I was raised in a family with a fondness for hyperbole. My father never could seem to say, “I like this because so-and-so,” instead he favored “everybody says this is the very finest thing in the world.” For stuff he didn’t like, the reverse was true, and the object in question became a hideous affront to nature that nobody had any respect for. For instance, my dad who had, after all, been raised in Oklahoma in the thirties, reacted violently to the very idea of the film “Brokeback Mountain.” He informed me that he saw no lines of people waiting to see it when it played at our tiny local movie theater and he was convinced that nobody wanted to see it. Anywhere.
For once I had a response that seemed to work, beyond the observation that the film had won several awards. I said “dad, repeat after me: ‘if I don’t like something, that doesn’t automatically mean that it sucks.’”
I admit that I was surprised to hear him respond with “I guess I’m just too old-fashioned for that sort of thing.”
For him, that was a big step.
It’s a trigger for me, this urge to overinflate the subject of every conversation, I have great respect for language and I want more nuance and variation than the kind of bluster that turns even a thing of beauty into a zero sum game. I reject the notion that there’s always a winner and a loser in every story. Black and white without the richness of color is too easy and ignores too much. Keep this in mind when I say that the cheapening, the simplifying of the word “war” is especially troubling.
There’s been a war on drugs, a war on Christmas, a war on Christians, a war on poverty, a war on coal, and - most confusingly - a war on terror. To declare war is to accept terror as part of everyday life.
War isn’t just the missiles soaring into the night sky to the sound of inspirational music; war is the village where the missiles land. War isn’t a body count, it’s naming the dead. War isn’t a “support our troops” bumper sticker either, it’s standing up to the granite-brained loudmouth in the TSA line at the airport who sees a wounded soldier pushed to the head of the line in his wheelchair and says “see, that’s the way to go through security!”
That happened, by the way. Someone behind me in line said just that, after loudly whining for what seemed like an eternity about the vacation in the tropics he had waiting for him. I heard myself say “do you want to trade places with that young man? Because I think a lot of people here would love to see you do that.”
My mother taught me not to lose my temper like that, but the training doesn’t always work. To be fair, she was known for saying exactly that sort of thing when she was angry. I like to think she taught me well.
War, the real thing, is Gallipoli, Antietem, Dunkirk. War is butchery, immeasurable loss, a brutal, ugly mess, a destruction of culture, and goddammit, not a business model or a Hallmark card. In a real war, nobody wins but those who stand to make money from it.
To be clear, I don’t want to imply that our elected officials or their speechwriters are careless in their choice of words. In fact, they’re perfectly conscious. They know the power in the words. To go to war is to admit that diplomacy hasn’t worked, and the time for conversation has passed. Now it’s time to take sides. We listen to the speeches and find ourselves grilling hot dogs on Memorial Day with our friends and relatives while trying not to mention politics, because we know that when we do we’ll instantly be at each other’s throats. The word has power. To use it is to become the terrible thing that war truly is.
One final thought; the rhetoric of war is everywhere. When I was a cancer patient, my life became infinitely more complicated for a time, and I was soon exhausted by the constant description of me as someone who was “battling cancer.” Every cancer patient is automatically involved in a battle now. Personally, as a cancer patient I didn’t want to think of myself as being at war with my own body. It’s a useful image for many, but it wasn’t for me. My close friends and family knew that and avoided the cliché. Most people though, the ones I didn’t know well, they returned to the battleground whenever the subject came up.
It’s okay, I know the drill – back to the war phraseology again – but on this Memorial Day weekend and all days to come, I just feel the need to welcome my fellow human beings back to the conversation table, where I plan to treat “war” as the thing it really is – something to avoid at all costs.