English is a mongrel language. It has been influenced by conquerors and conquered alike. It borrows and cherry picks terms from around the globe and embraces them as if they were its own progeny. But for all this dynamism, English is also a very limited language. Unlike some other tongues, we do not have subtleties of meaning built into our lexicon. I fear that this is particularly true of this most modern form of English. Take for example the word is love. We love our dear ones. But we also love our favorite entertainers. Likewise we love chocolate. Even in disgust or disappointment we say, “I love it!” as a sarcastic expression of our utter revulsion at something. Small wonder that ours is described as the most difficult language in which to achieve fluency.
One of the axioms of my life is that words have power. The words we choose affect how we look at the world as well as how we interact with it. This brings me to an interesting point. Have you noticed that, in the decades since the end of the Second World War, we’ve seen military terms insinuate themselves into our every day speech? Terms such as tactical, strategic, mission, interdict , attrition, deploying [as in assets, resources, new technology, etc], surgical strike, and collateral damage are all commonly used in advertising, corporate documents, self help books, – well – the list goes on virtually forever. It seems to me that his militarization of our language is fraught with potential consequences. My all time least favorite is the expression, “war on”. I think that this attempt to describe an all out effort to effect change is among the most dangerous expressions in militarized American English.
Of all the sages throughout time who have written on the topic of war, perhaps the best known in our country is von Clausewitz. Among other aphorisms, he said that, “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.” and that it is “an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” War is not diplomacy. Diplomacy strives to achieve at least the semblance of an equitable balance of needs and interests. War, which is the failure of diplomacy, seeks to clearly define a winner and a loser; an us and a them.
In war there is an absolute need to bolster the will to win by denigrating, demonizing, or dehumanizing one’s opponents and their supporters. If a warring party looks upon the “enemy” as being human, of value, even empathetic, they weaken their ability to compel the fulfillment of will through violence. Only the most egregious, the most recalcitrant, those most beyond reason are deserving of violence. And that’s what has spurred my thoughts about declaring “war on” everything.
Having a war on poverty, disease, drugs, or whatever, provides us with a focus for our efforts. What worries me most is the tendency to see people in poverty, on drugs, with disease as being part of the problem rather than casualties of it. Thus, through this process of extension, they become only worthy of our contempt, not our empathy or our assistance.
I cannot imagine anyone actually aspiring to be impoverished, addicted, or afflicted. It is inconceivable that some child would write in their ‘when I grow up I want to be’ assignment , “I want to be homeless, drug addicted, or have a disease.” Yet, when we declare ‘war on’ these social ills, we run the risk of effectively relegating their victims to this kind of rubbish heap thinking.
So what can we do? I suggest that we all try, in our daily thought and speech, to eschew these militarized terms. Let’s all make the effort to recognize these problems for what they are, social ills. And lastly, let’s all turn our minds to finding effective, social methods of addressing them. Remember, our Nation’s founders argued against the establishment of a standing army. They certainly forbade its use against our own citizens. Instead, they urged us in the preamble to the Constitution to “provide for the common good”. Rather than making war on social ills, let’s make those founders proud by applying industry, charity, and education to redressing them.