As soon as Russian forces moved into Ukraine, the superlatives started rolling in from America, Germany, England, and beyond: the biggest, baddest, warriest war in 80 years!

Which, from a language perspective, is highly problematic. Way more so than the ungrammatical superlative warriest.

Countries invade other countries all the time with all sorts of complex geopolitical justifications. Just look at the United States, which, in the last 80 years, has attacked Guatemala, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to name a few. Why the avalanche of sentiment that this invasion is the most consequential since World War II?

Could it be that the invaded country is — unlike every invaded country listed in the last paragraph — overwhelmingly white?

» READ MORE: Why is Belarus helping Russia invade Ukraine? An explainer on the latest in the conflict | Trudy Rubin

The language that distinguishes this invasion reveals volumes. And it’s coming from all over the world.

“They seem so like us,” wrote Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph. “That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.”

“This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades,” said Charlie D’Agata on CBS News. “This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

“What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed,” said Peter Dobbie on Al Jazeera English. “They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”

“We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin,” said French reporter Philippe Corbé on BFM TV. “We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”

“Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighboring Ukraine,” said Kelly Cobiella on NBC News. “They’re Christians, they’re white.”

The goal of “civilization” has long been a justification for war and colonialism. But in most cases, words like civilized and European are a stand-in for white. Cobiella doesn’t even bother with the substitutions.

At the same time, terms like impoverished and conflict raging, and the name-checking of specific Middle Eastern countries, are all ways to keep the suffering of nonwhite people at arm’s length. When they die — through either war or poverty (which itself is a kind of war visited upon a people) — those deaths somehow don’t count for as much.

Moreover, comments like these, which weaponize the first-person plural, reinforce the “we” who are telling the story: “like us,” “live next door,” “look like ours.” They center whiteness and push its supremacy at every stage of the narrative — all of which affects how viewers feel about the conflict itself.

» READ MORE: An explainer on why Putin’s Ukraine aggression will change the world and how we got here | Trudy Rubin

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t care about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Of course we should. But we should care because it’s wrong — not because of what the affected people look like. Otherwise, would-be conquerors and Putin-wannabes receive a clear message: Invade any place you want — as long as it isn’t white, we won’t kick up such a fuss.

The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and phonemic status to jeff@theangrygrammarian.com.


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