As the death toll of U.S troops in the current war in Iraq passes the 1,000 mark, I overheard a discussion today while standing in line at a local supermarket.
Man #1: “It’s sad that these young people are dying over there. You must be worried about Ben.”
Man #2: “I am. But I’m proud that my grandson answered his country’s call.”
This conversation recalled to mind one of my favorite quotations — a quotation that warns us against anthropomorphizing “society” and “government.” I learned of this quotation from Tom Palmer of the Cato Institute. It’s by the late historian Parker T. Moon, who taught at Columbia University.
Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts . . . by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country—when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis”—we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead—thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?
Parker Thomas Moon, Imperialism and World Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1928)