Skip to main content

'Talking Right': Why the Left Is Losing, Linguistically

In his new book, Talking Right, linguist Geoff Nunberg examines the parlance of the American political right. Conservatives, Nunberg notes, have been remarkably effective at creating a language through which to convey their agenda.


Other segments from the episode on July 6, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 6, 2006: Interview with Geoff Nunberg; Interview with Ran Dolinger.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Linguist Geoff Nunberg discusses how the political
right has changed the meaning of certain words to shape discourse

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Are Democrats simply tone deaf? That's the question that begins the new book,
"Talking Right," by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. He argues that nowadays, it's
the right that controls the basic language of politics. That includes the
meaning of words like values, bias, elite, patriot, freedom, even the word
liberal. In "Talking Right," Nunberg takes a look at the political vocabulary
of the right and the left. He teaches at the school of information at the
University of California at Berkeley. He chairs the usage panel of the
"American Heritage Dictionary" and has written about language for The New York
Times. And, of course, Geoff Nunberg has contributed commentaries on language
to FRESH AIR since 1987.

Geoff, you say when you listen to the language of modern politics, that the
right seems to have the best lines. Like what?

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG (Author, "Talking Right"): Well, the right has always done
best in what I think of as the bumper sticker wars. All these phrases like
"No Child Left Behind" and "The Death Tax." And from that point of view,
they've certainly been much more deft at phrase-making than the left has,
though I think the real victory of the right linguistically is controlling
what I think of as the ground level language of politics, the ordinary words
that people use when they're kicking these subjects around at the barber shop
or on the breakfast table.

GROSS: Does that mean like values?

Mr. NUNBERG: It's words like values and elite and, of course, liberal and
bias. All of those words that the way they're used now embodies a right wing
point of view so that it's as if the entire center of gravity in the language
has moved to the right. And it's virtually impossible for anyone, and I mean
not just people on the right, but people in the center, people in the left,
people in the media, to talk about politics now without often implicitly
assuming a point of view that's associated with the right.

GROSS: You said that the right took the language of the liberal rallying
cries of the '60s and '70s, and managed to use it for their own causes.
What's an example of that?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, take the way the right uses color-blind. When that word
came into the American political discourse, it had been around for a long
time, but it became a watch word of the civil rights movement in the '40s and
'50s. It referred in particular to eliminating legal impediments to people of
color and in particular eliminating racial segregation. During that entire
period, the right never used the word. They only picked it up in the '70s and
the '80s when all of a sudden issues of affirmative action came up. And all
of a sudden, the right discovered that color-blindness was a virtue. So
that's a very telling example of the way the right turns a word that used to
have one moral valance, let's say, and makes it do the work of the other side.

Take the way they use the phrase hate speech, which was being used in the 2004
election by the Republicans to refer basically to any speech that was critical
of President Bush. Now that's not the meaning of hate speech. Hate speech
refers originally to speech directed at a person in virtue of that person's
ethnicity or sexual preference or whatever. But for the right, it became
simply speech that expresses an intense dislike in the hope that the
connotations of speech that's unacceptable, that's outside the boundaries of
acceptable discourse, would stick to it in the new use.

GROSS: And is the word intended to keep a certain moral righteousness from
its early origins?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, it's--yes, to preserve the sense of moral righteousness
that was originally associated with the word, but using the word in a very
different way. This is what the right has done with hate speech. It's what
they've done with color-blind. It's what they've done with discrimination and
bias. And most notably, it's what the right has done with freedom, in
expanding the word in the hope that people would see in the--the right not to
have to pay a minimum wage or the right not to have to provide health care
would be seen as the same kind of freedom that Washington's soldiers struggled
for at Valley Forge, for example.

GROSS: You look at how the word liberal has changed over the years, and I
think this is like a really interesting change. You go back to the 1960s when
liberal was often a put-down word from radicals. The '60s radicals often used
the word liberal with a certain amount of derision, and as an example of that,
you give the protest singer Phil Ochs song, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." So I
thought we could just listen to that and talk a little bit about how the word
has changed. So this is Phil Ochs from 1966 in concert introducing his song,
"Love Me, I'm a Liberal."

(Soundbite of concert)

Mr. PHIL OCHS: In every American community of varying shades of political
opinion, one of the saddest of these is the liberals.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. OCHS: An outspoken group on many subjects, 10 degrees to the left of
center in good times, 10 degrees to the right of center if it affects them
personally. So here then is a lesson in...(unintelligible).

