Language and the Iraq War: Readings & Discussion Ideas for High School Students

Readings (including an abridged dictionary of the war) and activities to encourage critical thinking.

Student Reading 1

The word is not the thing

Suddenly people were pouring expensive French wines and champagnes down sewers. By order of Representative Bob Ney of Ohio, french fries became "freedom fries" in the Congressional dining room. The mustard maker R.T. French, to make sure customers understood the American origins of the product, headlined a press release, "The Only Thing French About French's Mustard Is The Name." Why the sudden concern about all things "French"? The answer: As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations, France opposed American efforts to secure a resolution authorizing military force against Iraq.
A similar outbreak of outrage occurred when the U.S. went to war against Germany in World War I. Words of German origin were transformed. "Sauerkraut" became "liberty cabbage," a hamburger became Salisbury steak, and even the teaching of the German language was banned at some universities. Only the term "German measles" remained unchanged.
Language, of course, is a human product. We invent words and expressions like "precision-guided weapons." We create metaphors like "decapitation" and new slogans like "Operation Iraqi Freedom" or "No blood for oil." Words can suddenly suggest (or connote) meanings they never had before, even if their dictionary definition (what the words denote), stays the same. Language is constantly changing.
But what about the named things themselves? Are french fries produced differently or look or taste different when someone renames them "freedom fries" after the leaders of France reject American ideas in the United Nations? Obviously not. Words are not things. They are noises we utter, scratches we make on paper, marks we type on a computer. Language is symbolic. Words stand for things. We can call french fries anything we want. Maybe we should call them Belgian fries, because Belgium is their original home.
Sometimes what words stand for is not immediately clear. Consider "collateral damage," a high-level abstraction. "Damage" is clear enough, but what about "collateral"? The word collateral usually means "associated with," "accompanying," or perhaps "indirect" or "secondary." But let's examine the military's use of the term in this war. Let's say a military commander decides to bomb a building in Baghdad, and the building—the target—explodes and is destroyed. But "associated with" the physical destruction, perhaps, a man who is walking near the building has his head blown off. A woman carrying groceries home from the market suffers internal bleeding and dies from the force of the explosion. A girl disappears altogether. By describing "collateral damage" this way, we have reduced the abstraction level of the term considerably but not entirely. The words "man," "woman," and "girl" are also abstractions. They leave out details, as language always does.
There is, for example, many a "man" in Baghdad, each different from every other man in the city, every other man in the world. By using the word "man" we only note the resemblance of a particular man to other men and ignore the differences. And a particular man, Ali Ibrahim al-Latif, let us name him, was a living organism in a constant process of change, never exactly the same in blood cells, in neurons, in thought, from one moment to the next. So even the words "Ali Ibrahim al-Latif" are abstractions.
But this process of abstracting, of leaving things out, is essential to language. Without it there would be no language. At the same time, the higher the level of a word's abstraction the more distant it becomes from the world of things we see and feel, and the easier it becomes not to see or feel at all. Collateral damage in the example offered here includes three human beings, suddenly dead. As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote: "Evil is the product of man's ability to make abstract that which is concrete."
"Collateral damage" is also a "euphemism," a more agreeable substitute word or expression for one that may sound offensive or upsetting. "Collateral damage" is less upsetting than "human beings blown up at the same time as a building." Euphemisms are common in connection with death. We may say of someone who has "died," "she passed away," "she passed" or "she's in a better place."
People are the only source of word meanings, so it is often impossible to provide the "real" definition of a word or term. For instance, what is a "terrorist" and what is a "freedom fighter"? Was Benjamin Franklin a "terrorist" or a "freedom fighter"? How about Nelson Mandela? Osama bin Laden? Answers depend upon how one defines these terms. England's King George III and his ministers would have had quite a different view of Franklin than, say, George Washington and his associates. And Colin Powell and Mohammad Atta, one of the men who flew a passenger plane into the Twin Towers, would differ about Osama bin Laden.
Many people in the U.S. would say that Saddam Hussein fits the definition of a "war criminal." But there are many in Arab countries who would say George Bush is a "war criminal." We define and "see" things not as they are but as we are. The literary critic Kenneth Burke once wrote: "A way of seeing is always a way of not seeing." President Bush sees Iraq as part of an "axis of evil." And definitions have consequences. The American war on Iraq is among them.
To summarize:
1. All language is:
  • symbolic (the word is not the thing)
  • abstract
  • in a constant process of change
  • a product of human beings
2. Words do not mean; human beings mean. An object or an event we name has no name and belongs to no classification until we put it in one. We create "reality" by naming and classifying it.
3. The language we use to define and to describe is denotative as well as connotative and has real-world consequences.
To the Teacher: Below are some approaches you might use to begin a conversation about the reading.
1. Questions
Ask students for questions they have about the reading. What is unclear to them? What do they disagree with?
2. A Riddle
You may find the riddle below useful in discussing "Language and the Iraq War."
If you put a full-grown goose in a long-necked glass bottle, how can you get the goose out without breaking the bottle or injuring the goose?
Tell students that no questions are allowed before answering the riddle.
Students are likely to offer all kinds of far-fetched explanations while ignoring the fact that you put the goose in a bottle with words and can remove it in the same way. The answer then, simply, and after enough time has elapsed for you to be sure that no one will answer correctly, is "It's out."
When students protest, remind them of how the goose got in the bottle. Do students get the points? They are crucial to language understanding: Words are not things (french fries are unchanged when called freedom fries). You can call your country the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" even though, in fact, the country is neither a democracy nor a republic, as those two words are usually defined. It is possible to say all kinds of things for which there is no evidence of a connection with reality.

