Be not the slave of Words.
—Thomas Carlyle (Sartor Resartus, 1833)
The words I use
Are everyday words and yet are not the same!
—Paul Claudel (La Muse Qui Est la Grace, 1910)
Here are some words that defined your world the day you were born: abortion, immigration, Trump, American, Republican, Democrat, climate, liberal, Nazi, terrorist, Black, White. Here is a word that defined your world a couple of years later, as I am trying to finish this hundred-page letter: COVID-19. Those are words used to define enemies and are readily attached to human beings; other of these words are linked to choices, behaviors, consequences of those choices, and beliefs that drive human behaviors. Some of those words may still be significant features of your environment when you are eighty-two.
If you are lucky, you will remember reading about these words in history classes, maybe even in college, and wondering how they could have been so important. If that happens, you can look in the mirror and say to yourself: Ashley, you are one exceedingly fortunate young woman—alive, healthy, smart enough and wealthy enough, or at least with enough available credit to float a loan, to end up in college, perhaps planning a career as a physician or attorney, during which my vocabulary will be expanded by several thousand new words, all of them with variable meanings, depending on who is using them and for what purpose they are being used.
I cannot begin to imagine the words that will define your world when you are my age, eighty-two, but I will try to do that later on, because without those words this letter cannot be finished. A whole lot of your words, at the age of eighty-two, will not be pleasant ones, and will not make you think of wonderful, happy, prosperous times, safe times. Why do I know this about the words that will surround you eighty-two years from now? I know about these words because they are the same words that have been used for at least the last thousand years, and probably for two or three times that long ago, although I’m referring to the meanings of sounds and symbols, not the sounds and symbols themselves. They are words with which I am familiar, with which my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were also familiar. I promise that at the age of eighty-two, you are not going to like the sounds of those words, and they will be especially painful if you have loved ones—your parents, your children, your grandchildren—who have suffered, and maybe died because of them.
So just for the sake of discussion, and comparison, here are some of the words that have defined my time on Earth, my parents’ time, my grandparents’ time, my great grandparents’ time, and in one case, my great great grandfather’s time. “War” is the most common and persistent word through all of these times. On the day you were born, the Iraq War was in its fifteenth year and American military personnel were killed in that war during the year. Two years earlier, the Afghanistan war started as a result of men flying airplanes into New York City buildings, killing thousands and injuring thousands more. And when our soldiers are not actually shooting at and killing other people, they are preparing to do so in seventy different nations around the world.
These wars are real ones, not the kind your parents can see in movies, or in video games, in which there is a whole lot of killing and destruction but in the end, nobody really gets killed because the people are only electronic signals of some kind inside a machine. What doesn’t get killed is the idea of killing as a solution to some problem. When you study the Iraq War in history class, you may discover that like the Vietnam War before it, the Iraq War was a contrived one, sold to the American public and their elected representatives as a war of prevention. The Iraqi leader at the time, Saddam Hussein, was supposed to have had a supply of something called “weapons of mass destruction.” For some vague, but probably explainable reason, our nation decided it was our duty to prevent Hussein from using such weapons, although there was little evidence, other than his oppressive behavior toward some of his own citizens that he was planning to use them. And officially, we as a nation didn’t care anything at all about Iraqi citizens, especially the women and children among them.