(Singing) "I cried when they shot Medgar Evers. Tears ran down my spine. And
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy, though I'd lost a father of mine. But
Malcolm X got what was coming. He got what he asked for this time. So love
me, love me, love me. I'm a liberal." Get it?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Phil Ochs singing the song, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." And a
little later in the song, he describes liberals as people who think `I love
Puerto Ricans and Negroes as long as they don't move next door.'

So, Geoff Nunberg, how did liberals go from a word that the left often used to
put down people who were a little complacent, whose politics were involved
with their own self-interest? How did it go from a word that wasn't radical
enough to a word now that's perceived as really being on the left?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, it suffered from attacks from both sides. I love that
tape you dug out, the Phil Ochs singing. It's a reminder of just how smug and
self-congratulatory the '60s left was and how smug and self-congratulatory it
still is in certain ways. And that attack coincided with a growing attack
from the right.

Now liberalism was already having problems on the inside. There was Vietnam,
there was the perceived failure of Great Society programs. There was
hostility about busing and other programs. But the right really began to
attack liberalism seriously in the '70s and the '80s. if you want to date
when the liberal label became sort of officially disparaging, you could point
to the 1988 Republican convention when the outgoing President Ronald Reagan
said, `The masquerade is over. It's time to say the dreaded L word.' In that
phrase, the L word thereafter became a kind of stigmatized way of referring to
the liberal label so that liberal politicians themselves became chary of using
the word and began to avoid it or sidestep around it. Others on the left
adopted this label of progressive which had always been around in a sense, but
by way of saying, `We'll get around the problem associated with the liberal
label just by changing the name.' In the book I compare it to what the Ford
Motor Company did when the Edsel ran into trouble. They basically kept making
the same car but called it Galaxy with a new trim and grill and just hoped
nobody would notice. And I think that's the way a lot of people on the left
think of the liberal label now. If we ignore it, it will go away. What's
happened instead is that the liberal label--the right has been left to define
the label. The sense of what a liberal is has both moved further and further
to the left. And rather than involving a particular political program, it's
become a kind of shorthand for a whole set of lifestyle stereotypes that I
talk about, actually in the subtitle of the book. These latte-drinking,
sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing,
Hollywood-loving left-wing freak show. And in that sense, the entire liberal
movement and liberalism itself have been discredited.

GROSS: Well, with that subtitle that you just quoted, that subtitle of your
book is actually from a political ad campaign, and I thought we could listen
to that ad. Now this ad is from January of 2004 in the presidential primary
back when Howard Dean appeared to be the Democratic front-runner, and a
Republican political action committee called the Club for Growth which
supports conservative Republican candidates took out this anti-Dean,
anti-Democratic, anti-liberal ad.

So, Geoff, you want to just set up, since we won't be able to see the picture,
this is a TV ad, you want to just set up what's happening?

Mr. NUNBERG: Right. You see a middle-aged couple leaving a barber shop in a
winter background and this voiceover asks them what they think of Howard
Dean's plan to raise taxes. And then the man begins to respond and the woman
finishes the response. And I guess you'll hear that in the clip.

GROSS: Here we go.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: What do you think of Howard Dean's plans to raise
taxes on families by $1900 a year?

Unidentified Man: What do I think? Well, I think Howard Dean should take his
tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving,
New York Times-reading...

Unidentified Woman #2: Body piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show
back to Vermont, where it belongs.

Man: Got it?

Unidentified Woman #3: Club for Growth PAC is responsible for the content of
this advertising.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: OK, that's a political ad from 2004. Geoff Nunberg, what do you think
this ad accomplished?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I thought it was a brilliant ad. It manages to sum up
all of the features of the right stereotype of liberals and connect the
political parts of the program with the lifestyle parts of the stereotype.
It's extremely effective in making that association of political liberalism
with a certain set of lifestyle choices and even consumer preferences that the
right has been very successful in establishing the stereotypes about Volvos
and lattes and so on, which in fact really don't have a lot of reality in the

GROSS: Yeah, your book, you said that this ad and other things like it turned
liberalism into a white middle-class affectation and let the right suppress
the political meaning of liberal and turned it into a lifestyle brand. So if
that another shift in the word liberal that you're talking about here? That
it's gone from having political content to being associated with certain
brands, and what does that accomplish?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, it is certainly the case that if you look in the press,
and I'm not talking about the right-wing press but the so-called liberal
medias, as Eric Alterman calls them, The New York Times, The Washington Post,
the LA Times, and so on. You see, for example, that while people talk about
working-class conservatives all the time, the phrase working-class liberal
virtually doesn't exist in the press anymore. If you support certain
positions, it doesn't make you a liberal unless you can also afford the marble
countertops that would go with the label. And as I say, there's no real
market reality to that. It turns out, for example, that most people who buy
Brie are Republicans rather than Democrats, but it doesn't matter because
products like Brie and Volvo and so forth are associated with certain vacuous
stereotypes. I mean, Brie, you know, whoever actually buys this stuff, look,
it's soft, it's pale, it's runny, it's French. Right? What better way
to--what better symbol to stand in for all of the stereotypes that the right
has been trying to tack on to the liberal category.

