The language we use

I have never been a soldier. I have never gone to war. I am of the age of those who went to the War in Vietnam - almost. By almost, I mean that those born in my birth year were summoned for the draft, we had lottery numbers assigned. Mine was 11. We were ordered to report for induction physicals and then before we were ordered to report for duty the draft was ended by congress. The war continued for a few more years with a mixture of volunteers and the who had already been drafted. My experiences of war come second-hand. I have played the trumpet since I was ten years old. Through my high school years, I was our community’s designated bugler for military funerals. I marched in all of the parades with the veterans. I played taps at ceremonies, and I attended the graveside rites of the victims of that war who were buried in our community cemetery.

Then not long afterwards I began my formal counseling training, interning first with a Chicago-based community counseling service and next with a health care center in suburban Hinsdale, Illinois. I began to encounter those who had suffered the trauma of war. Those days were followed by my becoming a pastor. For the next forty plus years I have been invited to the bedside of those who are nearing the end of their lives. Early in my career I noticed a pattern, common with the veterans of World War II, who were the age of my parents. I would be alone with an elder, perhaps one who was facing a serious illness, and I would hear, “I’ve never told anyone before, but . . .” Those words were almost always followed by a war story. Many of those stories were of things that had been witnessed that were traumatic. As my skills of listening improved, I began to hear more and more war stories. For someone who has never been to war, I have certainly heard a lot of reports of friends suddenly dying, of human bodies blown apart or cut down by bullets, of the death of innocents and of the scenes of the aftermath of battle.

I know enough to know that everyone who participates in a war is a victim. Those who survive carry with them trauma for the rest of their lives. There are no winners in a war, only losers. Of course the human spirit is amazingly resilient. There are people who served in wars who went on to lead amazing lives and contribute deeply to the quality of life for others. There are leaders who have emerged from war who have guided nations. There are plenty of everyday citizens who have served in countless service organizations and benefitted communities. But war extracts a heavy price.

Over the years we have seen the term war applied to ventures that are not related to armed conflict between nations. Back before the end of the War in Vietnam, President Nixon gave a speech to Congress in which he declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” Shortly afterward the phrase war on drugs became popular on television and in other media. While there have certainly been tragic deaths due to drug abuse and while the system of illegal drug distribution has definitely been weaponized with lethal guns and ammunition, the term war doesn’t really fit. You can’t cure an addition with weapons. Military tactics have proven insufficient to decrease the profits of illegal trade. The opioid crisis in our country illustrates clearly that using the language of war doesn’t work well to address the issues of addiction.

Following the attacks of 9-11, the term war on terrorism became common. Once again, the problem with that war was the lack of definition of the enemy. It is one thing if a group of people or a nation is declared an enemy. When an ideology is the named enemy, weapons of destruction are less effective. The war on terror has certainly resulted in enormous numbers of innocent victims - collateral damage is the term that is sometimes used. There are some who argue that terrorism is the result of war and that using military weapons to combat terrorism creates more terrorists. I am no expert, but I am a user of and observer of how others use language. Like the war on drugs, using military language in an attempt to decrease terrorism doesn’t always work.

And now we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. I can see why leaders are drawn to use war language when addressing our situation. A virus, much smaller than a single human cell, can cause great distress. There are victims and body bags and pain and suffering. Like a military conflict, logistics and the distribution of supplies is a major undertaking and supply line failures have dramatic results in terms of death and human suffering.

I think, however, that it is a misnomer to use the language of war in this struggle. We will emerge from this particular threat by employing a large number of different tools. Compassionate and intelligent treatment of those who suffer illness is essential, but the skillset of medical practitioners in helping people deal with a virus is much different from the skills needed to heal the trauma of military conflict. Surgery is not a tool for viral infection. At some point in our struggle a vaccine will be developed and it will work with this specific virus. There are other treatments that may emerge from the study of antibodies developed in the systems of those who have recovered from the illness. More novel therapies will be developed. The path beyond this crisis doesn’t seem to favor pursuing our current actions as if we were going to war.

Those who have survived war often report of their experiences of drawing together with others, of forming strong bonds with their teammates, of learning to trust and rely on others. In the face of this crisis, we are instructed to separate from one another, to maintain distance and to isolate ourselves.

We need new language for these times. Te metaphors and words of war don’t seem to work very well. I intend to continue to search out the language of healing as I think and write about these times.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!