connote not only natural processes, but precision (good) and short duration (better). Assassination, in the modern lexicon of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) becomes “focused obstruction” or “focused pre-emption”.

Nor is there any western monopoly on euphemism. Take that creepy expression, at once grandiose and coy, used by Islamist preachers – “martyrdom operations”. That describes what most people call “suicide bombing” – although Fox News and the Bush White House made an earnest effort, a few years back, to see if “homicide bombing” would catch on.

The rhetoric of Isis, however, more often goes in the other direction. There can be few more direct or visceral ripostes to technocratic, long-distance, high-tech war-talk than beheading a prisoner on camera with a short knife. As British historian Tom Holland has pointed out, the decapitations are not a random act of barbarism but have “a primordial pedigree”: “In the Middle East, beheadings have been used by ambitious empire-builders to terrorise their opponents into submission for millennia.” Viewed this way, Isis’s videos are intended not only as documents of acts of war but as the reassertion of a more ancient species of martial rhetoric in defiance of a western rhetoric that skirts around the blood and guts.

This contrast points to a crux: a sort of divergent evolution. As 1066 and All That, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman’s satire on history textbooks, might have put it, there was a point, in the west, when war ceased to be a Good Thing and became a Bad Thing. The euphemisms of which George Orwell complained in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) (“phraseology [used] to name things without calling up mental pictures of them”) were of course given special urgency by the mass slaughter of the first half of the 20th century.

But Holland believes our reluctance goes back a lot further. “Peace as an ideal is something that all the ancient cultures have,” he says. “But peace to the Romans is an active virtue, not a passive virtue. The Pax Romana is imposed at the point of a sword and anyone who disrupts it can expect to be slaughtered. What’s radical about the Sermon on the Mount is the idea of peace as an abstraction being a good thing: and the peaceable, the submissive, the mild, the poor having a moral quality by virtue of being peaceful.”

War-talk, in other words, has for a long time been more often than not peace-talk: glorious enterprise has become regrettable necessity. Hence the euphemisms. The slant of these wartime weasel words can be concisely exposed by conjugation. We are freedom-fighters; you are a militia; they are terrorists. We are resolute; you are intransigent; they are fanatics. These variously emotive and evasive terms don’t exist as isolated vocabulary items: they are intimately bound up with questions of speaker and audience, of agency and identity.

All rhetoric is, at root, identity-speech. It is tribal. And war is as starkly tribal a situation as one can come across, informed by the dichotomy between us and them. The basic figural mode of war rhetoric is therefore antithesis. A good instance is the neat near-chiasmus that the IDF’s Twitter feed volunteered during this year’s conflict in Gaza: “Israel uses the Iron Dome to protect its civilians. Hamas uses civilians to protect its rockets.”

But this is complicated in situations, now ever more prevalent, in which wars involve overlapping state interests, or interventions and non-state actors. “The real change, which started with . . . the second world war, is that we’d always assumed that warfare was a state-on-state operation,” says Beevor. “And now we’re talking about non-state actors. And that’s really where the United States got it so wrong over Iraq by making their parallels with the second world war, believing that because Berlin and Tokyo collapsed in 1945 and rolled over and did what they were told, the same would be the case in Iraq.”

You can’t formally declare war on a non-state actor – to do so not only dignifies a force you hope to portray as criminal but implies extending to them the protections of our civilising “rules of war”. In the second Iraq war, the term “enemy combatant” became a useful fudge of the legal status of those picked up on the battlefield. They were not “prisoners of war” – which made it easier to subject them to “enhanced interrogation”. More recently, the west has tied itself in knots over what to call Isis. The rationale for avoiding “Islamic State” – “it’s not Islamic and it’s not a state” – has passed swiftly from witticism to cliché.

Vladimir Putin with the Tsar Cannon in the grounds of the Kremlin

Less picked over was Vladimir Putin’s sly rhetorical land-grab earlier this year. The Kremlin’s website records the Russian president’s address to “the Novorossiya militia” in August: a bland five paragraphs full of the conventional terms of international discourse lamenting the “humanitarian catastrophe” and wishing for the dispute to continue “at the negotiating table”. The Ukrainian government’s attempt to assert its authority against secessionists is cast as “Kiev’s military operation, which represents a grave danger to the population” and has “already led to the loss of many lives among peaceful residents”.

“Peaceful residents” is out of the same bag that includes “women and children” or the “innocent citizens” that the Gazan authorities mandate as the phrase to use when talking about any and all casualties of the recent Israeli operations. But Putin’s unusual act of positioning – the land-grab – comes in the use of the word “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”): effective endorsement of the separatists’ unrecognised would-be statelet. (There is not and has not existed a state or region called Novorossiya for a century.)

The Ukraine conflict is a fine example of something else noticeable about identity and modern war-talk. Both the Kremlin and the White House affect to appeal to national self-determination, human rights, and the need for “intervention”to avert “humanitarian” disaster. The language of the UN, which as a morally normative “international community” is a relative innovation in history – pervades. Countries may still pursue their own interests but they strive to make those interests sound UN-ish. In modern war-talk, things are rather more triangulated: it’s not so much us Greeks against them barbarians. It’s a question of establishing your position, rivalrously, in a larger, more abstract international “us”.

When Demosthenes delivered what is now known as the First Philippic in 351BC, urging the men of Athens to arm against Philip of Macedon, the crux of his argument was agency; what the speaker represents as being in his or her (usually his) power to achieve or prevent. Philip’s rise, he argued, was historically contingent, not inevitable: if Philip could conquer, Philip could be conquered. At the same time, in a clever rhetorical slippage: “he leaves you no choice of action or inaction” – a direct ancestor of the modern military/diplomatic cliché: “Doing nothing is not an option.”

The question of agency bears not only on our deliberative rhetoric (what shall we do?) but on our forensic rhetoric (what happened? who’s to blame?). Anything to your side’s discredit – like a defeat on the battlefield – is as far as possible represented as outside your control. Anything to the other side’s discredit is a deliberate act.

You find yourself inflicting “unavoidable” “collateral damage”, probably because of the other side’s policy of using “human shields”. They, on the other hand, “cynically” or “callously” “target civilians”; and perpetrate “atrocities”. Grammar, as well as vocabulary, feeds into this: the passive voice and the absent subject give us casualties that “occur”; “tragedies” that “take place”; women and children who “have been killed”. These incidents are “regrettable”.

Representing your own side as a force of nature is popular. The Hebrew name for Israel’s operation in Gaza translated as “resolute cliff”. Israel-based academic Dalia Gavriely-Nuri, quoted in the New York Times this year, said around a third of Israeli military operations have been given titles alluding to nature: “Using natural forces, it removes the responsibility of leaders, of citizens.”

As to the question of where we go next, we can perhaps find a caution in the situation, again, of 2000AD’s Judge Dredd. He didn’t have a multiplicity of audiences to address, an international community’s norms to appeal to or a voting public to reassure. His retaliation had already turned the Soviet Bloc into what – another nice piece of war talk – now gets called “basketball courts”. That’s War Rhetoric 2.1, I suppose.

Sam Leith is an FT columnist and the author of ‘You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama’

Photographs: Press Association; Associated Press

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