GROSS: It's sometimes much easier to reduce people to, you know, colorful
positioning statements or colorful stereotypes with brands associated with

them than it is to talk about the issues of economics. You know, wages and
health-care issues, taxes. To really get to the nitty-gritty of that requires
charts and graphs and percentages and things that are really difficult to
understand and difficult to talk about. Do you think that both sides, you
know, Democrats and Republicans have a hard time talking about the
nitty-gritty of economic issues because it's so darn hard to talk about in a
breezy way?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, that's certainly true, and it explains the difficulty
that Democrats have had, for example, in explaining the effects of the Bush
tax cuts or why the estate tax actually only applies to a tiny proportion of
American people and what the consequences of eliminating it would be. It also
explains why the Republicans, or I should say the right really, have been
extremely successful at wrapping these issues into this sort of neopopulist
narrative about how the good people of the heartland, their ideas about
religion and personal morality and patriotism have been traduced by this
supercilious East and West Coast elites, which by the way is another word that
the right has been very successful in changing the meaning of. There was a
time when elite was much more likely to be associated with the bankers and
people in finance and industry than with entertainers or academics or
journalists. Now, in fact--which is still the way it is in the UK, in fact.
But nowadays, elite is much more likely to conjure up this image of these
fatuous New York and Los Angeles intellectuals and actors and so on.

GROSS: My guest is linguist Geoff Nunberg. His new book is called "Talking
Right." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Geoff Nunberg. He's a linguist. In fact, he does regular
commentaries about the language for FRESH AIR. He has a new book called
"Talking Right." And it's a book about how liberals and conservatives use

Geoff, you've been writing a lot more about language and politics in the past
few years. And are there TV shows, radio shows, that you make a point of
listening to so you hear how the language is changing, or newspapers,
magazines that you make a point of reading to see how the language is
changing? Politically?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, sure. I mean, I read the newspapers and the political
weeklies and monthlies and listen to the political shows in television,
particularly to the shows on Fox or right-wing talk radio. Partly because,
you know, I'm an angry white guy, too. These guys are speaking to me. But
also because I think there really is something interesting going on in the
American political discourse, a kind of sea change where the very nature of
those basic distinctions between liberal and conservative which used to be a
philosophical distinctions about the role of government and has now become, as
I say, largely due to the language used, a matter of these clashing lifestyles
or personal philosophies. And while it began on the right, certainly, the
left has picked it up as well.

GROSS: You say you watch Fox News a lot. What do you think of their slogan,
"We report, you decide"?

Mr. NUNBERG: You know, that slogan's very interesting. It's calculated as
is the fair and balanced slogan, basically to drive liberals crazy. And, in
fact, you have to think of a lot of the rhetoric of the right as serving just
that purpose. The object is to drive the other side up a wall and both the
liberal listeners who listen out of just the pleasure of indignation and the
conservative listeners who just enjoy thinking how liberals react to this
stuff get off on that strategy. So "We report, you decide," for example,
which suggests that they're merely giving the facts and letting the audience
decide is a perfect example of that when in fact Fox colors the facts
persistently. And Fox listeners tend to be systematically, have far more
erroneous assumptions about politics than listeners to NPR or network news.
Nonetheless, it drives liberals crazy.

GROSS: You know, you've been paying a lot of attention to radio, TV,
newspapers. Conservatives maintain that there is a liberal bias in the press,
so instead of the mainstream press, you often hear the word the liberal press
from conservatives. And given the kind of history of the word liberal that
you discussed earlier, what do you make of the liberal press the way it's used

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I think when you look at the way people talk about
liberal bias, it's often said, well, this is an effort to work the refs, to
push the mainstream media into giving more coverage of conservatives, of
feeling obliged up and down the line to report conservative points of view on
the issues. And there's certainly a lot of that in it, but I think it does
something else as well. What it gives you is a kind of license to ignore
anything in the press that you find uncongenial or that you disagree with.
You hear these people talk about problems in Iraq. Well, it's the liberal
media. You can discount that. In fact, that's what bias is about. I mean,
I'm a San Francisco Giants fan, and for a long time, I just didn't read the
stories about Barry Bonds and steroids. I don't want to know. The media has
it in for Barry Bonds. It's my responsibility as a Giants partisan to ignore
those stories. Well, in sports, that's an acceptable way to be. But it's
increasingly the position that people take in politics where you feel you're
entitled to ignore anything in the media that you don't enjoy, you don't like.

