JERUSALEM—“We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” Listening to the Israeli military frequencies when I was an infantryman nearly two decades ago, it was (and still is) possible to hear sentences like these, the bewildering cousins of sentences familiar to anyone following America’s present-day wars. “Vegas is in a TIC,” says a U.S. infantryman in Afghanistan in Sebastian Junger’s book War. What does it all mean?
Anyone seeking to understand the world needs to understand soldiers, but the language of soldiers tends to be bizarre and opaque, an apt symbol for the impossibility of communicating their experiences to people safe at home. The language isn’t nonsense—it means something to the soldiers, of course, but it also has something to say about the army and society to which they belong, and about the shared experience of military service anywhere. The soldiers’ vernacular must provide words for things that civilians don’t need to describe, like grades of officers and kinds of weapons. But it has deeper purposes too.
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