Saturday, August 29, 2009

communal conversation

I've reached the age of communal conversation in which enough people trying to remember together eventually come up with the word none of us can think of alone.

Monday, August 24, 2009

IRS by any other name

misread a headline today as Internal Revenge Service

Friday, August 14, 2009

exerpt from War is Not a Game: David Wilson's story

David Wilson, former Army sergeant & resister of sorts....
by Nan Levinson

Regardless of the official response, nearly all applicants for Conscientious Objection describe being ostracized by their peers and their chain of command and isolated at a particularly stressful time of their lives. David Wilson, an Army sergeant stationed in Kuwait before the invasion, emailed me after he turned in his CO packet that “people in my unit won’t look at me or they give me the evil eye.”

Wilson’s story is his alone, but it follows a familiar trajectory for soldiers who applied for conscientious objection early in the war, from his solo navigation of the process without the knowledgeable guidance of counselors who might have made it easier, to the Army’s maze of obstacles, to the disdain he came to have for the military mission in Iraq and the politicians who created it.

He grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father taught at the Citadel, his mother was a vocational high school principal, and his family worshiped at the Baptist church. (His faith is now in mountain biking.) Looking for money to pay off debt and to return to school, he enlisted in the Army in 2000 at the relatively late age of thirty. He was self-reliant, fit, and sure of himself, so he had no problem holding his own with the other, much younger enlistees. By the time he was sent to Kuwait in February 2003, he had risen to sergeant and was assigned to the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command as an electronic warfare technician.

Wilson and I were introduced by another soldier in his unit, who had gotten out as a CO before the invasion. We exchanged emails in March and April of 2003 and resumed emailing, his preferred mode of communication, six years later. We didn’t know each other and, as with all these exchanges, he had nothing to gain by answering my questions, but answer he did, diligently, promptly and fully, even when his personal time was limited on the Army's computers in Kuwait.

Six weeks after he arrived there and one week before the invasion of Iraq, he wrote: “My position on going to war with Iraq is difficult to describe. I have no problem fighting off an oppressive govt. I have no problem blowing someone’s head off if they are trying to rob my house or harm my family. I do have a problem with a govt that uses its army to achieve those goals. I have a problem with a govt. that does not pay attention to actions it is taking that harm the Constitution that I was sworn to defend.”

A month later, still in Kuwait, it was a different story, as he wrote on drunkcyclist, a friend’s blog. “I hear missiles flying overhead and I get interviewed by CNN as they do a documentary. I feel relief when the A10s hit the persistent launcher in Basra with a missile. Then I get real angry. I wish bad things on those who do what they think is right for America.”

Friday, August 7, 2009

Can you kill one troop?

The appeal of using the word troops to stand in for soldiers, marines, sea- and airmen and women, not to mention the coast guard, which no one does, is demonstrated in this sentence. Journalists need to write succinctly (note to the publicity-conscious: if you want to show up in news reports, get a job title that's shorter than 4 words) and at the same time be inclusive of all manner and gender of military personnel -- another awkward term. So we get "Three U.S. troops killed in Iraq's Basra" from Reuters, and "Pentagon Plans to Send More Than 12,000 Additional Troops to Afghanistan" from US News and World Report to cite just 2 of hundreds of similar headlines. (With 4430 U.S. soldiers, marines, etc. killed in Iraq and 773 in Afghanistan as of today, and nearly 200,000 stationed in those countries, we have many occasions for the phrasing.)

"Troops killed" is short, nasty and brutish -- which is the problem. The collective noun erases the individual and smooths over the specificity of the lives interrupted and the deaths that have resulted from the wars. Troops don't seem like people -- maybe not to them either.

Journalism stylebooks say that
troop used in the singular means a group of people, while the plural, troops, means several groups. They give their blessing to using troops to describe a large number of individuals -- it's understood to mean individuals, they say -- but what constitutes a large number isn't specified. AP and the New York Times stylebooks, industry standards, note that "Three troops were killed" is a no-no. Apparently a lot of headline writers and reporters didn't get the memo.

I'm not sure what a useful alternative would be. The dead get turned into
casualties, the deployed into battalions or brigades (and, yes, Iraqis and Afghans are enemies when alive and have beeen dismissed as collateral damage when we've killed them, but that's a rant for another occasion). That's how the language works and we understand, don't we? But the collective term also dehumanizes the people we're talking about, making it easier for the vast majority of Americans who have nothing to do with anyone currently in the military to forget that these are mostly young, often unformed, sometimes bored, usually scared men and women and maybe making it easier for them to become dehumanized when they're sent into misbegotten fights that baffle and outrage them.