GROSS: Do you watch Stephen Colbert's show and everybody has taken note of
his coinage of the word truthyness for something that it sounds accurate,
sounds like the truth.

Mr. NUNBERG: Right. It's a very interesting word. If fact, we at the
American Dialect Society made it the word of the year last year. And once you
have that word, it's one of these words that really gives you an insight into
what's going on. You begin to realize that it's kind of the structural
plausibility of a story that counts. It's the way it fits into this
convenient overarching narrative rather than the actual facts of the case. In
fact, facts are overrated when you're talking about these stories. You listen
to Ann Coulter, and the most outrageous things she says have nothing to do
with facts one way or the other. They're not so much lies or distortions.
The idea, for instance, that the 9/11 widows enjoyed their husbands' death. I
mean, that isn't something she could know, that anybody really thinks she
would know about. It's just as if she's sitting there saying, `Well, what's
the most tasteless single thing I can say about this to get me on the air?'
And it works brilliantly.

GROSS: Geoffrey Nunberg's new book is called "Talking Right." He teaches at
the school of information at the University of California at Berkeley and is
FRESH AIR's language commentator. He'll be back in the second half of the

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Army Chaplain Ran Dolinger talks about his experiences in
Iraq, and we continue our interview about the political vocabulary of the left
and the right with linguist Geoff Nunberg, author of the book "Talking Right."


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Geoffrey Nunberg. We're
talking about his new book, "Talking Right," which is about the political
vocabulary of the right and the left. Geoff is FRESH AIR's language
commentator. He's a linguist who teaches at the school of information of the
University of California at Berkeley, and he chairs the usage panel of the
"American Heritage Dictionary."

You think that Democrats have basically lost in terms of who owns or controls
the language of politics. What do you think they've done wrong?

Mr. NUNBERG: Look, the Democrats have made a lot of mistakes, and most of
them don't have anything to do with language. They haven't been able to come
up with a coherent self-image. But even if they were able to come up with a
coherent self-image, they have to find language and in particular narratives
that tie all those points together and make for something that's compelling
and convincing to American voters. And I think the Democrats have just been
terrible at doing that.

I ran one of those automatic summarization programs some years ago on the
collected speeches at the Republican convention in 1996, and it came up with
this summary that could stand in for every Republican speech made over the
last 15 years. `We are the Republican Party, a big, broad, diverse and
inclusive party with a common-sense agenda and a better man for a better
America. We need a leader we can trust. Thank you for being part of this
quest and working with us to restore the American dream' and so on.

I did the same thing with the speeches at the Democratic conventions. What I
came up with was word salad. Because the Democrats were going off in their
separate directions. And I think the significance of that is not simply that
the Republicans have been much better at harping on the same themes and
talking points. But that they've come up with a narrative that anybody can
tell. The brilliance of what the Republicans have done isn't reflected in the
way a natural storyteller like Ronald Reagan can deliver these lines because
he's Ronald Reagan. It's the fact that very unnatural storytellers like Bill
Frist or Sam Brownback, who are certainly not charismatic or inspiring
speakers, can nonetheless successfully recount this narrative. It's a
one-size-fits-all narrative. And that's where the Republicans and the right
in particularly have had this brilliant success.

GROSS: Give us an example of how you think conservatives have succeeded in
coming up with a narrative that gives key, symbolic words meaning and works
really well for conservatives.

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, take this famous word values. It's a word the Democrats
have been trying to recapture at least since Geraldine Ferraro's acceptance
speech in the 1984 Democratic convention. They've been talking about values.
The Kerry campaign billed itself as a celebration of American values. So all
these years, Democrats have been trying to reclaim this word. It's terribly
annoying to the Democrats, the way values issues are defined. You know,
whether you wish somebody "Merry Christmas" or merely "Season's Greetings,"
that's a values issue. Whether we torture prisoners, that's not a values
issue. And they have to understand that when people use the word values, it
doesn't just have the dictionary definition. Its meaning is derived from this
story about the way this East and West Coast liberal elite has traduced the
standards of personal morality and patriotism and religious values that real
heartland, middle Americans have. And it's in constructing that whole
opposition and the idea of the culture wars and the blue/red distinction, all
of that that this word values acquires its meaning. And what you have to
offer is not just a way of using values in its original dictionary meaning but
rather a compelling story to counter that story. And then the words will take
on the meaning from the story itself.

