Problems with language


By Frank Wessling

A May 24 editorial in this space argued that using the terms “work” and “jobs” to describe the activity of military personnel suggests at least two dangers: we no longer value that activity as “service,” or “duty,” for the nation; and it becomes easier for the public to be comfortable with a volunteer-only defense force. If the Army is only one more form of employment, one more place to find a job, the ideal of universal national service as a dimension of citizenship becomes more remote.
This is a matter of language, and is important for that reason. How we talk affects how we think, and how we think affects our behavior. Unfortunately, that editorial used an inappropriate word, “mercenary,” which garbled its meaning and infuriated some readers. In trying to make the point that the American people are too comfortable with a tiny minority of volunteers taking on the whole burden of our wars, the editorial mistakenly referred to today’s Army as “mercenary.” That was wrong. The word itself means soldiers for hire to any bidder, which does not apply to the men and women in our armed forces.
It is still problematic when military service is called “work.” The Department of Defense has taken up that term, apparently because it needs a single word for the combined activity of military troops and contractors it employs in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Roughly half of the people paid by DOD funds in those two countries are contractors, not the ranked troops.
However, what may simplify a language problem for the defense department makes the meaning of citizen service thinner and lighter. No duty, no sacrifice is implied in the offer of a “job.”

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