Warring Words

Dr. Ozzie Mayers


Preparing for my class in American Literature before 1865, a class that explores captivity narratives, I was struck by how seriously words during war time are powerful weapons.  They wield a force that is subtle in their connotation, dramatic in their succinctness, and misleading in their vagueness.  In teaching about captivity narratives in seventeenth-century America, I use the famous and often anthologized narrative written by Mary Rowlandson, who was captured by Nipmuck Indians in 1676.  For three months, she lived among these Indians, suffering through the death of her infant child and the rigors of moving from location to location with little food and harsh weather.  Her account reveals her intense religious beliefs, even in the face of her infant's death, which she understood as part of God's plan to test her faith (The Captivity Narrative of Mary Rowlandson).

While preparing for this class, I reread a fascinating study by Jill Lepore entitled The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).  Rowlandson had been captured by members of the Nipmuck tribe in retaliation for the hanging of two of its tribesmen by local New England colonists.  The bloody war was led by Chief Metacom-labeled King Philip by his opponents-and lasted eighteen months. 

Lepore's book is "a study of war . . . and of how people write about it" (ix).  Lepore says in her introduction that

Writing about war can be almost as difficult as waging it and, often enough, is essential to winning it.  The words used to describe war have a great deal of work to do: they must communicate war's intensity, its traumas, fears, and glories; they must make clear who is right and who is wrong, rally support, and recruit allies; and they must document the pain of war, and in so doing, help to alleviate it.  (ix)

Although Lepore's study focuses upon a period in America's distant past, I could not help thinking about the "war of words" that has streamed through our media and our conversations since 9/11.  The presidential campaigns have intensified this war so that, in a way, we are living through two wars: the one being fought in Iraq and the other here in the United States.  The latter comes out of the use of words as weapons, a practice which can easily shape our thinking.  For example, when President George Bush in his speech on September 11, 2001, declared a "crusade" against Islamic terrorism, he set into motion historical reverberations that go back to eleventh century Christian crusades against the Moslem infidels.  President Bush's reference-made, I expect, with little historical or religious thought-simplified matters in a time of grave complexities.  Many people wanted precisely such simplicity.  But Bush's reference glosses over the realities of the Christian crusades and the atrocities committed in the name of religion.  As Philip Gourevitch says in his recent New Yorker essay, "Bushspeak: The President's Vernacular Style," Bush appeals to his audience because his language is not only plain to the point of being more of an outline than a substantial development of ideas but also because

In style and substance, his discourse is saturated in churchiness: he touts the rights of the unborn, pooh-poohs same-sex marriage, speaks of marshalling the "armies of compassion" and of transforming America into a "culture of responsibility" and an "ownership society" by changing "one heart and soul, one conscience at a time."  (September 13, 2004: 40)

What Bush's language fails to do is reveal the consequences of its simplicity.  His language is part of an American rhetorical lineage that goes back to our attempts to clearly separate ourselves from the Old World by creating a plain-spoken speech that had roughness, wit, and concreteness in sharp contrast to what many felt was the elitist, obfuscating, and mystifying language of England and Europe.  But it was also a time that oversimplified our identity by placing "us" Americans into a box that will likely take centuries to open up in order to allow us a more multidimensional national identity.  In fact, Gloria Borger, cohost of CNBC's Capital Report, in a recent critique of current campaign rhetoric says that "Kerry may see complexities, but campaigns are about simple messages and clear choices.  Nuance has no place in a stump speech" [italics mine] (U.S. News & World Report 27 September 2004: 42).

I take to heart Lepore's observation that "War twice cultivates language: it requires justification, it demands description" (x).  All of us would do well to ask ourselves as we hear the rhetoric of war and of presidential elections what we are justifying and what we are describing, for these will be the ways that history will know us.