GROSS: Do you have a president or a politician in general who you admire
immensely for the way they used language?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, in recent years, I certainly think Bill Clinton,
particularly in his 1992 campaign, used the language brilliantly. He
understood what a narrative really is. If you think of a narrative, what I
think is the little capsule movie reviews that you see in the television
pages. `Man considers suicide when he thinks he's a failure until an angel
shows him the value of his life,' something like that. And Clinton's speeches
had that same character. `I'm tired of seeing people who work hard and play
by the rules get the shaft.' That's a little miniature narrative all by
itself. And Clinton understood that. John Edwards is another politician who
understands that, a person who's very comfortable with that. But as I said
earlier in connection with the Republicans, what's important is not finding
politicians who are particularly skillful at that but rather finding the kind
of narrative that even politicians who aren't particularly gifted storytellers
can tell and successfully convey.

GROSS: What about President Bush? How would you describe him as a public
speaker and how would you rate his ability to use the language in the way that
gets to the kind of narrative that you've been talking about, a kind of larger

Mr. NUNBERG: Bush has certainly gotten a lot of criticism for his gaffes and
malapropos and so on, and this impression he gives of being incapable of
framing a coherent English sentence. I think that's all beside the point. I
think Bush's gift is to triumph over a personal history of privilege, to
convey the impression of somebody who's just ordinary folks, somebody who
could walk into any barber shop and feel right at home. And I think Bush's
very inarticulateness conveys the sense of somebody who is suspicious of
complicated ideas. When you hear Bush mention the word freedom, you have the
sense that it's a simple idea that anybody could understand except for these
intellectuals who make everything too complicated. So I think Bush is
actually very successful at putting over the narrative that the right has been

GROSS: Geoff, your new book "Talking Right" about how the left and the right
use language has just been published, so I'm sure you'll be doing a bunch of
interviews in the next few weeks. Have you thought a lot about what it will
be like for you if you're on one of the talk shows in which the culture wars
are constantly waged and everything is about the culture wars and that, you
know, the divisions within our country. So if you're cast as a character in
one of their shows, have you thought about what kind of language you're going
to use to explain what you're talking about? Do you know, like, what tone
you'll want to take?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I hope I'll just speak in the same tone I would talk to
NPR listeners in. I think this whole business of the culture wars draws
distinctions that are really false and misleading and at the root of a lot of
problems. I tell a story in the book about going to Infineon Raceway nearby
here to watch the NASCAR, the Dodge 350 with my daughter. And you're standing
outside the pit area, hoping for a glimpse of Richard Petty or Jeff Gordon
with a bunch of people who are holding--because it's up near the Napa Valley,
holding little glasses of Napa Valley Zinfandel in plastic cups. There's no
contradiction there. The idea that American society is carved into two
languages, into two distinct cultures, as distinct people like to say as
anything since the Civil War, is simply nonsense. These are very superficial
characteristics that are blended and mixed in different ways and in different
areas and among different groups. And the entire idea of there being this
culture war is in a sense a creation of the right which does the right work,
but that the left has also begun to buy into.

GROSS: Geoff, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. NUNBERG: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Geoffrey Nunberg's new book is called "Talking Right." You can read an
excerpt on our Web site Geoff teaches at the school of
information at the University of California at Berkeley and is FRESH AIR's
language commentator.

Coming up, Army Chaplain Ran Dolinger talks about his experiences in Iraq.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Army chaplain Lieutenant Colonel Ran Dolinger discusses
being a chaplain in Iraq and his experiences ministering to
soldiers in the field

My guest Lieutenant Colonel Ran Dolinger is an Army chaplain who has served in
Iraq, Bosnia and Korea and has trained many Army chaplains. In 2003 and '4,
he spent eight months in Iraq with an engineering brigade. He plans to return
to Iraq for 10 weeks in September.

We invited him to talk about his experiences as a chaplain in Iraq.

Now I know that you've said you disagree with the old saying, "There are no
atheists in foxholes." Why do you disagree with that?

