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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

On Language and War — Updated With Cool Link

This post came out of recent YA reading, but is not directly related to the usual themes of this blog.

Last week we read war books in my YA classes — Ryan Smithson’s Ghosts of War; Walter Dean Myers, Sunrise at Falujah, Trent Reedy, Words in the Dust, Harry Mazer, The Last Mission; War Is — which Patty Campbell and I put together — then students wrote papers about how YA literature is dealing with war. The papers were interesting — many commented on the ambiguity of war today — we are fighting, but it is a volunteer army so the war may be very close or very distant for individual teenagers; we have been fighting for a decade — the conscious life of many teenagers — yet one of the main challenges of these wars is cultural understanding — getting to know peoples in Iraq or Afghanistan well enough so that we are not seen as outside invaders. We are fighting fierce enemies — who are not associated with a nation, or an army, and do not wear uniforms. We support our troops, yet are increasingly aware that they may never be able to tell us what they have been through. So we are a nation a war, and yet those wars results in constant questioning, self-reflection, cultural questioning, and psychological adjustment (much as, the wars in Iraq are, I claim, the very first wars in human history that soldiers had to fight with no liquor and no prostitutes, and with email home).

So war has become complex, and yet here at home, the language of war has taken over. Fights over budget, taxes, unions, pensions, abortion, gay marriage have all taken on the zero-sum, bellicose language of total victory or total defeat. We fight each other with the language of old fashioned war — with heroes on our sides and demons on the other — even as we fight overseas using the much more subtle language of conflict in which victory exists only in the “hearts and minds” of the people in whose countries we are fighting. It is as if we have muscled up as a nation — accepted that we are at war, but in the actual war realized that victory comes through insight as much as from ammunition. So where does that steroidal, combat-ready mentality go? Into fighting among ourselves. Why is it that we see ourselves as Red/Blue; Fox/John Stewart; Tea Party/Union — split into opposing camps — even as we train soldiers in how to speak respectfully to tribal elders in the hills of Afghanistan?

Somehow we have translated the language of war — which traditionally is directed against a hated enemy — into the language of politics — the way we speak about ourselves. Because the volunteer army keeps war distant for some we don’t feel the weight of war as a nation, and thus only see its impact in our rage-inflected clashes over money and social issues.

Have you all seen this — the language of lies used in politics today — the fog of war, only in domestic debate: