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. Continue reading