GLOSSARY / A warlord is a warlord is a warlord

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A READER writes asking for some explanation of the sudden ubiquity of the word 'warlord'1 . The ingenuous reply would be that it has been an unusually good year for warlords, a species that thrives on the breakdown of central authority. But that is not the real point of the letter. 'Why introduce yet another prejudicial noun?', Martin Considine asks, when journalists and readers already have their work cut out negotiating words like 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter'?

He points out that Mohamed Farah Aideed has a more formal title (President of the Somali National Alliance, apparently) and goes on: 'If this noun is to be a permanent feature of the vocabulary of the British press, I do look forward to its use to describe Messrs Clinton and/or Major when the next shot of anger is fired by an American or British soldier on international duty.'

This conveniently ignores the crucial fact that most warlords have achieved their positions through the bullet rather than the ballot, but there is a real point there and it is one that is likely to get sharper if the Western powers ever take military action in Bosnia. It will not be long after that, I guess, before we discover that some warlords (those who see no immediate advantage in killing our troops) turn out to be 'local community leaders' or 'militia commanders'.

At the moment, though, I think the word can be defended. It first entered English (in 1856) as a direct translation of the German Kriegsherr, a formal title for the German emperor, but it came into its own in describing the turbulent2 state of Chinese politics in the early part of this century. The OED gives this crisp description: 'a military commander who had a regional power base and ruled independently of the central government'.

So 'warlord' has as precise a meaning as it can in the circumstances, given that a warlord is a political amphibian, exploiting the swampy uncertainty of countries without civil authority. As one writer on China put it, the warlord's respect for central government was 'proportioned inversely to the size of his army and his distance from the capital'.

In her wonderful book Wild Swans, Jung Chang (whose grandmother was a concubine3 to a local warlord) describes a Christian general called Feng Yu-xiang who is said to have carried out a mass baptism of his troops with a firehose. This is an almost perfect image of warlordism - of the way they combine an affection for ceremony and the symbols of authority while feeling free to interpret them any way they see fit. Warlords are fond of uniforms and badges of rank but tend to dispense with the inconvenient bits of army life, such as discipline in the field or rules of engagement.

It is true that 'warlord' has its disadvantages - not least the faint air of Dungeons and Dragons that hangs about the word. I have a horrible feeling as well that bloodthirsty psychopaths would probably enjoy the title. But a better alternative is not immediately obvious. 'Militia commander' is fine as far as it goes, but does not convey the sense of an armed politician, volatile in his loyalties and potentially as dangerous to his sponsor as to his enemies.

You could argue too that even-handed contempt might sometimes be a better journalistic policy than even-handed neutrality. A colleague recalls a typical difficulty facing journalists covering the war in Beirut. Should they describe one prominent figure with his own private army as 'Minister of Tourism' (at one time his official position) or, as he seemed to them to be, 'a power-crazed coke-head' (a little conspicuous in news reports)? Between the fantastic unreality of the formal title and the bitter accuracy of the informal one, 'warlord' represented a pretty good compromise.

Verbal sobriety in news reports is probably the safest option, but can sometimes obscure the truth rather than protect it. Some occasions demand 'prejudicial nouns', not their equivocating alternatives. If we do have occasion to form some uncomfortable alliances in Bosnia, I hope 'warlord' will continue to be used, whether the well-armed bully is on our side or theirs.

1. War, from the Old High German werra, confusion or discord, which gives rise to the French guerre and Spanish guerra. Lord derives from the Old English hlaford, a compound of hlaf (bread) and weard (keeper).

2. From the Latin turbulentus, full of commotion, restless. Cf turba (crowd) and turbare (to disturb).

3. Latin con (with) and cubare (to lie down, lie asleep).