The deployment of New Zealand’s SAS (Special Air Service) to Afghanistan is a well-known fact. Until recently, this elite combat unit was said to have a “mentoring” role in the training of Afghan police. Increasingly, this role is being questioned by politicians as well as the New Zealand public.
To show the language I want to examine for this assignment, I have chosen six texts from the media coverage in newspapers, television, radio, internet news sites and from the bloggersphere. For this presentation I took two of them:
Newspaper: “Kiwi SAS soldier died saving lives”. (Sunday Star Times, 21 st August 2011)
Blog: “No easy way out of Afghanistan for SAS”. (Pundit, 21 st August 2011)
The first sentence identifies the nature of the narrative as a feature article: “There was no anger, no public grief. The mood at the main New Zealand base in Afghanistan was one of grim acceptance as news came in that one of their own, …, had been killed in a firefight in Kabul.”
The author goes on to describe in emotive detail the situation in which the soldier was killed, the mood at the “Kiwibase in Bamiyan” after the soldier’s death, and the stoic reaction of a fellow soldier.
Small mentions the PRT, the SAS, as well as “Kiwi military aid workers” in a way that could lead to confusion about who is who.
Strewn in between are voices of ambassadors, a former commandant of the SAS, a military analyst, and the PM. The tenor of these quotes is one of ‘hang in there’, ‘we have a job to do’, ‘soldiers have to be prepared to get killed’, ‘he was a hero saving lives’.
Obviously, a blog’s narrative is quite different from a feature in a newspaper. However, we have to keep in mind that this is so mainly because of reader expectations, not because a blog is necessarily less reliable, or because a newspaper article is automatically more professional.
Having said that, Watkin’s article starts without mentioning the latest casualty in Afghanistan. Instead, he goes right into criticising the government: “It’s looking increasingly as if 2014 will be a false deadline in Afghanistan, with more SAS hand-holding needed for years to come. With the government expected to come under renewed pressure to make a greater commitment, what choice is the PM likely to make?”
The author says the “invasion” in Afghanistan was “a terrible mistake”, he lists the casualties, as well as the economic costs. He muses what an “ordinary Afghan” and a “western soldier” might think, and, like Small, he quotes the PM who confirms New Zealand’s commitment.
Watkin also mentions the SAS and PRT, but in a way that clearly keeps these two groups apart.
Small’s text sells us the military point of view and (consciously or not) functions as a means of justifying, if not legitimising NZ troops in Afghanistan. He presents soldiers as hardy boys, who want to be there, who expect to die, who are our heroes. The text leaves readers with the certainty that all is as it should be.
Watkin’s text, by definition, is an opinion piece. While acknowledging the fact of troops in Afghanistan, it recognises the difficulties. It presents a more complex picture, and especially its last sentence invites discussion: “New Zealand needs to start thinking about what our answer will be [to our allies]. Watkin’s listing of casualties does not conjure up images of heroes, and he leaves readers with an uneasy feeling.
Increasingly, the demarcation between fact and opinion is blurred in the media. There seem to be only versions of reality. So I will not advocate for or against newspapers or blogs. But I want to point out that both can be used to convince specific discourse communities to subscribe to the opinions of the powerful in government and commerce, or the relatively powerless masses of ordinary people, respectively. Both texts have elements of coercion, resistance, legitimisation, and dissimulation. Both texts can thus be used as political tools in the struggle for power.