Student Reading 2

Two Poems on War

The Soldier
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
—Rupert Brooke (died serving in the British army during World War I)
1. How does the narrator "define" England? What words and phrases lead you to your conclusion?
2. How does he feel about dying in war? What makes you think so?
3. What do the connotations of the following words and expressions say to you about his attitudes?—"forever England"; "richer dust"; "a pulse in the eternal mind"; "under an English heaven"
4. Why do you suppose that Brooke chose a sonnet form for his poem?
you know what i mean when
the first guy drops you know
everybody feels sick or
when they throw in a few gas
and the oh baby shrapnel
or my feet getting dim freezing or
up to your you know what in water or
with the bugs crawling right all up
all everywhere over you all me everyone
that's been there knows what
i mean a god damned lot of
people don't and never
will know,
they don't want
—e.e.cummings (served in an ambulance unit during World War I)
1. How does the narrator "define" war? What words or phrases lead you to your conclusion?
2. How does he feel about being in a war? What makes you think so?
3. What do the following words and expressions say to you about the narrator's attitudes?
· "the first guy drops"
· "oh baby shrapnel"
· "up to your you know what in water"
· "they don't want/to/no"
4. cummings runs sentences together without punctuation and frames his poem with two lines: "lis/ten" and "to/no." Why do you suppose cummings writes this way?
5. Though expressing quite different attitudes toward war, neither of the poems says anything about either cause(s) or purpose(s). Why?

