Contracting a dreadful disease is not trouble enough, Miss Manners has noticed. The next bad news after the diagnosis is that the afflicted have also been drafted into the Army.

"She's battling cancer," people will say.

"He's fighting cystic fibrosis."

"She finally lost her long battle against heart disease."

Never are they allowed to forget that they have become soldiers. No matter what they do, they are congratulated for being courageous. They are gallant. They never stop fighting.

Miss Manners is not sure why this pugnacious metaphor unsettles her. Surely it is better than the language of passive victimhood, and we have all been subjected to about as much of that as we can bear. In contrast to the general piteousness of the population, wailing about the common difficulties of life, it is a relief to think that those who have life-threatening problems are taking charge and dealing with them aggressively.

That approach should also encourage others to treat seriously ill people more acceptably. From the apparently safe sidelines, one may be fearful for soldiers who are in danger, but it is an admiring sort of fear, in contrast to pity, which is so discouraging to bear.

That it is euphemistic to describe illness in military terms does not bother Miss Manners in the least. On the contrary, she is euphemism's sole defender. If there is a protective way of saying something awful, you will not find her yearning to hear it put more painfully.

Still, there are things that disturb her about this particular comparison.

One thing is that it makes illness sound like a career. It becomes something that one does, rather than something that one happens to have. However much a person's condition of health affects his or her life, it is not likely to be the chief identity that person cares to have from then on.

Furthermore, this particular career is one that requires civilians to keep out of the way. Surely people are quite callous enough about deserting the ill without being encouraged to think of them as too busy with maneuvers to notice.

Even more troublesome to Miss Manners is the suggestion that illness is a conflict that, however potentially lethal, can be won through strength of will and courage. Although this has the laudable intention of encouraging a beneficial and often warranted optimism, the military metaphor says something more.

It says that disease is a test of a person's worth. We assume, in warfare, that the good will win--and if not the good, then the strong.

The intense interest people have taken in their health in recent decades has yielded enormous benefits in the way of encouraging healthful behavior. But it has also encouraged belief in what a doctor of Miss Manners's acquaintance calls Punitive Medicine--the notion that getting sick is probably a sign of bad behavior, and not being able to conquer it a sign of weakness. The discussions one hears about what the ill and even the dead have done or not done to deserve their fate for not having "taken care" of themselves are viciously rude.

People who are sick should be allowed to retain their civilian status. They should not have to be heroes (in the old sense, Miss Manners means--before we redefined heroes from those who performed rescues to those who have the misfortune to be captured) if they don't feel up to it.

1999, Judith Martin