Lieutenant Colonel RAN DOLINGER (Army Chaplain): The reason I disagree with
that is because, I mean, statistically it was even proven back when that
statement first came out that there are atheists in foxholes. There's a whole
organization called Atheists in Foxholes and they like to make a big point
that, `Hey, there are some of us.' And essentially what we say that is true is
that people's religious faith, whatever it is, deepens during a time of stress
and combat. So what happens is the people who are religious become more so.
The people who were maybe just sort of religious but not much become deeper in
their faith. And those who are atheists sometimes become deeper atheists,
they become more committed.

GROSS: Is your faith ever tested as you observe some of the worst things that
man can do to man?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: That doesn't test my faith so much, but obviously
everyone's faith is tested. When I see what man does to man, that kind of
only--it reinforces what I kind of believe that men need God, men need a
savior, men need something to change them from the way they are.

GROSS: Can you give us an overview of the different places you've been in
Iraq and the different kinds of troops that you've worked with.

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: I was an engineer brigade chaplain, and so engineers are
a very diverse group. They build bridges, they build roads, they've built
towers. We had divers. In fact, two of our divers went and when the two MPs
fell in the water and drowned, the divers went to go look for them. The
divers also, you know, clean rudders on the back of ships and things like
that. So engineers can be firefighters, engineers can clear the road of IEDs.
And that group, actually the divers were as far south as Kuwait, and the
bridgers were up near Tikrit. That's where Saddam Hussein's birthplace is and
we put in the longest bridge ever, I guess, under fire there in Tikrit, the
engineer unit did.

GROSS: When you were with the brigade of engineers, what was your typical day

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: You know, I always said that the typical day is really
boring. If in fact somebody came and looked at what you did on any one
particular day, they would say, `Wow, that wasn't hard at all.' But what makes
it hard is doing that same thing every day for an entire year. It's sort of
like holding the cup of coffee out, you know, and you're just holding the cup
of coffee. And you're like, `Well, that's not very heavy.' Now hold it all
day. You know, now hold it for a week. All of a sudden, that's long-term
low-grade stress. And that's what the troops are going through as well. Now
there are times I was shot at, mortar rounds did come in, but those are
actually kind of exciting. What really makes warfare hard is the long, slow
wearing of who you are and, you know, your physical being and all those other
things. It just grinds on you. It's every day, day in, day out. They call
it groundhog day. It just keeps going.

GROSS: You mentioned that you work with soldiers who were clearing the roads
of IEDs. That seems like it's probably one of the most dangerous positions in
Iraq because it's the IEDs that are doing, you know, in addition to the car
bombs and stuff, the IEDs are doing a lot of damage. And you can't see them
for the most part. Have you heard from soldiers who were in an IED explosion
and survived but had friends who, you know, friends, buddies, who did not?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: Soon after I got to Iraq, in fact, one of the first
missions I had--one of the things the chaplains do is we talk to the people
who are involved in such attacks. It's a kind of a way for them to deal with
the stress of what they've just been through. And not long after I'd been
there, maybe it was within 30 days and for sure, we had a guy who was killed
and another one who lost part of an arm in an IED attack. Well, obviously, I
didn't talk to the ones who were killed nor to the guy who was seriously
injured because they evacuated him right away. But I got to talk with all the
people who were in the vehicle at the time. And, you know, they're talking
about, `Well, maybe I should have done this or maybe I should have done that.'
`Well if I would have pulled--you know, if I would have been driving that day
instead of him because, you know, normally I drive. But he chose to drive
that day.' And they wrestle with all those things. But, in the end, I think a
lot of them, they kind of come to grips with, you know, `This day was the day
that he was doing that and this day was the day I was doing my mission and
that's just the way it is.' And, you know, could have been the other way, but,
you know, this is the way it is, and they learn to deal with that. Some
people deal with that better than others. I would say the group that I
particularly talked to, I would say 90 percent of them came to a very quick
resolution, and about 10 percent, it lingered a little bit longer. Usually,
if it's a close friend or something like that, it would linger for them a
little bit longer.

GROSS: What's the difference between the kind of help or advice that you can
give a soldier whose friend was hurt in an IED attack while they were there
and the advice that a psychologist would give that same soldier?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: You know, in a lot of ways what I give is not so much
advice as is a listening ear. One of the things we do is we listen, and it's
the same thing a psychologist would do. And, in fact, we work very closely
with the combat stress team so that if a person came and talked to me first,
and usually to be honest with you, within the military, that's the way it
works. People will usually come to a chaplain first because, one, there's
more of us; two, we're in the unit with the people so we actually are there.
And then if that person was still having problems over a long period of time,
I probably would refer them to the combat stress team. But specifically if a
person's religious, I don't have any problem at all talking to them in
religious terms where a psychologist typically would not do that.

