by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
January 22, 2003
The Language of War
AR Special Report
SEATTLE, Wash. -- How the Pentagon ever managed to be tagged with such a neutral, geometric name beats me. When I was in the tenth grade, it did not even exist. I was in college before it was finished, and by then I knew enough Greek to understand that it meant "five angles."
At roughly the same time, Henry Lewis Stimson was Roosevelt's Secretary of War, a post to which he was named in 1940. (Amazingly, he had been Secretary of War under President Taft almost thirty years earlier.) But by the time I graduated from college, the cabinet member holding Stimson's old job was Secretary of Defense.
The word "defense" is to "war" what "pass on" is to "die." It is a euphemism, a prettification, and is meant to suggest that the only military action in which the U.S. might possibly be involved is that of fighting off an invasion.
By the time the Department of Defense was defending our coasts against Communist aggression - on the Korean peninsula, as it happened, but you've got to start somewhere - I was out of college and fully exposed to the draft, which found me in Innsbruck, Austria, and brought me home for basic infantry training in Fort Jackson, S.C.
After four months of this, when my bayonet and grenade skills, to say nothing of my ability to wield an entrenching tool and make up a cot with a hospital corner, had been honed to perfection, the Pentagon brass got round to looking at my record and decided that my foreign languages might come in handier than my neatly creased fatigues.
So, in return for my re-upping for the full four-year term of a Regular Army soldier, they sent me to study Russian in Monterey, Calif. The school where I spent the next year learning that the object of a negative verb must usually be in the genitive case was then called by a name as descriptive as "Pentagon." It was the Army Language School. It was one of the best language schools in the entire world.
But this did not protect us from the wave of politically correct posturing. It is now the Defense Language Institute. How did the honest old word "language" survive? Why not the Defense Communication Institute? All of which brings us to the worst nomenclatorial blunder to come out of Washington in years: the Dept. of Homeland Security.
It is the word Homeland that goes with supreme irritation against the American grain. The only worse choice might have been Fatherland, but even so the word cannot help reminding us of the Nazi iteration of Vaterland, the Soviets' ceaseless chiming on Rodina (Russian for Motherland), and even the Roman worship of Patria.
The word Homeland opens awkward questions. Whose homeland? Strictly speaking, those originally from here, the Native Americans. All the rest of us are, at some remove, immigrants. Many whose ancestors did not arrive on the Mayflower will understand "homeland" to mean Ireland, India, Japan, Germany, or Russia.
Home is hype. Forget about convincing the real estate industry that it cannot sell a home, only a house: that battle has long been lost. But must we knuckle under to the public relations gurus in charge of naming the various institutions of government?
If not, then it is high time that we came up with a new name for the Pentagon to bring it into line with the rest of our euphemistic hype. How about the Home of Peace?
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.