Bombing as Speech Act

There’s an interesting article up at Sapiens by William M. Cotter on military leaflets dropped over civilians during war in the Middle East, specifically Israeli messaging in Gaza as well as U.S. and allied leafleting over ISIS-held Raqqa. As a linguistic anthropologist, Cotter looks particularly at the language used in such leaflets, analyzing them for their strategic use in war. Looking, for example, at the vague language in messages informing Gazans to “stay away from Hamas elements,” Cotter asks, “What does the lack of specificity mean? Why are civilians only being provided with part of the story and given only a portion of the information that they need in order to avoid becoming victims of military strikes?”

The answer is of course because war – even with precision bombing and high tech missiles – doesn’t actually care about civilians or even the distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in a place like Syria, where total war consumes lives regardless of this distinction, or in places like Gaza, perpetually stuck in interwar1 as civilians never know if violence is near. Actors such as ISIS fighters, the U.S. military and its drones, or the IDF often don’t care about this distinction either. Cotter provides some good analysis of what the messages are actually doing: they provide cover for militaries by technically “warning” civilians of impending violence but without adequately shielding them. In such instances of asymmetrical warfare, such leaflets or other messaging can act as an actual warning for civilians, but also also act as a free pass for military aggression or as a form of psychological warfare to intimidate the opponent.

While my own ongoing work on radio messages and leaflets in Uganda and the Congo resonates with this is somewhat tangential ways (and that will maybe be a forthcoming post), I want to flip the message of Cotter’s piece. The subtitle for his Sapiens article says: “Modern warfare isn’t only conducted with bombs, tanks, and guns—language also plays a central role.” But what if we think of bombs, tanks, and guns as linguistic tools?

If we conceive of bombing as a speech act, a tank as a performative, or a gun as medium, we begin to see all of warfare as communicative practice. War and violence say something, after all. Leaflets and propaganda say something about war, of course, but the politics of war-making and actual acts of war also have a lot to say. We should be attuned to violence as speech.

In the conflict that I study, rebel abductions and the conscription of children were first and foremost acts of violence, but the mutilations of civilians perceived to be collaborating with the government and the attacks on government-created “protective camps” were seen by many as declarative statements: stay close to the government and you betray the Acholi people. Early on, the Lord’s Resistance Army claimed to fight in the name of the Acholi, but the fact that its victims for mostly Acholi civilians rather than the Ugandan army is a testament to part of the ideology of the war being about pure and impure Acholi (this is not to downplay the very political aspects of the conflict)2. In a war between in which civilians were targeted by both the government and the rebels, violence was a communicative way to send messages of warning and of punishment.

In my own work on the conflict, I’ve noted that the LRA first moved to the Congo in 2005 and co-existed somewhat with the people there for a time. As the UN peacekeepers and FARDC soldiers moved into the area, the LRA attacked villages that were believed to have given information to the counterinsurgency. The message was clear. Civilians protested at the MONUSCO headquarters expressing a lack of confidence in the peacekeepers to protect them. When the Uganda-led Operation Lightning Thunder failed to rout the LRA from their camps in Garamba National Park in 2008, the rebels retaliated not by counterattacking the soldiers, but by massacring civilians. What seems like senseless violence was sending a clear message: the armies will not protect civilians, in fact, they do not care about civilians; villagers should not collaborate with them.

Back in the Middle East, where Cotter’s work is based, we see similar ways in which violence acts as language. Cotter’s example of Israeli messaging in Gaza and how it could be used as psychological warfare made me think of the Israeli practice of “roof-knocking” (recently taken up by the U.S. in Iraq, poorly). By blowing up a missile just above a building, the IDF shakes the target with the explosion, giving people warning before a second missile actually levels the building. (The WaPo article linked above has a video in it). Several commentators have called roof-knocking a form of psychological – if not also actual – warfare as it terrorizes whole communities. This is a more explicit form of tools of war used for speech, but – as I pointed in the examples of Uganda and Congo – violence has been communicating things forever.

From the “Shock and Awe” bombings of Baghdad being filmed by CNN to public executions in the old town square to lynchings across the Jim Crow South, violence is a speech act. More recently, examples include Faisal Devji’s argument that Al Qaeda’s acts of violence were acts of mirroring, sending the message that “we kill your civilians, including women and children, as you do ours,” and that the different spectacles of violence that ISIS has carried out also send messages to recruits, subjects, and enemies alike. Accounts from on the ground in places like Yemen and Pakistan often refer to the buzzing sound of U.S. drones as they circle overhead, the potential for a missile strike always present.

Violence says something, always. If we think about war as a communicative act, we become very aware of language’s potential for war-making. With such an acute awareness, it becomes clear that war and language are tightly entwined. Language can do violent things; war can say a lot.

1. The idea of the “interwar” comes from Marielle Debos’ new book, Living by the Gun in Chad.
2. For more on LRA violence and the messages it sends, see Behrend 2000, Finnstrom 2008, Branch 2005 (PDF), Branch 2011.


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