GROSS: Do people of every faith come to you?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: Yeah, I would definitely say that every soldier ends up
coming and talking to us. If a soldier doesn't come to a chaplain, it
probably has more to do with personality issues than it would to do with
religious issues. A lot of the soldiers probably don't even know what
religion I am. They just know I'm their chaplain. The way I kind of approach
counseling is kind of like what I call the Old Testament model. In the Old
Testament, you have prophets, you have priests and you have sages. The
prophets talked about things that are lawful or unlawful, just or unjust. The
priests talk about things that are holy or unholy, sacred or profane. And the
sage, he says, `Hey, that's stupid.' And he talks about wise and discerning.
And a lot of times as the chaplain, I take the sage kind of route. And a lot
of times, we take the approach of, `Hey, that's pretty dumb. Don't go down
that road.'

GROSS: Do soldiers ever confide in you about things that they really couldn't
talk about with their commanders, for instance, because it would be considered

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: They definitely talk to us about a lot of things that
they don't talk to their commanders about. Being weak might be one thing.
Being that they're guilty of something could be another. I mean, they could
have actually done something that they shouldn't have done. And they don't
necessarily want to tell the commander that. Also a lot of times, the way I
put it is soldiers want their problems addressed without their address being
known. They don't necessarily want everyone to know that they were the one
who brought the issue up. And yet at the same time they want the issue to be
dealt with.

GROSS: Do you ever say when a soldier feels guilty because he thinks there
was something more he could have done to protect someone's life, do you ever
say, `Well, God will forgive you'?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: No, I really don't say it that way because, to be honest
with you, being real light or flippant about forgiveness, it doesn't work. If
a person really, really feels guilty, and I just say, `Oh, you're forgiven,'
then they don't feel it in their heart. And so a lot of times what I would do
is I would get them to express, what is it that you actually feel guilty
about? And then kind of maybe take them through a thought process. For
instance, one process I could take them through is, `OK, this is what you've
done wrong. If someone else had done that to you, would God want you to
forgive that other person?' And the answer would be that, `Yeah, of course,
God would want you to forgive that other person. He asks us to forgive.'

GROSS: You referred earlier to a situation where you were working with a
brigade of engineers in Iraq where I think two of the soldiers had drowned or
nearly drowned and two other soldiers went in--straighten out the story for
me. Go ahead.

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: Well, actually what happened was there was an MP unit
that--they were on patrol on the river, and one fell in and the other guy
jumped in to save him, but he wasn't as good of a swimmer, I guess, or he had
equipment on that he didn't get off before he jumped in. Bottom line is they
both drowned. And it was a very difficult situation. The MPs were looking
for them and, obviously, we never leave a fallen comrade behind. And that we
take very seriously. And so they looked for him, and we brought the divers
up, and they looked for him for 12 days. Now the water is very dark. It's
not like you can just see anything you want to. When you look down there,
it's very murky. So they're essentially reaching out with their hands trying
to find a dead body. And so they're trying to find something they don't want
to find.

GROSS: So what happened? Did they finally find the bodies?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: They did find them. It took 12 days, and they found
them. When they found them, their bodies were real bloated and just very
disfigured in that sense. And so it was very traumatic for the guys who
actually did find them. And they spent a lot of time actually talking with
Chaplain Stanton Trotter who was with the MPs because he was right there on
the ground. And then later they came back to the unit where I was at and
wanted to talk there also.

GROSS: Do soldiers often come to you after they've killed or wounded either
an insurgent or a civilian who they mistakenly thought was an insurgent?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: I mean, soldiers deal with the fact that they have been
shot at and they deal with the fact that they have shot at somebody. And both
things are pretty traumatic. It isn't like they, you know, when they shoot at
somebody that they don't give it any thought at all. It's always something
that they think about. If it's not something that they think about right
then, it's something that they think about later. For instance, I had a
soldier who came to me, and he said, `I'm wondering if God is punishing me for
not being concerned about the fact that I shot somebody. He was aiming a
weapon at me. I really felt like it was the right thing to do. But I didn't
give it much thought at the time. And now I'm wondering if God is getting me
because now my mom is suffering with cancer.'

GROSS: My guest is Army chaplain Ran Dolinger. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chaplain Lieutenant Colonel Ran
Dolinger. He served with the Army in Iraq and in Bosnia.

This is a controversial war, and I think many soldiers have become
disillusioned with the war and many soldiers with the Bush administration's
handling of the war. And I'm wondering if that's the kind of issue that
soldiers ever bring to you.

