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The Linguistics of War


By Sue Meng

Knowing that this column may appear on the eve or morning of war makes it hard to write about anything else. So far I have deliberately avoided writing a war column because this war is so fundamentally not about language: either you are with us or against us, either you are pro-war or pro-terrorism, either you are a patriot or a threat to American security, either you are good or evil. Such a polarized black and white approach makes the job of a writer—whose native territory is the gray—far more difficult, as the work of interpretation becomes antithetical to the easy either/ors of war.

The rhetoric that surrounds this war is about anesthetizing ourselves to the ambiguities of language—because good language complicates more than it mobilizes, questions more than it condemns. In the quadrants between the axes of evil, it becomes harder to cast Saddam as Stalin incarnate, harder to lambast “old Europe” as terrorist-sympathizing dilettantes, and harder to see ourselves as the paragons of good. So rather than risking the ambiguities of nuance, our government spin-doctors new material, upgrading the “war on terror” to a “crusade against evil,” making it impossible to confuse the victims and martyrs of war.

If war in Iraq is a crusade, then Bush, Bible safe in hand, is its knight in shining armor. The President’s trump card—faith-based initiatives—recasts the nation’s problems, economic and otherwise, as problems that can be fixed if only we say to each other, as he did in a speech last month in Tennessee, “God loves you, I love you, and you can count on us both.”

In yesterday’s radio address, Bush quoted Elie Wiesel, emphasizing the nation’s “moral obligation to intervene where evil is in control.” Evil, God, moral obligations—Bush’s speeches are sounding more like sermons these days, and the lesson he wants us to take away is that America is doing God’s work. As he declared in the Tennessee faith-based initiatives speech, “Liberty is not America’s gift to the world. Liberty is God’s gift to every human being in the world,” and so it is in God’s name that we are instigating war. Of course, Bush’s use of religious rhetoric to justify war is nothing new: Churchill in a speech at the beginning of World War II called upon Europe to participate in “deliverance,” expunging “Hitler’s infected fingers from the surface of the earth.” What makes this situation different is that religion for Bush is not so much a metaphor, as it was for Churchill, but a blank check that sanctions war. If Saddam is evil, then there can be no grounds for compromise; as The Atlantic Monthly’s Jack Beatty puts it, “against evil, all means are sanctified.” Boiled down to religious truisms and moral absolutes, the rhetoric of war invites blind condemnation rather than reasoned discussion.

In an introductory speech at a conference entitled, “The Humanities and Moral Authority” this past weekend, Marjorie Garber, Kenan Professor of English Literature, spoke about the relationship between language and war, arguing that the polemical nature of language—its ability to contest meaning and incite debate—makes it central to understanding war. If the stated purpose of war in Iraq is to bring democracy into the region, and the purpose of democracies is to create societies in which free speech and artistic expression can flourish, then it is with no small amount of irony that we are fighting this war with a rhetoric that deliberately avoids debate. How can we export democracy when the health of our own is at risk?

Although Garber, speaking in a roomful of fellow humanities professors, may have been preaching to the converted, I think her speech has implications outside of the walls of the Barker Center. What is most troubling about this war is the Bush administration’s use (or misuse) of language, its refusal to confront the moral complexities of a situation that makes its moral platitudes irrelevant and irresponsible. As we go barreling into a war that involves regional instability and international discord, it seems reckless to have only two words in our diplomatic arsenal: “good” and “evil.” What happened to “statesmanship” “consensus” “debate” and “community?” Without these terms, how can we convince others that our definitions of good and evil are the same as theirs? The question, finally, is not whether this war is just or unjust, but whether justice plays a role in it in the first place. It just might be too slippery a word to include in the official war vocabulary

The fallout of Bush’s rhetoric means that anti-war groups must be increasingly vigilant about sustaining active debate rather than committing the same mistakes from the other side of the fence. Every time I hear a group or publication ironically refer to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as the Washington “axis of evil,” I cringe. As we barrel ahead toward war, we must not fall into the same trap as those we criticize.

Sue Meng ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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