Student Reading 3

An Abridged Dictionary for the War in Iraq

To the Teacher: The following student reading opens up a number of areas for possible discussion—in small groups as well as for the whole class—and for writing assignments.
the phrase President Bush first used in his State of the Union address in January 2002 to describe countries that he said were "arming to threaten the peace of the world." He said these included Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. (In his draft of Bush's address, speechwriter David Frum originally used the phrase "axis of hatred," but Frum said this was changed to use "the theological language that Bush had made his own since September 11.")
Since then, President Bush has spoken repeatedly about the "axis of evil."
"Axis of evil" is a metaphor, an implied comparison, and like other war-related metaphors can help us "see" the world more vividly. In wartime such metaphors may have a special importance. For example, during the Vietnam War American leaders often spoke of a "domino theory," a metaphor suggesting that if Vietnam "fell" to the Communists, other nations in Southeast Asia would "topple" like a line of dominos, one after another. The domino theory proved to be false, which suggests there can be danger in becoming so tied to a metaphor that it prevents one from "seeing" accurately.
- What do you understand the president to mean by "axis of evil"?
- How well does the metaphor help you to understand the reality it is attempting figuratively to describe?
a term often used by military officials and media reporters to describe American soldiers. Like other words, "bravery" is an abstraction (it necessarily leaves things out). Some words are more abstract than others. "Animal" is a higher-level abstraction than "dog," which is a higher-level abstraction than "collie," which is a higher-level abstraction than "Billy," a particular collie. If we were to make an abstraction ladder, "animal" would be at the top and "Billy" at the bottom. The higher the level of abstraction the farther we are from the thing or characteristic and what we call "reality."
- Make an abstraction ladder for "bravery."
- After discussing your ladder with other students, attempt abstraction ladders with any of the following words: "regime change," the strategy of "preemption," "honor," "collateral damage," "civilian casualties" (see next item).
an abstract term referring to the death or maiming of people who are not soldiers. American military officials say they do everything they can to avoid civilian casualties, but that they are inevitable in modern war. Mark Franchetti in the UK Times (4/4/03) lowers the abstraction level in a report from an Iraqi desert scene of the wreckage of 15 vehicles: "I counted 12 dead civilians, lying in the road or nearby man's body was still in flames. It gave out a hissing sound....Down the road, a little girl, no older than five and dressed in a pretty orange and gold dress, lay dead in a ditch next to the body of a man who may have been her father. Half his head was missing."
- What reaction do you have to the term "civilian casualties"?
- What reaction do you have to the newspaper description of civilian casualties?
- How do the two reactions differ?
the term both the military and the media use to refer to Americans and other troops fighting the Iraqis. About 75 percent of the foreign troops in Iraq are U.S. soldiers; most of the rest are British; a very small number are Australian or Polish. None of the other 40 or so nations countries whose leaders have said they support the war (the "coalition of the willing," as President Bush refers to it) have any troops in Iraq. Polls show that about 75 percent of Americans support the war in Iraq (as of early April 2003); a little over 50 percent support it in Britain. In all the other countries large majorities oppose the war and oppose their leaders' decision to join the "coalition."
- How would you define "coalition"? Is it an appropriate term to use for those fighting the war against Iraq? Why or why not?
- If you think it's not appropriate, how would you explain its use by the U.S. military and media?
nickname for a 15,000 to 18,000-pound conventional bomb originally designed to create an instant clearing in the jungle, but also used to kill and intimidate people because of its very large lethal radius (up to 900 feet) combined with flash and sound visible at long distances.
How is this nickname a metaphor? How is it a euphemism?
a metaphor some Iraqis use for certain fighters they regard as "martyrs of God." Americans have referred to the Fedayeen as "death squads" and "homicide bombers."
- How would you explain Iraqi and American differences about a word or words that refer to the same group of people?
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, denounced critics who said that the American war plan had not included enough troops. He declared that these critics are "absolutely wrong, they bear no resemblance to the truth and it's just harmful to our troops that are out there fighting very bravely, very courageously." One of the critics, a retired officer, General Barry McCaffrey, replied that the military was blaming others for its own problems: "The problem is that they chose to attack 250 miles into Iraq with one armored division and no rear-area security and no second front."
- Consider General Myers' phrase "harmful to our troops." Using specific examples, how do you think General Myers defines the phrase?
- How do suppose General McCaffrey would define it?
- How do you define it? Why?
In one of the most famous novels of World War I, A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway has his main character, Lt. Henry, a wounded officer, say: "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression 'in vain.' We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain...and had read them on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates."
- What is there about certain words that embarrasses Lt. Henry or that he can't even stand to hear?
- What experiences do you suppose have led to these feelings?
- Why have certain abstract words become "obscene" to him but not "concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads..."?
- The Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. consists of a wall and the names of thousands of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. What do you suppose Lt. Henry would have thought about it? Why?
Before the war on Iraq began, Vice President Dick Cheney said he expected Iraq to collapse like "a house of cards." How accurate does this simile appear to be?
Read a newspaper or magazine article about the war, examining it for similes and metaphors. Then select several to examine closely.
- What exactly do you understand each to mean?
- How accurately do you think each helps a reader to understand the reality it is attempting to describe?
In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush declared that evidence from "intelligence sources" links 9/11 and Al Qaeda. He also said intelligence reports showed that Saddam Hussein "recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" for nuclear weapons production. The chief UN nuclear weapons inspector said that this charge rested on documents "that are not authentic."
