What Do You Call the Enemy?

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The other day a reporter on NPR (National Public Radio), talking about the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane over Detroit, said:

If we’re at war, maybe we should treat these people as warriors.

I did a double-take on that one.

Yes, the word warrior derives from the word war, but in English warrior carries a connotation of nobility and courage. Perhaps there are more appropriate words with which to refer to civilians who try to blow up airplanes.

If we don’t want to use “terrorist” in every context, we still have a variety of choices to describe a person who brings violence to bear against one country on behalf of another.

hostile agent

Apparently the reporters and announcers at NPR are really uncomfortable with war terminology. Here’s something else I heard one of them say in another context on the same day:

teaching America’s war fighters to respect other cultures

“War fighters”?

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19 thoughts on “What Do You Call the Enemy?”

  1. Although I am not privy to NPR’s policy regarding use of the word “enemy,” as a former print reporter I appreciate NPR’s (apparent) awareness that its choice of words can constitute an implicit endorsement of administration policy. I appreciate it all the more because most TV news reporters appear to be oblivious to such nuance.

    If the Bush administration sought to create public support for its policies by calling them a “War on Terror,” should the media assist that effort by calling the targets of said war “the enemy”?

    That said, I agree with your comments about the connotations that come with the word “warriors.”

    “If we don’t want to use “terrorist” in every context, we still have a variety of choices to describe a person who brings violence to bear against one country on behalf of another.”

  2. Nice post Maeve, and something I think about a lot at my blog. I think what the commentator wanted to say was “Soldier” Soldiers fight soldiers, but he wanted to make a play on the word war.

    I’ve written about warriors on my site, and to me the key to being a warrior is being good at fighting. Genghis Khan was a warrior, but not a noble one.

  3. The latter quote from NPR doesn’t strike me as odd at all. I work for a defense contractor and can attest that “war fighter” is the military industry’s current noun of choice for a generic soldier.

  4. I’m not surprised that NPR wants to call a Muslim terrorist a “warrior” and our soldiers “war fighters.”

    The connotations are obvious, as are NPR’s biases.

    Chuck Hustmyre

  5. Chuck, you may be interested in reading about NPR’s policy with regard to the use of the word “torture.”

    After reading that, care to reassess you opinion of NPR’s “biases”?

  6. Live and learn!
    In addition to Kirk’s comment, I got this one from Andy Hess:

    War Fighters is the correct term for the United States military service men and women. This is what they do at the very essence of their positions.

    Never had I heard that expression before. Come to think of it, the NPR report was in the context of military training.

    A Google search for war fighters brought up 5,800,000 hits. Evidently what began as an expression used chiefly by the military has found its way into the mainstream. Thanks, readers, for your input.

  7. I wonder why my comment wasn’t accepted by the moderator? Is it because I posted evidence about NPR contrary to the opinions posted here?

  8. A friend that works for the DOD says that everytime they create a document using the word “soldiers” or “military personnel” (sometimes adding “and families”), the Army editors changed the word(s) to “warriors” (and families)

  9. I prefer the Fox News term “our soldiers.”

    No one can seriously argue that NPR is a far left organization.

    I don’t think the government should fund a news organization, regardless of its leanings.

  10. Does the term “our soldiers” exclude airmen (and women… what is the appropriate non-gender specific term there?) and sailors?

    Or is there no distinction made between the members of the different branches of the armed forces?

    My initial assumption on seeing the phrase “war fighters” was that it was intended to encompass the people who are arguably involved in “fighting a war” but would not be classified as “warriors” (or indeed possibly as “soldiers”) – intelligence analysts and the like.

  11. Jon,

    You might be overthinking this. I think Fox uses the term soldier in a generic sense. Also, I abhor the effort to castrate our language. When freshmen become freshpersons or first-year students, I tune out.

  12. I guess the key – as ever – is context.

    The audience reaction to – and understanding of – the words used is heavily dependent on both their personal baggage, and the context in which the words are used.

    I know from personal experience (as a witness, not as a perpetrator, might I add) that where Royal Navy, Army and RAF personnel have all been involved in the same conflict, Naval officers do not like being referred to as soldiers… 🙂

  13. I apologize for my previous comment about my first post being rejected. Obviously it was waiting moderation, and I reacted too quickly.

    Maeve, when did your hear that comment on NPR, and on what show? I’d like to listen to it in context.

    I agree that language has tremendous power, especially in the realm of politics and the media. And after all, this site is about language, and not necessarily politics. But language is one of the primary weapons of politics.

    I wanted to comment on the facile notion that NPR is “liberal” and therefore, as some would have it, unwilling to use the strong language necessary to win the “war on terror,” or promote any other conservative agenda. I know that that is a common belief by many on the right, but as a liberal who listens to NPR, I can tell you that it’s just not true. NPR is actually quite moderate, especially in the past decade or so as it has deliberately (under pressure from Republican politicians) tacked to the right.

    The “enhanced interrogation technique” episode that I linked to above is a case in point. NPR has been avoiding the use of the word “torture” when discussing Bush administration interrogation policies (e.g., waterboarding and other forms of torture) used during their “war on terror.” In a bizarre bit of doublespeak, NPR’s ombudsman defended NPR’s language choice by saying that using the word “torture” when discussing this issue would be “choosing sides” (i.e., the side of Bush administration critics), even as they used the preferred term (“enhanced interrogation techniques”) promoted by the people defending the Bush administration policy. In other words, by choosing this language, they were choosing sides (the conservative, pro-Bush administration side), even as they claimed they were trying to avoid choosing sides.

    This is just one example of NPR apparently bowing to political pressure from the right. I’m not claiming that NPR is as far right as Fox News, but they are quite mainstream and far more moderate/conservative than many people believe, like the rest of the so-called “liberal” mainstream media.

  14. In response to both Jon and Chuck Hustmyre:

    As a member of the US military, let me clarify that use “war fighter” (also “warfighter”) to describe soldiers/airmen/etc. distinguishes those actually doing the fighting from those leading them. That is, a soldier in the trenches is a “warfighter”, whereas a general back stateside might be a “warrior”, is certainly a “soldier” (if in the Army), but isn’t actually a “warfighter”. To use another military-ism, “warfighters” are those on “the pointy end of the spear”.

  15. Bit late to the table, but I thought “Warfighter” is what John Lennon was.
    Trying to get us to fight against the war itself instead of fighting in the war.
    In which sense, I applaud the use of the term “Warfighter” and commend the military for its use.

  16. I’ve never heard the term “belligerent” used as a noun before. Is there a secondary meaning of which I am unaware?

  17. The term “War Fighter” is commonly used throughout the Pentagon. It’s a DoD-derived term, and the fact that you don’t know that makes me question how much background you actually bring to bear on this topic.
    That being said, to call a terrorist a “warrior” is an insult to the term. They are, in fact, cowards, and NPR should know better than to even suggest it.

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