Trust Hope and Charity

May 2004


This week's Ramblings discusses the power of words -- the way words are used to change the meanings of things -- and how this is especially the case for the word "war".

In today's mass communication world, words have never been more important, nor their meaning and purposes more obscure. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote "Talk," a poem concluding with the lines:

"How sharply our children will be ashamed
taking at last their vengeance for these horrors remembering
how in so strange a time common integrity could look like courage."

Most of the words we hear day-by-day serve the purpose of prodding us in some desired direction -- either to buy or to believe. These words are not said by people from their own hearts and minds, but dreamed up by professional bunko artists whose livelihood depends on our intellectual malleability.

A good case in point is the most recent scandal of horrors from Iraq -- the torturing of the unnamed and undefended prisoners in our detention camps. Listen to our leaders respond to the outcry over these crimes. They speak very precisely. They all use the same phrases, for they have been very carefully coached. Listen to the news commentaries and you hear the same descriptions and terminology you heard from the administration. If journalists use the terms provided in the official press releases, then they won't have anyone objecting.

Different people ask the same questions, time and time again. The same answers get repeated. Gradually the stink dissipates and the interviews get fewer and less intense. We brush another horror into history and do as little as possible about the problem and nothing whatsoever about its root cause. Eventually, it gets rewritten into official history and is forgotten. Our leaders count on this process. This is the chief methodology for defending the indefensible and maintaining a corrupt and unjust status quo.

The real point about these horrors -- the point that is never raised -- is that they are inevitable. It is part of war. Wars do this, always do this, and worse. This is why thoughtful people who see with clarity what war really is, abhor war, all wars. No matter how good and well-meaning people are, when put in the meat-grinding hate and absurdity of war, they lose the capacity to act justly, fairly, and kindly. Justice, fairness, and compassion are attributes of civilization that we prize. But they are attributes that make you vulnerable in war; they don't make you a good person in war, they make you a dead person.

Every time something like this escapes the cordon of secrecy around the battle line, I have the same hope: maybe some people will see past the verbiage of apology and outrage and see that the real problem is not a few bad apples, but that of a bad barrel that spoils any apples put into it.

We need to reclaim our ownership of words like war. War is not an expedient tactic that can be used by the righteous to do good. It is an ancient aberrant terror that has stalked humanity for all its history and spoils everything and everyone it touches. Seeing this fact with clarity is the only means we have of avoiding it and of correctly judging those leaders who would wage war, in our name, on fresh generations of innocents.

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