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: I think soldiers come from every walk of life, and so if
there are people in the country who question things, then there are soldiers
who question things. And obviously they think about those things all the
time. And, yeah, sure, they come and talk about those kinds of things. And I
would tell you there's nothing about being a chaplain that makes you, you
know, for or necessarily against the war. Chaplains come from every walk of
life. We're endorsed by 200 separate endorsing bodies and everybody has a
different viewpoint. So the issue isn't so much, you know, getting our
viewpoint across to the soldier, but it's helping the soldier deal with his
own viewpoint and to deal with his own concept of where he's at. And a lot of
that is more about asking questions than it is about, you know, `Hey, here's
the party line. You need to, you know, salute and get in line and follow it.'

GROSS: Do you allow yourself to have a position on the war? Do you feel like
that's not why you're there. You're there for the men who are in the Army
whether you agree with the war or not doesn't matter?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: Well, I mean, I do personally have a position on the
war. I'm personally for it. But I would have to say that a lot of my
colleagues are not and a lot of people that I work for--I mean, I wouldn't say
it's the majority, but certainly there are people who hold a different view.
And so the view itself is not the main issue I guess is what I would say. In
other words, whether I was for it or whether I was against it wouldn't keep me
as a chaplain from ministering to the people who have to be there. So my job
is to minister to the soldiers whether I was for it or whether I was against
it. And we try to keep that focus because, you know, there may be another war
that comes along and suppose I'm not for that particular one for whatever
personal reasons. That wouldn't change the fact that I still need to be there
to minister to those troops.

GROSS: You train chaplains. What are some of the things you tell new
chaplains about the difference between just being a minister or a rabbi or a
priest in their faith and being a chaplain which is ecumenical?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: Well, actually we use the word pluralistic as opposed to
ecumenical. And what we mean by that is ecumenical is sort of like, `Well,
we're all one.' Pluralistic is `We're all different but we're going to get
along.' And so we know that there are other people out there who believe
differently than we do, and we don't look for the lowest common denominator
that we can talk about the only thing that is the same that we have. But we
acknowledge the differences, and we still, you know, treat people with dignity
and respect even though they completely have a different viewpoint than we do.

GROSS: I know one of the things a lot of troops worry about when they're in a
war zone and away from home is that will the relationship that they have with
their wife or their girlfriend or their boyfriend or husband be the same when
they get back. And will the person who they love have fallen in love with
somebody else in their absence? Do you have to deal with a lot of worries
like this?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: Absolutely. What I tell people is they are going to
change. There is no way that after a year apart that you're not going to
change. A lot of times, the wife doesn't need you after. Maybe she said, `I
need my husband here.' But after a year, she finds a way to deal with
everything. She doesn't need you but, hopefully, she still wants you. And
what I tell the guys is spend time every day working on your relationship.
Even though you're apart, write. Take time to write. You can't go wrong if
you write. And, in fact, I talk about a novel approach of keeping your
marriage together, and that's write a novel. Write a novel about how you met,
what you're going through, and then write the novel even to a point of hope
where it goes out to the point where you look as grandparents, and you're
sitting there in the room with the dog and the cat and the fireplace and you
look at each other in the eyes and you say to yourself, `I sure am glad we
stuck it out.'

GROSS: Do you think that's effective?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: Absolutely.

GROSS: Did you do it? Did you do it?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: I still get credit for letters I wrote back in Korea
because my wife pulled them out when I was in Iraq. She pulled out my Korea
letters and my Bosnia letters and she reread them, and I got credit for that.
You can't go wrong if you write.

GROSS: And how do you feel when you read the letters back?

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: You know, it's amazing. It brings tears to your eyes.
And, you know, I make my letters very personal, they're to her alone, and, you
know, we keep them under lock and key.

GROSS: Well, I wish you the best, and thank you very much for talking with

Lt. Col. DOLINGER: Thank you, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Lieutenant Colonel Ran Dolinger is an Army chaplain. He currently
serves at the Chief of Chaplains Office as media liaison officer. He returns
to Iraq in September.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


A more moderate Taliban? An Afghan journalist says nothing has changed

Afghan British journalist Najibullah Quraishi has had trouble sleeping for more than two hours a stretch ever since the U.S. withdrew troops from Afghanistan in August and the Taliban came back into power. Quraishi grew up in Afghanistan under Soviet and Taliban rule, and began reporting on the Taliban before the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks and the onset of the U.S. Afghan war. He's currently in Kabul reporting for his upcoming PBS Frontline documentary, Taliban Takeover, (airing Oct. 12) which details life in Afghanistan now.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue