Non-lethal military aid: Oxymoron or useful term

The complainant, Constantine Kritsonis, thought the use of the term “non-lethal” military aid when referring to Canada’s contributions to the Ukrainian army was an oxymoron at best and inaccurate at worst because any aid to an army makes it more efficient at what it is designed to do – kill. In the broadest sense, that might be the case, but it does have a specific meaning and it is no policy violation to use it.

COMPLAINT

In April, CBCNews.ca published a story about a Canadian government decision to send trainers to help the Ukrainian military. It was entitled: Ukraine Crisis: Canada sending 200 trainers for Ukraine military. The Prime Minister had made the announcement of the aid, and the story outlined the nature of the training to be provided and emphasized that it would take place far from the actual conflict zone.

You objected to the way the aid was characterized as “non lethal.” You said that was an oxymoron because all military assistance is by definition potentially deadly because an “army is by definition a killing machine.” You characterized the use of that phrase as propaganda, likely just repeating the language of the Department of Defense:

Anything *aid* that makes an army stronger increases its ability to kill in combat. That is *lethal*. Adding the false term *non lethal* makes supporting wars easier when the notion is sold to an unsuspecting public. Call a spade a spade.

For the public good, I ask that the story be republished with a correction. If it is the case, CBC may state that it is simply repeating the DND's position, but doing so with such a blatant oxymoron unchallenged is not reporting the truth.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer for CBCNews.ca, Gary Graves, replied to your concerns. He pointed out that most of the aid mentioned in the story would involve Canadian trainers who would be stationed near the Polish border, over 1000 kilometers from the fighting. He quoted the story, which listed other forms of support including police and medical trainers, flight safety trainers, and training support for disarming land mines. He said the detailed description of the aid illustrated what the term “non-lethal” meant in this context. He did not agree that the designation “non-lethal” was an oxymoron:

Offering training, support and other military aid to recognized foreign governments is a long-standing Canadian policy. “Non-lethal” is a term commonly used to describe this activity when it does not involve combat troops or special operations forces, although your point is an apt one in suggesting that support that assists any military operation can contribute to its overall effectiveness. However, that does not, by definition, make it “lethal” support.

REVIEW

CBC News Journalistic Standards and Practices provides guidance on the use of language:

Quality and precision

CBC is a language model for its audiences. Good usage and accuracy are essential to high quality journalism. Our language should be simple, clear and concrete.

Journalistic style is accurate, concise and accessible. Our purpose is to make complex subjects understandable. When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand.

The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.

Clarity is also essential when numbers and statistics are involved. It is essential to avoid confusion and to take care to properly grasp the numbers used.

The use of certain highly charged words can undermine credibility and merits special consideration. Language is constantly evolving. We will be attentive to shifts in the meaning of words. We consult language resources and editorial management as needed to grasp the impact of expressions that are open to multiple interpretations and capable of offending some audience members.

I agree with Mr. Graves that you raise an interesting point about the nature of any military aid. It is also worth considering if using jargon of any institution means also adopting the point of view of that institution. Language should be as precise as possible, accessible to members of the public, and be accurate. The term non-lethal aid actually has some policy implications and its use had a precise meaning in that context. Governments have rules about what kind of aid they will send to various regimes. In some cases, weapons and materiel would be prohibited but other kinds of assistance would be permitted. In an article in Foreign Policy, entitled “What Exactly is ‘non-lethal’ aid? , the answer given is “Anything not designed to kill. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for bloody ends.”

Context matters. The actual sentence in the article you questioned was this: “Tuesday’s announcement is part of the $578 million in support Canada has provided to Ukraine, ranging from loan commitments to non-lethal military aid.” The meaning is accurate and clear. Canada is providing training, first aid kits, protective gear. The piece gives enough context for a reader to understand its meaning. It is also clear that this is military support being given to a country involved in a conflict. The language is “simple and concrete” and used in context. There is no violation of CBC News journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman