Sat, 05 Apr 2003

Choices of words reflect interests in Iraq war

Lie Hua, English Language Teacher, Jakarta

The war in Iraq is a military action or hostility for the United States and its coalition of the willing, but it is an act of invasion and aggression for the Iraqis. The blunt truth is that tons of bombs have been dropped and a great number of cruise missiles launched on Iraqi soil, causing deaths and injury to Iraqi civilians. It depends on whose side you are before you can decide whether to use "a military action", "hostility", "invasion" or "aggression" to describe the event.

In the media coverage of the war, it is interesting how semiotics -- the science of signs -- and language have come into full play to shape public opinion.

As both sides need to garner support from the international community, they have resorted to semiotics, knowingly or not, in presenting facts of war to international audiences or readerships.

A full view of a brightly lit Baghdad on your television screen can speak volumes. A long shot of the city followed by a pan, giving a panoramic view of the city, gives you a sense of peace. So when there are bomb blasts, you feel as if your own peacefulness is crumbling to pieces. A close-up of the city followed by the same bomb blasts in full view informs the audience of the war's "scope and ferocity, never seen on the face of the earth", to borrow the words of Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. defense secretary.

Close-ups can play a vital role in this respect. A close-up of a U.S. soldier giving a drink to an Iraqi soldier lying on the ground will rouse the patriotism of U.S. citizens. But close-up footage of a crying Iraqi boy with a bandaged head tells a contradictory story.

Obviously, the camera taps the semiotic potential of television and makes use of it to suit the policy of the television station owners. Objectivity lies in naked reality not in the camera, which semiotically presents the eyes of an observer with a certain ideology.

Likewise, language, with which man becomes conscious of his surroundings, plays a vital role, particularly in this ongoing war and its prologue.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom tried eloquently to get the British to support the war, saying that they did not have to support Blair but that they had to support their countrymen sent to the front lines in Iraq.

The Prime Minister implied that if they were patriotic enough, they would support the war so British soldiers could go to Iraq without compunction. He did not, at this particular juncture, alas, say that these Brits were being sent to war because he, Blair, supported the war. How language is used through a twisted logic is very obvious here.

The Iraqi side claims they have captured some U.S. soldiers, but the U.S. side says there are several U.S. soldiers that are unaccounted for. The U.S. side says that they have captured a great number of Iraqi soldiers, but the Iraqi side says that the U.S. forces have taken the soldiers hostage. You can decide the difference between being captured and being taken hostage.

The U.S. calls the allied forces taking part in the war the Coalition of the Willing. You may enquire if there is such a thing as a coalition of the unwilling. Only when you are willing will you join a coalition.

In their advance on Baghdad, the U.S.-led allied forces met fierce resistance in Nassiriya. The U.S. side referred to the resisting Iraqis soldiers as pockets of resistance. A Chinese international affairs analyst jokingly said that these pockets of resistance could well be found all over around Baghdad. This resistance was referred to by the Iraqis as valiant resistance put up by Iraqi soldiers defending their homeland.

Very clearly, language is never objective. Words may be objective as words alone -- as what we find in a dictionary -- but not as language. Language reflects what is on the mind of the speaker. It is the manifestation of how a speaker realizes his or her surroundings. Language is ideology-based. Unfortunately, we often take it for granted that language is just an instrument to convey a meaning.

We tend to forget that language and ideology are inseparable. How much truth lies hidden behind linguistic expressions, we hardly care. How much of our perception of the world is influenced by language and semiotics, we hardly care, either. We little realize that our regular exposure to particular linguistic and semiotic expressions have made us the kind of people that we are now.

This war, breaking out quite early in the 21st century, will be a very good example of how language -- English in particular -- and semiotics are stretched to their maximum for the benefit of each side in the armed conflict. It is also a good opportunity to realize that through the mastery of language, you can shape public opinion in your favor.