A Lexicon of “War (Redux):” Does Excessive Word Use Result in a Loss of Meaning?
A few days ago, overwhelmed by the endless violence and wars in our world, I wrote a brief and simple email to a number of Listservs where I listed a number of different adjectives preceding the word “war.” I did this somewhat impulsively as a catharsis for my own angst and anger at the fact that “wars” and violence had become commonplace. In one way or another, the word “war” had become part of our daily vernacular and popular culture. We had arrived at a place in language where virtually any conflict, disagreement, or contention was being labeled “war.”
I stated I was concerned that extensive number and widespread use of adjectives preceding the word “war” would somehow make us immune to its meaning — its horrible and tragic meaning. As a result, we would find ourselves accustomed to its use, and habituated to its significance. I felt under these circumstances, national policies and decisions regarding war could then be pursued without a full recognition or awareness of consequences. As we have seen, it is easy to start a war, and difficult to end one. When “war” in actuality, or in linguistic use, becomes a reflexive response to any contention, we are closed to other solutions.
Along the way of my explorations, I added with some degree of cynicism, that there were even “futile wars.” I noted this term seems to have escaped the vocabulary of our politicians. A few years ago, I published an article entitled: The United States of America: A “Culture of War.” I proposed that a cultural ethos had developed that was socializing war as a way-of-life in our society. I have attached a graphic figure from this article that captures the complexity of this processes involved as back and forth across ethos, macrosocial institutions, microsocial institutions, and individual psychological levels of organization and influence. We had become a society in which “war” was now considered an acceptable — even reflexive – response to disagreements.
As I proceeded with these thoughts, I began to list the different kinds of “war,” that had become part of our language use. I added a request to readers to make any additions they felt were appropriate. I expected only a few. But, in fact, email brought many replies that offered additions. We had, indeed, from a sociolinguistic perspective, developed a massive “lexicon of wars.” And, in my opinion, because of our indiscriminate use of the term “war,” we had become immune to its meaning.
I must admit, as I gathered the terms, I found myself “shocked” by the widespread use of the word “war.” Was it possible that within the context of our global era, replete with its increased inter-dependencies, we had come to find the tensions of competition for resources and survival itself, pushing us toward “wars” at all levels of interactions. In my opinion, a “versus” mentality had arisen that was pitting different people, organizations, nations, and products against one another in a win-lose arena. The tragedy of this situation, as we all know, is that there are never winners and losers in any war, only casualties and lifetime legacies of sadness, anger, and revenge. Thus, I share with you now, an updated and more comprehensive “lexicon of wars.”
Table 1: A Lexicon of Wars
just wars (jus ad bellum)
war to end war
wars against terrorism,
wars on poverty,
wars to end all wars
Voila! A lexicon of “wars.” With so many uses for the word “war,” is it any wonder that we our nation can enter wars so easily, with the full implications and consequences being lost on a public now habituated to the term from its daily use? For the record, there are now more than 30 international, state, and civil “hot” and “low intensity” wars throughout the world. Many wars are hidden from our awareness by using the terms “insurgencies,” “insurrections,” “rebellions,” “armed protests,” “uprisings,” “ethnic conflicts and cleansings.” It is only when we hear the word “genocide” that we seem to suddenly become alert to the horrors of all these conflicts. And yet, even that word seems to have lost our determination to act, especially when the victims are considered our “enemies.”
These terms hide the suffering, grief, and deaths that are now part of daily life across our globe. Human survival, as well as the survival of all life on our planet is threatened with extinction unless we can begin to end the sources of war that reside in widespread national, institutional, and structural abuses, oppression, exploitation, and the denial of dignity. We must cease the designation and labeling of others as “enemies,” (“enemification”), and begin to first ask whether that process itself empowers us to be the source of “wars.” If we seek peace, then let it begin first with a widespread awareness of our own individual, societal, and national contributions to “wars” with all of their destructive human, political, economic, environmental, and, and moral consequences.
A special thank you to all readers who contributed additions to the list that eluded me. They are noted in bold print.
Also a special salute to the Brazilian poet/scholar, Francisco Cardoso Gomes de Matos, who pointed out that there is no “nonkilling” war.
And from Tom Greening – our popular choice as “Poet Laureate for Peace:”
“A HAPPY WAR”
Pacifism’s such a bore—
I’m going to design a war
that even peaceniks won’t abhor,
with pretty bombs and rosy gore,
songs that stir you to your core,
and moral stands you can’t ignore.
There’ll be no terror any more
when I’ve designed my happy war.
Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Mar 2013.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: A Lexicon of “War (Redux):” Does Excessive Word Use Result in a Loss of Meaning?, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
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