09/17/2007 12:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Vocabulary of Numbness

War is about loss, destruction, and the price a society has to pay. The final reckoning of the Iraq war can't be predicted, but we are paying a high price in an area most people don't consider: language. When Pres. Bush coined a new phrase in his speech last week, "return on success," the crudeness of his verbal ploy made one wince. "Success" is a hollow buzz word, open to endless revision and by now totally empty of meaning. The slogan's purpose was to bolster right-wing support and provide cover for Republican senators who privately have no confidence in the war but lack the courage to stand up to their political base and a sitting President. "Surge" was equally meaningless, functioning as a slogan to disguise the reality of more American soldiers having to endure the exhaustion of extended rotations in Iraq without any valid purpose or mission. "Bench marks" have become equally meaningless, and "al-Qaida" is a ritualistic token for manipulating fear.

Power comes with a podium, and whoever controls the podium has an enormous effect on the words that people use. Vietnam gave rise to its own vocabulary of numbness as warmakers drummed phrases into our ears (village pacification, Vietnamization, escalation) that started out as smokescreens for reality and eventually turned into jabberwocky. The Bush administration has become a hallmark for the distortion of language. If anything, they have more to hide than in the Vietnam era. Both wars were characterized by failure, but Iraq also includes the adoption of torture, infringement of civil liberties, secret prisons, and a complete abandonment of responsible oversight by Congress.

After four years of deceptive language, the administration has become addicted to it. It was surreal to hear Pres. Bush refer to the 36 other countries who are allies in the war when America's only viable ally in strength, Great Britain, is quickly withdrawing from the field. Every other ally is invisible, and all were thin cover-ups to begin with as the U.S. arrogantly launched its first pre-emptive war without regard for the rest of the world. But what else can Bush do? Every informed person in the country knows that the war was based on deception and disastrously bad planning, that no weapons of mass destruction existed, and that Iraq has now been destroyed for all practical purposes. The entire middle class has fled, mostly to Syria, ethnic cleansing is all but complete in Baghdad, and the prospect of a Shiite hegemony with Iran is just a matter of time.

There are no words to convey this catastrophe without reaching into the vocabulary of heartbreak and loss. The vocabulary of numbness cuts off genuine feelings and makes it impossible to see reality. What needs to be said is difficult: The anti-war movement has failed. The Democratic Senate is cowardly. The average American equates the whole of Islam with terrorism. Fear of terrorism has been cynically used by the right wing to make sure that militarism remains dominant. This is a dark litany, and the only power it has on its side is truth. The warmakers have seized the podium to broadcast untruth in its most toxic form. Perhaps we have all grown numb over the war as a way to defend ourselves from toxic words. In the end, however, people cannot live in a perpetually benumbed state. We must get beyond the language of deceit and begin the slow process of nurturing the vocabulary of truth, however long that may take.