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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.”


The devastating natural disasters in Myanmar and China that have dominated this month’s news have unfortunately offered a good platform for examining the way news media outlets describe deaths that occur as a result of natural disasters. The question of how those deaths are communicated to distant readers is interesting in itself, but it also sets up interesting comparisons to the description of war deaths.

Some research I’ve conducted myself has suggested that natural disaster reporting is not more likely to use graphic physical descriptions of dead bodies than war reporting, but the cyclone and earthquake coverage in the last three weeks has made me want to revisit those findings.

The majority of the coverage that I have encountered has seemed both to discuss death more, and to evoke it more graphically, than an average day of war coverage. Entire lengthy articles are devoted to death tolls, and articles about other aspects of the cyclone and the earthquake are generally framed in terms of the human destruction that characterizes their aftermath (in several articles about the bureaucratic attitude of the Myanmar junta toward international offers of aid, reporters have juxtaposed it with the worsening physical conditions in the storm’s aftermath, for example). By contrast, death and killing can sometimes feel like a secondary element of war, mentioned in passing in articles that focus on military strategy or the political wrangling that usually accompanies war’s most violent episodes.

The nature of the descriptions of death in natural disaster reporting has also been notable. The descriptions are—appropriately—horrifying, describing the visual, tactile and olfactory attributes of death in ways that evoke the pain and horror of death. In the cyclone particularly, human remains and the difficulties inherent in disposing of them have been a major focus.

The screenshots below (from The New York Times online and are some examples I ran into this week of cyclone coverage specifically focusing on the physical realities of death: Front Page, May 8 Front Page, May 9 Front Page, May 13

If it’s true, as anecdotal evidence suggests, that the natural disaster descriptions include more, and more graphic, descriptions of death than war coverage, there are lots of possible explanations for this fact, most of them very reasonable from the perspective of journalists and editors. Chief among them, of course, is that though wars often kill many hundreds of thousands of people in a relatively short space of time, there are not likely to be tens of thousands of unburied bodies at any one moment. The U.S. news media is notoriously event-focused, and natural disaster deaths become “events” in themselves due to their much higher rate (in “deaths per minute”) than war deaths.

But I think it may also be true that war deaths aren’t considered as central to war as natural disaster deaths are to natural disasters. Many articles are published each year that discuss ongoing wars without once mentioning death explicitly. While death and destruction of human habitats are what make storms and earthquakes newsworthy, war is understood to have meaning outside of the deaths that it causes. Here’s how Elaine Scarry, in The Body in Pain, describes this phenomenon (emphasis hers):

The essential structure of war…resides in the relation between its own largest parts, the relation between the collective casualties that occur within war, and the verbal issues (freedom, national sovereignty, the right to a disputed ground, the extra-territorial authority of a particular ideology) that stand outside war, that are there before the act of war begins and after it ends, that are understood by warring populations as the motive and justification and will again be recognized after the war as the thing substantiated or (if one is on the losing side) not substantiated by war’s activity

Regardless of whether the explanation for the apparent discrepancy between descriptions of death in war and natural disaster reporting is practical or cultural, its effects seem important to examine. Do the prominently placed images and descriptions of dead bodies and ruined cities in coverage of the Myanmar cyclone and the earthquake in China make it more difficult for the reader to ignore those deaths than the deaths that occur every day in Iraq and Afghanistan? Should journalists and editors try to find ways to use the tools of natural disaster coverage to feature the carnage that results from war? In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss more about other ethical questions raised by graphic images of death and graphic physical language describing it in the news.