Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.
— Ingrid Bengis
For almost two years now, I’ve been involved with an organization called Soldiers’ Angels, which is a non-partisan group that writes mail and sends packages to American soldiers serving “in harm’s way.” Joining was difficult for me, and I did it in part to honor the memory of my grandfather, who was career Army, but also to honor a net-friendship with a man I know through his writings at places like MySpace and OpenDiary. Every so often, he half-jokingly calls me his muse, but in this he was mine, though he probably isn’t aware of it. Or at least, he won’t be until he reads this. If he reads this.
I remember him posting something to the effect of people not actually being able to uphold the tenet, “Love the soldier, not the war,” without the soldier being criticized as well as the situation. I wanted to prove that I could put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. I’ve never believed we should be in Iraq, but I strongly believe that the men and women in our military deserve our respect and support.
I also remember a conversation I had with my grandfather, during Operation Desert Storm, which – wow- was almost twenty years ago, now. She was complaining about people demonstrating against the war, and he, after patiently explaining to her exactly where Kuwait and Iraq and Iran were, and what the point was, finally blew up at her for her whining. “God DAMN it, Esther,” he said, “What do you think we fight for?” He went on to explain that while he didn’t much like the demonstrators either, the fact that they COULD demonstrate was a crucial part of American culture and society.
So what does this have to do with words as weapons?
Think a moment. You’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. You come from a large high school in a major city. You join the military, partly because you know if you survive you’ll get an education, and partly because it’s an escape from the life you know – one with a place to sleep, regular meals, and friends to watch your back, and partly because you want to belong to something.
Maybe your parents just aren’t letter writers. Maybe they don’t want you to serve, for political reasons, or for personal ones. Maybe you don’t even talk to them. You come from a culture of instant communication, email, text, the constant ringing of cell phones…and you’re sent to a foreign country, where you may or may not have email access, but even if you do your time is limited, and phone time is rationed the way water is during a drought, and even if the conditions aren’t that bad for you, you see others coming and going from places where the risk is greater and the conditions considerably worse, and just when you feel most isolated, you get an envelope from a stranger, who says hello, I’m here, and I’m thinking about you, and you’re not alone.
That letter – words upon a page – is a weapon to fight loneliness, and to create a connection.
Saturday at Barnes and Nobel, I picked up the book Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet. Samet is a civilian English teacher who has been teaching at the United States Military Academy for nearly ten years, and the book is about the way the study of literature and poetry affects the cadets in her classes.
She mentions the fact that there are some who think teaching poetry to men and women destined to be military leaders is a waste, but that there are others who passionately believe that these men and women need such studies as much or more than the rest of us, because it gives them important insights, fosters creative ideas, teaches them to think, and feeds their souls.
She also mentioned a program begun in World War II, and back in vogue today, of issuing specially sized versions of popular and classic literature designed to fit in a cargo pocket, and distributed among our soldiers. She labels this chapter, “Books as Weapons,” and she’s right.
Words have power. Just as a speech can invigorate and encourage, a good story can spark a new perspective even as it entertains. It can offer escape, or it can be the catalyst to catharsis. A poem can trigger a love of words, or create a verbal picture. And each can offer a connection to the familiar, or to the possible, or both.
Words, and the books which hold them, are weapons against indoctrination, boredom, and stagnation. They curb lonleliness, incite laughter, warm hearts, and expand minds.
Write a letter. Read a book. Scribble a story. Compose a poem. Draft, craft, recite. CREATE.
You’ll be changed.
And you will also be the instrument of change.