A short dictionary of war terminology

Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, looks at how the language used to describe war – including that in Ukraine – can mislead and obscure the situation. He provides a short guide for cutting through the information fog.

Responsible Science blog, 26 August 2022

It’s often said that the first casualty of war is truth so, as the six-month anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine passes, I thought it would be useful to reflect how the war – and the weapons being used – have been described by politicians, journalists, commentators, and military figures depending on whose side they support. And it’s also useful to look at parallels between this and other wars.

Hence, I’ve put together the table below which lists phrases and descriptions I’ve noticed these figures using – and classified them according to whether they’re describing ‘our’ nation’s activities – i.e. their own or an allied nation – or ‘their’ nation’s activities – i.e. those of an opposing or rival nation. I’ve then added a ‘translation’ for each. [1]

Some of the terms will be familiar to those who regularly monitor war communications, such as ‘freedom fighters’ versus ‘terrorists’, or the military term ‘collateral damage’ being used to gloss over civilian casualties. Others, however, such as ‘fighting in the grey zone’ are much more recent developments.

In this particular war, there are elements that I’ve found striking. For example, there are parallels between the terms used by the Vladimir Putin government to justify and describe this illegal invasion and those used by the George W Bush government concerning the illegal US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Another is the use of terms to describe weapons and their deployment. So there are similarities between Putin’s nuclear threats and, for example, past nuclear threats made by the US and UK governments. A further example is the use of the term ‘precision weapon’ to describe a guided bomb or missile. Even if electronic guidance systems for some of this equipment are more accurate than in the past, is it really reasonable to describe weapons carrying (typically) half a tonne of explosives as precision?

The table emphases the importance of looking beyond nationalist rhetoric to both the complexity of the political roots of conflict and the human suffering and environmental damage caused by all wars. As the war in Ukraine continues to drag on, causing immense suffering both inside Ukraine and far beyond through its economic shocks, the importance of finding a political breakthrough to end the fighting has never been greater.

Table – A short dictionary of war terminology

‘Our’ nation’s activities

‘Their’ nation’s activities



Military disinformation

Fake news/ lies

Deliberately misleading information or withholding of information to gain a military advantage

Special military operation/ war to defend our vital national interests

War of aggression/ invasion

Military attack on a rival nation – generally pre-emptive or otherwise in breach of international law

Defence forces/ defence services

War machine

Military/ armed forces

Collateral damage

War crimes

Civilian deaths and injuries, and/or damage to homes/ civilian infrastructure, during war


Nuclear deterrence

Nuclear intimidation/ nuclear terrorism/ nuclear bullying

Military strategy using nuclear weapons

Precision weapons

Destructive weapons

Missiles or bombs with some form of guidance system designed to increase the chances of accurately hitting a target

Air power


Combat aircraft, capable of firing missiles or dropping bombs



Firing of ammunition shells from ground-based (artillery) or sea-based armaments

Unmanned aerial vehicles

Attack drones

Robotic aircraft piloted remotely, often with some autonomous capabilities, sometimes armed

Stand-off weapons

Offensive weapons

Long-range missiles used to destroy targets with little risk to the forces using them, e.g. cruise missiles

Improvised explosive devices

Petrol bombs, road-side bombs

Homemade explosives, e.g. Molotov cocktails, mobile phone-triggered explosives

Defence industry

War profiteers

Military technology industry/ arms industry


Our brave boys (and girls)/ patriotic soldiers

Brainwashed conscripts/ unquestioning soldiers/ grunts

Professional soldiers/ military personnel

Freedom fighters


Irregular forces, i.e. citizens not part of an official military

Private military operatives/ protective agents

Soldiers of fortune/ hired guns

Mercenaries, e.g. combatants contracted by a private company


Supporting a war that defends our vital national interests

Engaging in a proxy war/ dirty war

Supporting/ funding/ supplying forces of another nation/ non-state group to fight a war which serves the patron’s interests

Hybrid war

Fighting in the grey zone/ sub-threshold warfare/ dirty war

Use of unconventional forces for coercion, e.g. irregular forces, mercenaries, cyber warfare


Dr Stuart Parkinson is executive director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR). Formerly an engineer in the arms industry, he has written on peace and conflict issues for over 20 years.


1. I don’t claim this as a robust academic exercise, merely a subjective monitoring of the media over the last six months and beyond.

Some further reading

Edwards D, Cromwell D (2022). Doubling Down On Double Standards – The Ukraine Propaganda Blitz. Media Lens. https://www.medialens.org/2022/doubling-down-on-double-standards-the-ukraine-propaganda-blitz/

Forceswatch (2022). Location vs Doctrine: hybrid warfare and the grey zone.

Rai M (2022). How the West paved the war for Russia’s nuclear threats over Ukraine. Peace News. https://peacenews.info/blog/2022/how-west-paved-way-russias-nuclear-threats-over-ukraine-0

Sinclair I (2016). Dangerous omissions and intellectual obfuscation: the ‘left-wing’ case for Trident. Open Democracy.  https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/dangerous-omissions-and-intellectual-obfuscation-left-wing-case-for-trident/


[image credit: Alexa via Pixabay]

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