This article was submitted to the member forum. Since it touches on the issue of language, which Jules raised below, we're moving it here.
Language is the most powerful tool ever invented. Its simultaneous precision and malleability provide infinite possibilities of expression, whether it’s through poetry, mathematics, music, or W-2 income tax forms. People use language to define their world, explore their reality, and share in the human experience. The English language is especially fun. With over a billion words at their disposal, acrobatic English speakers can tell the same story a million different ways, exploring alternative nuances and subtle meanings all the while. Using inappropriately high or inappropriately low language can also obfuscate the actual circumstances of a given situation--granted this is often done inadvertently and without much consequence. It is the deliberate misuse of language that is far more insidious and far more troubling.
Language can elevate people towards shared truth and beauty, it can also be manipulated, used to deceive people and contort reality instead of making it understandable. Saying “I love you” can have much more significance and meaning than a kiss alone, but and saying “I love you” without meaning it can be all the more devastating than a kiss that has been wasted. The significance of language, and corresponding trust that people place in the spoken word is invaluable, and yet also prone to manipulation. It is the trust that people place in words, a person’s dependence on words to define consciousness, that in his open letter, On Evasive Thinking, Vaclav Havel makes a very telling observation:
Notice, for example, how often the words we use these days are more important than what we are talking about. The word—as such—has ceased to be a sign for a category, and has gained a kind of occult power to transform one reality into another.
In Havel’s 1960s Czechoslovakia, any and all bad news was reported in deliberately obfuscating ways. When Czechs voiced their concerns about neglected infrastructure and crumbling buildings that dropped window ledges onto the civilians below, they were chided for their “disproportionality” in not concerning themselves with more global affairs, with higher and mightier concerns than the wellbeing of their little villages. The Czechs would be patronized with lofty language about higher causes and more pressing global concerns. This would continue for a little while until the public’s collective anger subsided, and then nothing would be done to address the problem.
This simple manipulation of information is not just a bygone tactic of Soviet propagandizing. Purposefully inflated and confusing prose has now become the norm in describing U.S. military operations, where the select use both of euphemisms and exceedingly technical lingo combine to leave one totally bamboozled as to what is happening in combat zones. In his Counterinsurgency Guidance issued on Aug. 1st of 2010, General David Petraeus requested that, in order to “earn the people’s trust,” U.S. soldiers should, “Walk. Stop by, don’t drive by. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population.” Unfortunately, this approach has resulted in the frequent occurrence of “dismounted complex blast injuries,” a new and separately recognized form of injury defined as, “an explosion-induced battle injury sustained by a warfighter on foot patrol that produces a specific pattern of wounds. In particular, it involves traumatic amputation of at least one leg, a minimum of severe injury to another extremity, and pelvic, abdominal or urogenital wounding (emphasis added).” These injuries are caused by “improvised explosive devices” that are sustained by our “peace-keeping/counter-insurgency forces” while they are out trying to “win hearts and minds” and maybe, if they have to, “neutralize targets.”
One might expect this sort of dense bureaucratic word swamp on tax forms or home-ownership leases, but not as the mainstream presentation of what is happening to the military personnel fighting “to win hearts and minds.” Notice how the cliché objective, “to win hearts and minds,” is stated so pleasantly, so simply, and so clearly. It’s supposed to leave us without the faintest idea of what the troops are actually doing, while giving us some peace of mind and the assurance that the U.S. military is conducting itself with compassion and understanding. Meanwhile, it is terribly unfortunate that, while walking around outside of their big expensive impersonal armored vehicles, American soldiers are suffering “dismounted complex blast injuries.”
The American public is fed its dosage of sanitized language about American soldiers neutralizing targets (instead of killing them; they’re just making them neutral, like true peace-keepers) and encountering improvised devices that give them complex blast injuries. What are the soldiers particularly doing? People aren’t quite sure. What is happening to the soldiers? We don’t know; it’s complex. What’s causing these complexities? We don’t know, some sort of improvised thing. Behind the off-putting rhetoric lies the clandestine reality: young American soldiers are being compelled to get out of their vehicles and walk around talking to a hostile populace. While doing this, they step on crude bombs that are blowing off their legs, hands, fingers, and genitalia, leaving them maimed and sterile for the rest of their lives.
Despite all of America’s technology and her determination to fight the clean fight, young men and women are sustaining heinous injuries from comparably primitive forces, and there’s not too much that can protect them. This is the truth from which the American public is being protected. It is a depressing and unjust reality, one deemed to be incommunicable to the public, and one that is thus buried in enough vernacular to make it inaccessible to the casual reader of the news.
Americans are increasingly disillusioned with the Middle East democracy project. Every crude bomb that disfigures a dismounted soldier is another point against the project. So American hearts and minds must be dimmed by the extremely convoluted presentation and results of America’s war-making policies. While remarking on the crumbling infrastructure in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel writes, “We need to only use the magic word…and something unforgivably half-baked is suddenly not only excused but may even be raised to the level of an historical necessity.” The unpleasant truth behind military policy and the devaluing of its soldiers is certainly half-baked, but with enough puffy and sweet words the public is expected to believe that it is delicious. The American public is not trusted with the truth, and a people that are kept in ignorance are kept in a kind of bondage. People kept in bondage are not people being treated with dignity.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the lack of recognition that the wounded soldiers receive. Even though the military is now diverting funds to develop and attract urogenital reconstructive surgeons, these men and women are still casualties twice over. To make it more bearable and acceptable, the tragedy and humanity of a soldier’s injuries is disguised. They have been maimed while trying to win Afghan hearts and minds, and now their dignity is the casualty in the war to win American hearts and minds. The startlingly mortal American soldiers are not being mutilated by homemade bombs in Afghanistan. They’re sustaining casualties in the form of complex blast injuries from explosive devices, which is much more appropriate. But when the soldier is disguised, and what he is doing is disguised, and what is happening to him is disguised, his dignity is lost. He has become an ambiguous, faceless piece of a complex linguistic equation that only suffices to describe the sustained disrespect for life in the current culture. If they believe in a cause enough to volunteer life and limb in its defense, and if we wish to honor them, than we owe them and the American public the unfiltered truth.