There is no doubt that words are important. Whether spoken or written, words help us communicate and describe our world, our desires and our history. However, our words and perspective, like war, can be dangerous.
When I was in elementary school in the US, they taught us about the English hero, Sir Francis Drake, who brought glory to England under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth. That was all well and good until I studied abroad in Spain as part of a university exchange program and took history classes there. I learned about the English pirate Sir Francis Drake who mercilessly pillaged Spanish ships to fill England’s coffers. (I wondered what country might teach a more balanced view of this man.)
But before I studied abroad, I bought a used book one day. It was a history book in Spanish published by a well-known company for the Mexican market. With it, I thought I could practice my Spanish-language reading skills. And I sure did. I read that the protagonists of World War II were Italy and Germany. To my American ears that sounded odd to say the least. (Participants, yes, but why should there be protagonists of a war at all?)
Of course it is human nature to root for your own side, to disagree with others and to craft a narrative that justifies the actions of “your side,” but it is when words start to distort the truth in order to justify actions that when called by another name are repugnant to you, then that becomes a big and murky problem. Today, it is a place where civilian deaths become collateral damage (like we were talking about accidentally stepping on someone’s lawn instead of having killed them) and where wars become conflicts and campaigns (as if a conflict were simply a family raising its voice at each other and not all the death and destruction that a war implies). Unfortunately, this place of not calling things as we should is one we have come to inhabit all too frequently. So what mistakes will the newest history books excuse?