War Talk


It’s interesting how much of our language is taken from war. Politicians in particular like to wage "war" on such things as cancer, drugs and terrorism (all of them lost so far). Aspiring politicians who probably haven’t had a real fight since second grade always promise "to fight" for whatever they happen to be promising.

"Lock, stock and barrel" refers to the parts of a rifle, and the expression "shot his wad" refers not to sex, as the modern mind might think, but to the fact that in a battle involving muskets, soldiers would sometimes forget to put the musket balls in and thus shoot only their wadding — the piece of cloth that was packed down on top of the bullet.

"Straight shooter" obviously refers to proficiency with a firearm, as does "hit the bull’s-eye." "High caliber" is a reference to ammunition. "Barrage" and "sortie" are military terms referring to artillery fire and to an infantry attack. "Hired gun," often used to describe political flacks, is another phrase from our violent past.

I’m sure you can think of even more. The connection is obvious when you look at American history. Despite periodic politically correct attempts to re-write it, we have been a very warlike nation.

Our ancestors fought in the French and Indian War, then turned on the British and fought the Revolution, and after that the War of 1812. In the meantime, a 300-year-long war against Native Americans was being waged more or less in the background. We had a tiff with the Barbary pirates and then invaded Mexico in the Mexican War.

Having temporarily run out of foreigners to fight, we fought each other in what is usually misnamed the Civil War. "The War of Northern Aggression" is a more accurate appellation. This remains the bloodiest of all our wars, with the fatalities on both sides numbering about 600,000.

That war, at least, taught us that it is better to fight foreigners somewhere else than each other on our home turf. We didn’t wait long. The Spanish-American War came along, then the Philippine Insurrection and numerous incursions into the Caribbean and Central America. In 1914, we had a big one and piled on the European Civil War, which is better known as World War I.

As soon as it was over (about 10 million dead altogether), diplomats guaranteed the next war, which started in 1939. About 400,000 Americans died in that one, but it was hardly over before the Korean War occurred and then Vietnam, all in the context of the "Cold War."

Since Vietnam, we have specialized in bullying little countries — Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Serbia, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter two are in the context of the "War on Terrorism," which our enlightened leaders assure us will last several generations. It will, too, if they have anything to do with it. God knows the fall of communism scared them witless. The thought of having no enemy at the gate and thus no way to frighten the American people was almost more than they could stand. They no doubt look on the war on terrorism as a gift from God.

As you can see, we Americans have never been all that successful in "burying the hatchet," except in somebody’s skull. To make sure our children don’t get infected with this peace business, corporate America bombards them with violence in the movies, on television and in computer games. What indeed would The History Channel do without World War II and the Nazis?

Well, partner, keep your powder dry and your six-gun handy. As they said in the old West, God created men, but Samuel Colt made them equal. The future will likely be exciting, which, as any Chinese fortuneteller will tell you, is bad news.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.