The Language of War and Peace


The language and grammar of war shape conflict — and peace. The manner in which we speak of violence, the manner in which we speak of and to our enemies, often matters as much as the actual use of organized violence. The language and grammar of war can either expand or constrict opportunities for peace.

The final communication between the Soviet and American presidents occurred twenty-five years ago. It illustrates this point. On 25 December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev called George H. W. Bush to inform him that he was dissolving the Soviet Union. Gorbachev wanted to reassure Bush that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was secure, that the US was safe. Gorbachev sought Bush’s reassurance that the US would help foster openness in Russia and a new more peaceful post-Cold War order. Gone was the rhetoric of communist revolution or American containment. Absent were threats of strike and counter-strike, of mutual annihilation. The language and grammar of war, had in a short few years, given way to expressions of cooperation, respect, and friendship. The war was over.

Historians and political scientist debate, and will continue to debate, the causal logic that brought the Cold War to an end. Was it the collapse of the Soviet economyWas it a resurgent American militaryWas it the anti-Communism of Pope John Paul II and the organizing efficacy of the Catholic church? Perhaps. An argument can be made for each of these and other potential causes.

However, there is more to be explained that simply the end of the Cold War. The nature of the end must also be explained. Why is it that the end was peaceful? What explains Soviet decisions to forge one final conflict in an attempt to rally? What explains American decisions to forgo the opportunity to instantly seize upon a weakened foe? The language and grammar of war provide insight.

Emile Simpson holds that the language of war provides an “interpretive structure” that gives meaning to the use of force — and to war itself. The language and grammar of a war identifies and gives meaning to the conflict and the political objectives motivating it. For a combatant nation-states, it provides an internal dialogue through which its citizens can justify the conflict and their sacrifices. It also provides an external dialogue, one aimed at the enemy (and other strategic audiences). This dialogue provides a narrative to identify and justify the political objectives and the use of violence on the part of one belligerent — while attempting to discredit the narrative put forth by their enemy. If the language is precise, thoughtful, and measured, it may also contain the terms for peace.

Simpson’s argument builds on the logic of Clausewitz. “We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” This quote from Clausewitz, often shortened to “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means,” is so often cited that its mere presentation is trite. Often overlooked is the larger point, that war — like non-violent political discourse — is about persuading the other side to accept your preferred outcome.

This requires the communication of a political outcome the other side will find more acceptable than the continuation of the war. This may be done by convincing the enemy of the justness or legitimacy of one’s position. It may, more realistically perhaps, be done by convincing the enemy that the political objectives being sought are less onerous than the continued use of violence. In either case, success is predicated on the ability to communicate the nature and limits of the political objectives being sought. (If indeed such have limits. If not, then the war is one of complete conquest or genocide — and a negotiated peace is impossible.)

Over the course of the Cold War there were several attempts (evidenced by periods of détente, arms control agreements, and the Apollo-Soyuz mission) to adjust the language and grammar of the conflict. It was, however, a series of nearly catastrophic events that most likely caused American and Soviet leaders to reexamine and then adjust the language and grammar of the conflict.

In November 1979, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) detected an inbound pre-emptive Soviet nuclear strike. It was a false alarm, the product of a computer glitch. In September 1983, the Soviet Union’s Serpukhov-15 early warning bunker detected an inbound pre-emptive American nuclear strike. Like the NORAD case, it was a computer generated false alarm. In each case, the nation that ‘detected’ its enemy’s launch came perilously close to responding to a false alarm with actual nuclear weapons — an event that would have unwittingly triggered a global thermonuclear war. The US and Soviet Union came even closer in November 1983. That month changes to NATO’s annual Able Archer exercise inadvertently mimicked the precursor events Moscow expected to observe the US take before launching a full scale war. Later, when President Ronald Reagan learned that the Soviets earnestly believed the US was willing to launch a pre-emptive attack that would kill millions of Soviet citizens he was shocked. American and Soviet officials came to realize that the language and grammar of the Cold War was disproportionate to each nation’s actual political objectives. As they walked back the rhetoric, arms reduction became easier, tensions eased, and the likely use of organized violence against one another dissipated.

The cautionary lesson for today is that the opposite logic is also possible. Unchecked, vague, aspirational language can suggest the pursuit of boundless political objectives. This may communicate to potential adversaries an unwillingness to engage in non-violent political intercourse. Such narratives, even if meant for domestic consumption, may signal an exaggerated threat and increase the likelihood of conflict beyond the level of any actual political disagreement.