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Lessons From 27/2/2019: Linguistic Deterrence And Narrative Warfare


Narrative warfare is taking an increasing role in international relations and becoming a key source of wining battles without fighting them. Haleema Khalid explains how it is being carried out and why we must use language as a weapon for intensified national security

LETTER The effective use of words and media today … is just as important as the effective use of bullets and bombs. In the end, it is no longer enough just to be strong. Now it is necessary to communicate. To win a war today, government not only has to win on the battlefield, it must also win the minds of its public,” Dr Ray Hiebert, University of Maryland, USAHeading into the third decade of the 21st century, revolutions in the fields of technology, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and data science among others has contributed a lot to transform warfare. Perceptual warfare has become a central element and a fundamental factor of success. In the aftermath of the destruction caused during the World War I and II, warfare strategies and techniques transformed with a particular focus on the fact that if victory can be achieved without destruction, the goal should be to avoid combat. For this purpose, perceptual measures have been placed keeping in view the goal. Favorably, perceptual warfare being the non-traditional form of warfare, does not need a declaration or a direct encounter. However, it has been proved to be more lethal if counter measures are not in place. Consequently, nation states ensure population indoctrination to form a national narrative as a form of counter measure to resist hostile narrative invasion. This is done by using language in relation with multimodality as a socio-cognitive tool of warfare.


Weaponized Langauge

In this regard, the use of weaponized language as a linguistic deterrent by nation states can hardly be considered ‘new’, particularly after the expanding realms of digital and social media in the public domain. Evolving generations of warfare have revolutionized war gaming, which has been observed to have shifted towards streamlining a linguistic offensive to set-up the conflict zone. This has been practiced evidently in the post 9/11 global context. Hybrid and psychological warfare being its primary tools, modern warfare seems to be relying on language in general and speech acts in particular to structure and re-structure public socio-cognition for pragmo-semantic reasons. The need for its requirement lies in line with the core concept of warfare, in which illusion for winning and losing is vital for the partakers. Dependent on the receptive ability of the participants regarding an event, in the situational context, pragmo-semantics can be manipulated to achieve desired results. 

Being the nuclear flashpoint between Pakistan and India, Kashmir has always been the conflict in brewing. Since Modi-ism’s rise after the Uri incident, speech acts demonstrating ‘intention’ in addition to ‘intended target’ from the Indian office bearers have produced a specific perceptive dissonance on both sides of the border, raising regional security concerns.Considering it in line with Ole Wæver’s point of view of determining ‘security’ as a speech act, threats have been constructed following a “grammar of security”, interestingly by employing ‘security discourse construction’ based on prototypical ideals; Jihad, Muslims, and Islam, advertising them as ‘security narrative’ to materialize global response. This has been successfully countered by the ISPR in the post February 27, 2019 context by practicing linguistic deterrence to counter narrative warfare, along with befitting traditional response on ground. Hence, retaining the higher rung on the escalation ladder.


Linguistic Deterrence

The notion of linguistic deterrence can be comprehended in terms of language use in international relational diplomacy to discourage rival or competitive states to indulge in unwanted course of action that could disrupt peace. This can be considered a first line of defense that can be maintained formally and informally using direct and indirect channels to convey the intended message. Moreover, speech acts functioning as linguistic deterrent followed by ‘physical measures in place’ as a sign of deterrence serve to demonstrate the relationship between a signifier (pattern) and signified (concept). This relationship can be established considering Saussure’s ideas regarding signifier, signified and the sign. From this perspective signifier can be the linguistic choices formulating a pattern of speech acts; locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts; signified is the conceptualization of the speech acts in contemplation of social, economic, and political factors in particular, and sign is the objective that combines signifier and signified.

Likewise, narrative warfare involves war gaming tactics by and large established by language from the pragmo-semantic perspective, although they are intensified when mediatized and digitalized due to multimodality. This is because of the fact that socio-cognition regarding a certain process, incident or individual is constructed primarily through words that are perceived in relation to the collective social comprehensibility, which is then strengthened through digital amplification. In this way, narrative construction in narrative warfare involves linguistic, cultural, social, economic and political resources in addition to personal and collective experiences, as well as practices of target populace along with the prevailing security conditions in a specific social setting. Hence, narrative warfare is a chain of interconnected engineered beliefs generated in the info-sphere of specific social, regional or global setting which are then proliferated and made hyperbolic to influence socio-cognition.

However, the threat is to determine ‘deep-fake’ narrative constructions being injected into the info-sphere of a societal construct to relegate the impact of narrative warfare on public receptive ability. This can be done by swift mediatization and digitalization of the truth, supported by the counter evidence that not only shatters the deep-fakes, but also offers a counter narrative triggering a desired socio-cognitive response. Indian media projections of Balakot strike and ISPR’s counter response supported by digital amplification of the truth worldwide can be considered an excellent example of the process. 


February 27 Response

Therefore, February 27, 2019 has become historically significant for Pakistan not only because of the Operation Swift Retort, but because of wining the narrative warfare and maintaining linguistic deterrence to counter fake news propaganda. It has successfully introduced the tri-dimensional paradigm of deterrence involving language, diplomacy, and military action. These three dimensions are interconnected with three processes – reproduction product and reception – which are influenced by factors existent in the space and time of socio-sphere of a particular setting. Since, deterrence has been achieved both at operational and perceptual scale, this has established the need to consider deterrence from the applied linguistic perspective to determine the aspects of perceptual scale. It has become essential owing to the overarching transformation of warfare that primarily targets human cognition. Although the impact it carries can be positive or negative depending on the objective, national or hostile. The signs are always there to watch out for, particularly in the socio-political, socio-economic and security discourse. For instance, an initiation of hostile narrative can be determined from injecting confusion among the masses through media on the subject involving certain event by using loaded words referring ‘sources’ at a time when an official response is delayed. 

This calls for the need to consider language use in relation with the national security. This can be done by assessing the narratives we live by, keeping in view the diachronic and synchronic aspects of language use concerning the linguistic layers in a societal construct. These linguistic layers – domestic, diplomatic, and security – are categorized on the basis of functional distinctiveness of language use in general and speech acts in particular. Therefore, the role of language in perception management and narrative warfare is pivotal.

Language being the one shaping and formulating social constructions, a general overview of reality has made one thing clear – that non-traditional (unrestricted) warfare “has no rules, with nothing forbidden” as every domain, aspect and institution in a social framework is at war, as quoted in the book titled “Restricted Warfare” published in 1999For this purpose, measures need to be taken to purge the effects of socio-cognitive manipulation through language in the wider interest of national security.

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