Just war, cruel slaughter and humanitarian bombings?

The rhetorical frameworks of the western power leaders in action

By Riikka Kuusisto

Wars are fought not only with arms, but also with words. Official definitions of conflict situations, publicly declared motives, names given to the warring parties and explanations concerning decisions made in the course of the hostilities — the rhetoric and discourses of war — play as important a role in the progression of events as do the physical acts of belligerency that accompany them. The verbal action gives meaning to the distant motion in the battlefield; it provides a plot to the seemingly disparate incidents, linking them to a coherent context with a familiar conclusion. War rhetoric is an essential part of “real war”; it takes hold of the theater, lays out the campaign, reports on the advances and assesses the outcome. The “war words” of the three major Western powers — the United States, Britain and France — enjoy special prominence in most international conflicts: in the Persian Gulf, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo, they forcefully framed the acts and actors and became points of reference even for ardent critics of the Western policies.

In their public statements during the Gulf conflict, the major Western power leaders depicted the efforts of the anti-Iraq coalition as a just war with a new world order as its goal. They claimed to be fighting for justice and peace, for a better tomorrow for all peoples. The hostilities were structured in terms of a heroic fairy tale about the eternal struggle between good and evil. In the official story, the coalition heroes slew the Iraqi monster and rescued the innocent victim, Kuwait. Order was restored and Kuwaiti territory was returned to its rightful owners. The Western metaphors likened the killing and dying in the Gulf to a happy-ending children’s story, a thrilling game, a profitable deal and wholesome sports. According to the rhetoric, saving Kuwait from the clutches of the mad dog was absolutely necessary.

About a year later in Bosnia, things were more complicated. The Bosnian strife was represented as a cruel, meaningless and uncontrollable slaughter in the Western declarations. The foreign policy leaders found the age-old feud of the fierce Southern Slavs inexplicably terrible and deeply discouraging. In the case of Bosnia, a tragic plot with numerous victims and villains but no heroes was imposed on the events. It was explained that primitive ethnic wars could not be solved from the outside and that negotiations only could bring about peace. The disintegration of an established state left the Western powers searching for proper borders and legitimate rulers. The most frequently employed metaphors drew a parallel between the war in Bosnia and a tragic play, a horrible nightmare, a destructive natural catastrophe and a treacherous morass — something one definitely should not interfere with.

In the spring of 1999 in Yugoslavia, the leaders of the major NATO countries justified their military campaign with humanitarian motives; the bombings were meant to deliver the Kosovar Albanians from Serb terror and violence. According to the official interpretation, the Western intervention managed to turn a tragedy into a fairy tale at the very last moment. By opposing Slobodan Milosevic’s murderous rampage, the Alliance members defended the values of civilization: freedom and security, democracy and human rights. As a result of the NATO victory, the refugees were able to return back home to the land they had inhabited for generations. Much like in the Gulf, in Kosovo, the Western leaders assured the international community that they were fighting against everything that was chaotic and cruel in the world and associated their mission with noble duties and exciting tasks that were familiar from other realms.

The rhetorical decisions of the Western major power leaders — the choice of definitions and explanatory stories — outlined the resolution models for the conflicts in the Gulf, in Bosnia and in Kosovo. The brute facts did not speak for themselves and there were no self-evident and absolutely necessary ways to react to the developments. Only very few members of the world audience were able to base their opinions and beliefs on immediate observations and personal experiences. The speeches and statements of the United States, British and French leaders made the distant and complex situations apprehensible and significant and were continuously cited in newspapers, radio broadcasts and tv reports. The official vocabularies were also adopted in wider discourses: it became natural to talk about the game with Saddam Hussein, the morass in Bosnia and the deal with Slobodan Milosevic in almost any context.

The Western rhetoric in the three conflicts was selective and restrictive. However, it did not amount to unforeseen perversion and deceit, but rather, bore witness to the price of maintaining order, consistency and meaning in our lives. The alternative definitions were no more accurate and objective than the official Western ones. In a world of partial and uncertain truths, every interpretation will be simply one suggestion among many, a limited perspective and an insecure tale. We cannot impose “correct” form on the unruly reality of international relations, but we can and should carefully compare the competing bids, their implications and principles of operation, and try to resist over-simplifications and hostility towards difference.

Riikka Kuusisto is Dr.Soc.Sc., Researcher, Department of Political Science, University of Helsinki

See also:

Kosovo media debate one year after

27 April 2000

Ahtisaari warns against doctrine of humanitarian intervention

24 March 2000

Aftermath of Kosovo: Europe takes military route to security

October 1999

When journalists become carriers of war by Eeva Lennon

October 1999

Ex-president criticises West's policies in Yugoslavia

31 August 1999

Non-aligned countries watch warily as NATO sidelines UN

May 1999

Finland agonises over Kosovo

May 1999

Intellectuals divided by events in Yugoslavia

27 April 1999


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