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At work today, I encountered a question over whether the word “war” should be applied to the December 2008–January 2009 armed conflict in the Gaza Strip. My ensuing research and conversations about the issue haven’t really changed my mind—the high number of deaths and the fact that the episode involved a large-scale military invasion merit the description “war” to my mind—but they did raise a number of interesting questions. What characteristics transform fighting or armed conflict into a full-fledged “war”? Is it even useful to apply objective standards to such a determination? Does the word “war” create a meaningful distinction in readers’ minds, and if so, what are the consequences of filing a conflict into that category?

All of which lead, of course, to the big question of whether it matters what nouns journalists use to describe fighting. My tentative answer is “yes,” though other elements of reporting almost certainly matter more. Because I am accustomed to seeing the Gaza fighting described as a “war” (and most mainstream print media outlets do describe it that way, at least some of the time), it feels different, set apart from the decades of violence that surround it. “War” confers a sense of historical importance, which I think can be useful to recognize in a conflict that’s ongoing or in the recent past. But I think sense of scale is the main reason that the “war”/not “war” question feels significant—the word “war” offers an immediate idea of deadliness, which words like “fighting,” “violence,” and especially “conflict” lack. Even words like “offensive” and “incursion,” which are useful in the case of the war in Gaza because they provide an extra piece of information, don’t carry the same immediate connotation of death on a large scale.

Of course, an ideal piece of journalism will give lots of information and detail that takes the pressure of conveying the scale of violence off of a single noun. But I still wonder whether there isn’t a meaningful nuance separating the sentences “the three-week-long war killed up to 1400 Palestinian people and 13 Israeli people” and “the three-week-long conflict killed up to 1400 Palestinian people and 13 Israeli people.”

But the idea that the word “war” conveys historical importance raises a separate set of questions—if we distinguish a group of violent struggles by declaring them “wars,” and use that word to convey their importance, are we contributing to the chronic neglect of conflicts that don’t fit our definition of war but that deserve more media attention? After all, high human tolls distinguish many forms of armed conflict that aren’t likely to fit anyone’s criteria for “war.”

I don’t think I can finagle this into being about the news media, but since (as previously discussed) House sometimes gets almost as large an audience as the three network evening news shows combined, I think its sociological messages are fair game.

I am a pretty faithful House fan—Hugh Laurie’s misanthropic commentary and my love of weekly mysteries (even trite ones) provide enough enjoyment to make up for what I perceive as a decline in the show’s quality over the last couple of seasons. But tonight’s episode about a brutal dictator from a generic African country rubbed me wrong, and not just because of it’s corny gestures toward wrestling with Big Philosophical Questions.

For those who don’t schedule their Monday evenings around the show (I’m ashamed to admit that we actually got a digital converter box two hours before this year’s season premier in order to catch it), today’s episode found Dr. House and his team treating a genocidal African dictator and wrestling with the implications of restoring him to health.

The problematic element for me was the generic country, which I thought fit too neatly into uncomplicated Western ideas of an unstable African nation. The script’s use of details picked from various African conflicts (ethnic violence, an uprising “in the south,” genocide perpetrated against a once-powerful ethnic minority that sounded an awful lot like “Tutsi,” child soldiers abducted, drugged and forced to commit atrocities, a charismatic and ruthless leader, etc.) and lumping of them into one generic African genocide seemed to play on the audience’s expectations about the Bad Things that happen in Africa. The conflation of conflicts separated by decades and thousands of miles undermined the unique horror of the real conflicts. And it erroneously suggested that those conflicts were interchangeable, apparently bound together by some vague tie of “Africanness.”

And I do know that shows like this have to simplify complicated ideas in order to create satisfying one-hour units of entertainment. They often pull similar tricks of conflation without raising anyone’s hackles—drawing together details of several famous crimes, for example, into a Frankenstein’s monster of a crime that resembles many but duplicates none. But Western thinking about Africa, and especially African conflict, is too important and too fragile for the the usual one-hour drama treatment. I would rather House had avoided the topic entirely than reinforce such simplified and un-useful conceptions of conflict in Africa.

[EDITED to remove photo due to rights concerns.]

I just wanted to point to this short meditation of Megan Garber’s at on the tone of news coverage in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. She very succinctly gets to a point that struck me at the time, and that partly inspired my interest in the political and moral consequences of journalistic language.

It is so important to remember that war wasn’t an inevitable response, and to explore the question of whether news coverage in the  immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks might have created a sense of inevitability as it shaped our collective understanding of a complex event.