Tough Talk, Vulnerable Soldiers: Language Ideology and the Making of United States Service Members


ACLS Fellowship Program




This project focuses on relationships between language and the emotional vulnerability of US military service members during an era of stark debates over so-called politically correct discourse. In boot camp rites of passage, drill instructors and sergeants use verbal routines to socialize recruits, discouraging their preexisting identifications while callousing their personal sensitivities and empathic powers. Language during active service reinforces these new modes of sociality while consolidating institutional belonging and camaraderie. Yet some service members struggle to reconcile the limits of this language with the challenging experiences of deployment, with the burdens of marginalized gendered, religious, or racial identities, and, after service is over, with reintegration into the civilian world. While some veterans defend military language as vital to the nation’s defense, others turn to novel uses of language to reclaim dimensions of their emotional life and to reconceptualize the importance of empathy at both personal and national scales.