Words of War

We don’t have the luxury of lazy thinking, lazy messaging, or accidental propaganda

5 min readSep 28, 2021


There’s a difference between messaging and propaganda. One explanation of the difference is “specialization”. But there’s more to it than that — there’s integrity.

Why might this matter to you, reader?

Because most niche ventures, engaged in some kind of sophisticated knowledge-work, accidentally use propaganda.

At worst, this means being misleading or factually inaccurate, such as inflating the headcount of the full-time contributors to your business.

At best, this means using empty business jargon (ie “digital transformation”, “web design”) which is unintentionally meaningless or misleading.

The latter is common.

And both are bad for business.

* * *

So is war.

For a select few, war is unimaginably profitable, of course. (Pick any random day from this US government listing military contracts and reflect on how much money is on offer — billions, every single day.)

But war is bad for our collective societies — and economies — as a whole. Every time a region becomes more peaceful, it becomes wealthier. We conflate the 1950’s post-war reconstruction with the war itself. It was the post-war that created immense US wealth, not the war. And when taxpayers’ money doesn’t go to war, it will likely go somewhere more beneficial.

So of course, for our little niche businesses, war is quite bad, if not horrible, for business.

It’s also bad for language, including that which comprises our own brand messaging and marketing copy.

We think of the combined, overlapped sphere of tech, start-ups, and marketing as society’s epicenter of meaningless words. Cringedom. But compared to the giant of war, they are microbes in their destruction of the meaning of words.

Consider that war actually consists of:

  • mass bombing of the landscape
  • mass firestorms of cities and towns
  • mass shooting to kill
  • mass dehumanization of soldiers — and consequent personal tragedies
  • the inadvertent (or not) death of innocents, including children
  • painful, humiliating, and life-altering physical injuries for both of the above groups
  • the permanent psychological damage to both of the above groups
  • torture

To repeat and sum up, war is mass pain. Of course, it’s hard to hear about.

So what do we do? In countries such as the US, which has been in some kind of war for every year of its 240-year existence, we change the words we use.

In particular, we choose misleading terms and names.

We even renamed war itself — our Departments of War became Departments of Defense. The US did this in 1949, the Soviet Union in 1953, the UK in 1964.

In each case, it was described as a “dissolution” of the Department of War, as if the governments were re-organizing themselves around peace. But it was just a name change.

In addition to “defense”, we also call war, “military intervention”, “conflict zone”, “regime change operations”, or “tactical support”.

(Support, Operations — business as usual).

But in each case, it’s still war — with all of its above-bulleted hallmarks. And we practice naming on those bullet points too.

When war kills children and other non-soldiers, that’s “collateral damage”.

Torture is “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

Bombing people to death is “drone strikes”.

But a bomb is a bomb and bombing is bombing. Good messaging is extremely precise, which is the reason one of the principal differences between messaging and propaganda is specialization.

* * *

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran this headline:

“Pentagon acknowledges Aug. 29 drone strike in Afghanistan was a tragic mistake that killed 10 civilians.”

Now imagine if it had precisely stated the most relevant facts:

“Pentagon admits its mistakenly bombed to death a family of 7 children.”

Because the last time I checked, when 7 children are killed at once, that’s the headline — as was the case with some other news publications.

And because we all know when it and where it happened — those details don’t add value and dilute the message.

Good messaging is honest, accurate, and short. That’s how it creates change. (The New York Times, a good publication with respect to US arts and culture, has been shown to have zero interest in creating change when it comes to US war policy).

Hence, blatant propaganda.

If what you’re doing doesn’t “create value”, to put it lightly, then good messaging can’t fix that. There’s some little room for spin, to draw the attention you deserve, but there’s no room for deception. Only the cultivation of expertise can help you increase the value you create.

Are you using the word, “drone strike” in your messaging when there’s a more accurate term?

Or even a more accurate, or relevant, manner of speaking? Or are you using too many non-relevant details and saying too much?

If so, it’s not what you’re writing that’s the problem.

The real problem is what you’re thinking.

* * *

For those of you who have been told that George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is worth reading (it is — and its short), I will now direct you to the money-quote, explaining why we “use” English badly:

“It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

He goes on to cite over a hundred specific examples of such bad habits, some of which are still relevant (some definitely aren’t). For example, he wrote that:

Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion.

And sure enough, a recent Washington Post opinion piece was titled, “The inevitable horror in Afghanistan”.

This kind of lazy thinking translated into words is a luxury for big organizations. Verizon, McKinsey, Exxon, The New York Times, Amazon. They can say almost anything they want; all that matters to them is the UX copy at the point of sale.

But for the rest of us, we have to measure every word and use as few as possible.

My best

(originally published here https://www.rowanprice.com/words-of-war/)



amateur tweets, professional works –pressfield