- What evidence has the President or other officials offered of a 9/11-Al Qaeda link?
- What does the President mean by "intelligence"?
- What problems can there be with it? (The word is not the thing.)
Some Muslims have called for "jihad" against the U.S.
Explore the meanings that Muslims and others give this metaphoric word. What meaning is most prominent now? Why?
American media refer repeatedly to the "liberation" of Iraq. But Al-Jazeera, an Arab TV network operating from Qatar in the Persian Gulf, declares repeatedly that Iraq is under U.S. "occupation."
- How do you explain these different word uses to describe the situation in Iraq?
- Which word would you use? Or would you use some other? Explain your decision.
- Can you say that your use is correct and others incorrect? Why or why not?
M—MOAB or Massive Ordnance Air Blast:
a bomb with an explosive force of 21,000 pounds that has been used by the American military in Iraq and is capable of obliterating all buildings and people in a 1,000-yard radius. "Ordnance" is a high-level abstraction.
- What denotations does a dictionary provide?
- Since the bomb obviously does more than blast air, why do you suppose its official name does not reflect that fact?
- What would you name it? Why?
the American military's name for the war on Iraq.
- What does the key word "freedom" stand for? How do you define it?
- What do you think the word is intended to mean in this context? That is, what specifically do you understand is supposed to happen in Iraq when the war is over? How is it supposed to happen? What difficulties might stand in the way? Why?
- How likely is it that the Iraqi people will experience "freedom"?
- If there are disagreements among you, what does this say about the meanings of words?
a term the military applies to the "guided" missiles the U.S. is using against Iraq. A dictionary definition of "precision" is "exactness." Films show dramatic examples of precision-guided bombs striking their targets, even one hitting a military vehicle under a bridge without damaging the bridge. But some precision-guided bombs, how many has not been revealed, prove not to be "exact." Cruise missiles aimed at Iraqi targets have landed in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Iran. Some may have caused civilian deaths in Iraq. The New York Times reports that "smart bombs" (another term used to describe these weapons) "miss their target 7 percent to 10 percent of the time." (3/30/03)
Given the imprecision of some of the weapons used in Iraq, why does the military continue to call these weapons "precision weapons"?
the term President Bush has used to refer to the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Senator John Kerry, a Democratic presidential candidate, has said, "we need a regime change in the United States" as well as in Iraq. Kerry charged that the President has lost the trust of international leaders because of his handling of the Iraq situation. Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert replied, "Equating regime change in Iraq with regime change in the United States, is not what we need at this time."
- Why do you think Rep. Hastert feels this way?
- Do you agree with him? See "Treasonable" below.
a euphemism the military sometimes uses to describe the bombing of enemy forces in advance of a land attack. In an interview with the Associated Press on April 5, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley said, "The preponderance of [Iraq's] Republican Guard divisions that were outside of Baghdad are now dead. I find it interesting that folks say we're softening them up. We're not softening them up. We're killing them."
- What images does the phrase "soften up" bring to mind?
- How does it square with what Lt. Gen. Moseley describes happening in Iraq?
a widely used expression in the U.S.
- What specific behaviors or actions do you think would demonstrate that you "support the troops"?
- Do you think "supporting the troops" and "supporting the war" mean the same thing? Why or why not?
Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt said in 1918 during U.S. participation in World War I: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but morally treasonable to the American republic. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else."
- What do you understand "treasonable" to mean in this context? (Word meanings always hinge on their context).
- Do you agree with Theodore Roosevelt? Why or why not?
- Conduct a class debate: Resolved: that it is patriotic to criticize the President or any other official in wartime.
After the war on Iraq began, Senator Tom Daschle declared, "Today a quarter of a million Americans are in the Persian Gulf, risking their lives to disarm Saddam Hussein. Our nation is united in gratitude and respect for them and in support of our commander-in-chief."
- Since Senator Daschle knows that many Americans disagree with the President about the war, how do you explain his use of the word "united"?
- How do you think Theodore Roosevelt would have responded to Senator Daschle's remark? (see Treasonable above) Why?
a widely used term often referring, in the U.S., to Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi officials.
- Define "war criminal."
- Which of the following fit your definition and why or why not? Thomas Jefferson (a leader in a revolt against his government)? John Brown (led an attack on a federal arsenal in a plan to free slaves and was caught and hanged)? Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Southern military leader during the Civil War)? President Harry Truman (ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki)?
The term usually refers to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, all of which are capable of causing massive deaths in a single stroke. Iraq, of course, is accused of having and hiding weapons of mass destruction but to date has not used any of these weapons. The U.S. has, however, bombed Baghdad and other places repeatedly, using cruise missiles and "conventional" bombs that typically contain 2,000 pounds of explosives but may contain as much as 21,000 pounds (the MOAB). Such weapons destroy entire buildings and everything in them.
Almost any weapon is capable under the right circumstances of killing great numbers of people quickly. During three months of 1994 in the African nation of Rwanda, the majority ethnic group, the Hutus, used mostly firearms, machetes and garden tools to murder 800,000 people belonging to the minority Tutsis. And on 9/11/01, 19 men armed with box cutters seized four U.S. passenger planes flying their normal domestic flights and took over the controls. They drove two of the planes into each of New York City's twin Trade Center Towers and one into the Pentagon in Virginia. The fourth crashed in Pennsylvania. More than 3,000 people died within a few hours.
- How should we define weapons of mass destruction?
- What should we do about them?
To the Teacher: In connection with the above you might find use for "Weapons of Mass Destruction," which is available on this website.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: