Talking the Real War: Jargon, Guilt, and Viet Nam Veteran Poetry

By Hill, Matthew | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

Talking the Real War: Jargon, Guilt, and Viet Nam Veteran Poetry


Hill, Matthew, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Jargon, War, and Responsibility

Describing the complex linguistic features of the representation of the first Gulf War, George Lakoff once wrote, with only scant hyperbole, that "metaphors can kill" (Lakoff "Metaphor"). Tracing the embedded metaphors involved in the rhetoric of the war, Lakoff argues that the way political leaders frame war metaphorically-as part of an appealing "fairy tale" narrative, a game, medicine, or a rational business model (Lakoff "Metaphor")-in many ways influences how people understand war. In Lakoff's view, metaphors, often operating unseen, "limit what we notice, highlight what we do see, and provide part of the inferential structure that we reason with" (Lakoff "Metaphor"). Lakoff's comments on metaphor reveal one of the central difficulties in talking realistically about war's true physical, political, emotional, and psychological effects: the language often used to describe warparticularly by those wielding political power-is inherently one of analogy, euphemism, ellipsis, and oversimplification.

Killing, the "characteristic act of men at war," (Bourke 1) according to historian Joanna Bourke, is something often left out of political representations of war, masked by the language and metaphors of those discussing it. US troops in Iraq, for example, seek to destroy "insurgent infrastructure," (Grossman "An OODA Loop'") not to "kill Iraqi resisters." Civilians accidentally killed by air strikes are referred to as "collateral damage," not "dead women and children." Phrases such as "collateral damage" and "insurgent infrastructure" are specialized terms, their fullest meaning only immediately accessible to those familiar with the professional jargon of the military. Cast in the scientific, technical jargon of current military discourse, the violence of war is presented, at least to those unfamiliar with the language, as precise, high tech, and remarkably free of blood and guts.

Jargon, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, is a "mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of persons," (Oxford English Dictionary) in short a specialized language used by members of a distinct group to communicate specific, often sophisticated, and narrowly applicable ideas quickly and efficiently. This language includes a proprietary vocabulary (specialized terminology) and hermeneutics (specialized ways of interpreting or parsing those terms). As a part of a professional jargon, words and phrases, even those in present in common popular discourse, take on different, specialized meanings. "Engagement," for example, in military language describes a confrontation or firefight between opposing forces. In other discourses, the same word can mean a wedding betrothal, an appointment, or an employment contract. Words and phrases, as one would expect, acquire new meanings from novel uses and applications by specific groups. Over time, terms from various jargons are interpolated into larger frames of discourse, enlarging (or diminishing, as the case may be) the language. "Hacker" (computer expert) terminology has rapidly become an increasingly important part of common English, recently bestowing the language with terms like "blog" and "googling," and profoundly transforming both the denotation and connotation of the words "virus" and "Trojan Horse."

When discourse-specific jargon is exported into a new context, however (from military language to popular discourse for example), meanings proprietary to that discourse are inevitably lost, at least temporarily, as common usage begins to appreciate, appropriate, or alter the original meaning. The result is a disjunction between what a speaker says using jargon and what his unfamiliar audience would understand. Those wishing to confound nonspecialists in a torrent of unfamiliar words and phrases, what Maury Maverick once famously decried as "gobbledygook," (New York Times, May 21, 1944) exploit the failure of their audiences to grasp fully the discourse-specific meanings of what they say or write. …

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Talking the Real War: Jargon, Guilt, and Viet Nam Veteran Poetry
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