Now Hear This - The Three-Letter Word

By Lieutenant (junior grade) Charlie Hymen, U.S. Navy

As the 2012 political campaign reaches fever pitch, political operatives and partisans will use language to vilify, demonize, and castigate individuals and policies that are unfavorable to their cause or not fully aware. For example, those who are wealthy become “elitists,” and revolutionary ideas suddenly become “outside the mainstream.” Similar slogans and sound bites continue to dominate our airwaves, and the use of the word “war” to rouse the masses on domestic issues has become commonplace.

In some ways, the word’s frequent and popular use is both understandable and not all that surprising. First, it is concrete. You can’t be neutral in a war; you’re either with the good guys or not. Second, those who fight wars are perceived as selfless ambassadors to their country who are “all in,” willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause. Third, it is inflammatory. It is difficult to mention war without inciting strong emotional reactions. Nearly every American carries a vivid image of war and its effects, even if they have only been exposed to it through television or the movies. The word conjures up a level of commitment that few others can. It elicits a diary of memories for some and a dictionary of emotions for all.

No one is saying that addressing our country’s struggle with alarmingly high rates of obesity and illiteracy is not important. Similarly, crime, drugs, and social inequalities also warrant our attention and should be confronted wherever they arise. Encouraging open dialogue about such problems makes our political system viable and sustainable, but using the word “war” rhetorically does a disservice to those who wage literal war in military conflict and to their families. Each time it is used metaphorically, its connotation is softened and its definition muddied. And each time, it becomes harder to reclaim the word’s literal meaning.

When our service members are sent to war, they know they and their peers may not come back. And even if they return physically unscathed, they often suffer from invisible wounds—a trend far too common among those returning from battle. Simply put, war mars lives. Protecting the meaning—and gravity—of the word is important.

As our nation draws down from Afghanistan, and the headlines telling of U.S. servicemen and women dying on the battlefield become less frequent, the costs of war may fade from America’s consciousness. The further removed we are, the harder it will be to recall war’s ugliness. The precision with which the popular media chronicle our contemporary wars will affect the next generation of leaders, whose ability to accurately recall the costs and effects of war will determine the attitude with which they address the potential for future armed conflict.

When we misuse or overuse this three-letter word to bring awareness to social causes, we make it harder to preserve its meaning. In fact, we cheapen the sacrifices of those who have actually seen war from the front lines. It is up to all of us, including our politicians and journalists, to choose our words judiciously and honor those who know war all too well.

Lieutenant Hymen, a surface warfare officer and 2009 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, has served in two destroyers, the USS Stockdale (DDG-106) as gunnery/force-protection officer, and the USS Kidd (DDG-100) in which he currently serves as navigator. He is a previous winner of the Commander William Earl Fannin, Class of 1945, Capstone Essay Contest.
 

 
 

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