I grow increasingly irritated, like a grain of sand in my shoe, when people who make a living talking misuse ordinary words. I am especially enraged when these word merchants—politicians, journalists, newscasters, pundits of all sorts—without exception refer to over 60 months of horror killing in Iraq as war.
It breaks my heart that more than four thousand young Americans have been killed and over 20,000 severely wounded in Iraq but my grief turns into rage when I hear “war” used again and again no matter the context to refer to our military occupation of that God-forsaken country.
Words not only name, they also classify and so, when word merchants unanimously misclassify the quagmire in Iraq as a war they are slovenly, mischievous, careless or worse. To talk war where there is no war is a suicidal cognitive act; it kills the ability to distinguish between murder and justified killing.
I am not agitated by metaphoric usage— war on drugs, war on poverty, war on crime. Also, I’ve learned, with effort, to keep my cool when word merchants in lock step with Bush talk about a war on terror. Terror is extreme fear and we need to control fear; fear, FDR cautioned, is the only thing we need to fear. Okay, it’s weird syntax but where’s the harm, I ask myself, in making war on fear?
Language is a dynamic thing; it changes with time. Some words die out and some acquire new meaning. For instance, political bashing has caused a reversal of meaning for certain words—“liberal” and “elite” were once complimentary but are now pejorative. Furthermore, I don’t think I’m nit-picking—as when I object to being called Marv—and even if I am, then the nit I pick here and now has both historical precedent and deadly consequences.
In an essay that has grown in influence during the five decades since he wrote it George Orwell noted that language is connected to thought and that the words we use become “… ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish…” (“Politics and the English Language”). Surely Orwell, no stranger to war, would deem “war” in reference to Iraq as ugly and inaccurate.
To some extent Christine Kenneally recently updated Orwell. After surveying a variety of studies linking naming, a linguistic act, with thinking, a cognitive act, she concluded that “For the most part naming enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too” (The New York Times, April 22). Indeed it can.
The “war on terror” not only trips us up, it’s used as a bludgeon, to silence dissent (the Patriot Act), to justify excessive executive powers, to legalize torture (enhanced interrogation techniques), to advance personal ambition, and to enrich the rich, for example, by spending more to defeat “a ragtag band of terrorists than (was spent)…in the Korean and Vietnam wars” (“Indefensible Spending,” Robert Scheer, L.A. Times, June 1).
To my mind, however, the most egregious misuse of “war” is in talking about the brutal, barbaric, horrific, purposeless and costly killing that has gone on for far too long in Iraq. Bush and word merchants who follow him tell us he is a wartime president. “The nation is at war.” (Bush gave up golf but most of us gave up nothing). “The president has wartime powers.” (He can wiretap whomever he wants). “Iraq is a war zone” (It’s ruled by officials protected by our military). These twisted usages of “war” would be comical were they not so stupendously tragic.
To be sure, there is mass killing: Iraqis kill our soldiers; our soldiers kill Iraqis; Iraqis kill Iraqis. Iraq is a dangerous place for everyone.
No one denies that we have enemies who will kill us any way they can even if doing so means killing themselves; after all, Iraqis see our military running and over-running their homeland. Furthermore, the logic is clear: war means killing soldiers but killing soldiers does not necessarily mean war.
Words matter; “quagmire” is not as exotic as “war,” but it is certainly more accurate. “War” does not name an object that, like “a rose,” remains the same even if renamed. “War,” properly used, names the activity of two military forces mortally engaged against one another.
The enemy in Iraq does not wear uniforms or carry a flag, which means our soldiers have targets only when they are targeted. Our occupying force is equipped with the most advanced weaponry the world has ever seen. Our enemies, on the other hand, have only the weapons they can carry or make at home. This is the sense in which the mess in Iraq is not war, the sense in which misusing “war” sets me ballistic;
Finally, consider the fact that although the commander-in-chief is the principal swinger of the bludgeon of “war” he wants to keep from view those tragic but inevitable consequences of our military actions in another’s country, the coffins in which his soldiers’ dead bodies are returned home.
A few weeks ago the highest ranking casualty in Iraq was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The family of Marine Lt. Colonel Billy Hall invited the press to cover the ceremony, yet the Corps arranged that “…no sound and few images would make it into the public domain” (Washington Post, April 23). Journalists were not allowed closer than two hundred yards of the burial cite. Thus, the commander-in-chief wants to have his cake and eats it too.
There is a straight line connecting “war” to mendacity and—given the lies offered to justify the Iraq invasion—the line traces back, from mendacity to “war.”
Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.