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The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. From the Civil War Through World War II
James Dawes
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002
$39.95, 308 pages, ISBN 0-674-00648-8.

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego NY

James Dawes opens The Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. From the Civil War Through World War II with a quote from Anna Akhmatova, the poetic voice of Russia’s imprisoned and disappeared. Dawes takes on the enormous task of examining the interstices between war, here conflated with violence, and language. He wishes to discover the ways in which the “strategic violence of war affect[s] literary, legal and philosophical” cultural artifacts. He begins by describing two models of the interaction between war and language: the “emancipatory model” describes force and language as mutually exclusive; the “disciplinary model” presents the two categories as constitutive. The emancipatory model posits that “democratic language practices” free us from the rule of force or violence. On the other hand, the disciplinary model “derived primarily from poststructuralism” regards language as both part of the “disciplinary regime” based on force and as a way of controlling and structuring violence. He also posits war as the “limit” case, that is war is the maximum expression of violence, or violence universalized. In other words, for his purposes Dawes will consider language and violence as polar opposites. On the one end of the scale, language is unconstrained; on the other there is no language, only violence. It is the areas between, a wide range of mixes, that most interest Dawes.

In the first chapter, Dawes explores the ways in which the development of highly centralized organizations increasingly influenced the lives of individuals in America. He relates this to the rise of statistics as a science and then connects the idea of ‘counting’ to the dehumanizing of battle and its effects during the Civil War. As he says “Counting is the epistemology of war.” As the book's title implies, Dawes proceeds through this chapter by examining the writings of such diverse chroniclers of the war as William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant, Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman. For Sherman, Dawes asserts, the most effective way of describing his war experiences is to use a “catalog of names and the chart of the body count.” Since war destroys and defies language, narrative cannot reproduce the reality of war. Hence Sherman is reduced to numbers, body counts, stores expended in his attempt to communicate the war experience to those who were not there.

When he turns to fiction, Dawes finds a similar linguistic dodge. Alcott and Whitman both served as nurses during the Civil War. Alcott in Hospital Sketches presents a somewhat romantically inclined nurse who quickly discovers the technique of categorizing as a defense mechanism. She defines diseases, not individuals in order to survive the casualties. Dawes recognizes the irony of the existential author, overwhelmed by numbers, attempting to contain the uncontainable with narrative: the book is mainly concerned with the story of one soldier. According to Dawes, “fashioning a linear narration becomes a means of reasserting the primacy of authorship, of agency and self-control.” Whitman on the other hand believed that the real war could not be expressed in a way that would get into the books. His solution, it seems, can be found in his catalogues, a type of verbal counting, though in Whitman the counting can be interpreted as an attempt to construct a whole national memory out of countables.

Philosophically Dawes becomes more complex as he moves through the book. He briefly explores the ways in which William James and Josiah Royce confront the problem of the part and the whole with an eye toward introducing Crane. Briefly Royce and James differ over monism vs pluralism. Royce believing that our sense separateness is a misperception of the “Absolute.” James, on the other hand, “rejects all forms of monism.” For James reality exists not as an all, but as a “set of eaches, just as it seems to.” He tempers this with a belief in the power of creating and discovering meaning, although he goes so far as to describe the reality of the human condition as absurd. Crane also confronts the absurd. Dawes maintains that The Red Badge of Courage “self-consciously reproduces the perspectival shifts of this objective-absurd vision of consciousness.” Crane’s narrative strategy is to alternate “expansive objectivity” with “subjective apprehension” and a sense of “self-importance” with a sense of “irrelevance.”

Dawes next attempts to define the difference between tools and weapons. In doing so, he sets up the questions that he will attempt to answer with the rest of the book. These questions are: What is the relationship between creation and consumption? What necessary relation, if any, does the act of creating have with violence? How do we inhibit the potential for violence? And probably most challenging though Dawes gives it the least space: What responsibility does the maker have to society? These questions are answered primarily through the literary analysis of post-World War I novels by Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Dawes explores Hemingway’s attempt to create a personal ethos that could resist the a-lingual power of technological war first experienced on a global scale. Like Alcott, Hemingway attempts to control the experience by focusing on the individual response to war and its casualties. Dawes uses the term “grotesque”: “marked by the disruption of familiar categories, by unstable oppositions, heterogeneous combinations, and the erasure of formal boundaries.” Certainly Hemingway’s description of the physical and emotional state of Catherine Barkley and Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms provides a literary exploration of the term. In the end, Frederic’s concern with “right” and “duty” and Catherine’s instinctive concern for the right outcome, regardless of means, betray them in grotesque disaffirmation of any belief system. Additionally, Dawes demonstrates the grotesque by an exploration of the way tools become weapons and weapons become tools through the vehicle of language. He is also cautious of ways in which language could transmute the violence of war into a thing of glory. In other words the risk of encountering the unspeakable through narration resides in the real possibility of glorifying the very thing one seeks to condemn, recalling the work of Primo Levi and Tim O’Brien.

War, according to Dawes, results from a failure of language. We can commit war when we create what Erik Erikson calls “pseudo-species,” categories of those we can kill. We use language and naming to do so. War destabilizes the self, erases borders not only between countries but also between individuals who lose humanity in the collective noun that we call them. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Dawes suggests that guerilla warfare and romantic love become the expression of loss of self that epitomizes the grotesque; “War ravishes identity, coercively dissolving the differences between individuals.”

The First World War continued the disassociation of meaning that Dawes attributes to the Civil War by its hideous and dehumanizing mechanization. The reaction to the silencing effect of war split along two language vectors: one is the use of grotesque in an attempt to represent the ineffable; the other was an attempt at a clear and direct style, which purposed to create “a durable, sharable record.” Dawes pursues these styles throughout the remainder of his book as he discusses Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and other post-WWII artists: “Artists sought a literary style equal to the task of witnessing to the unbounded and unprecedented.” He adds that the first response to war is silence, or as he quotes Marguerite Duras, “All one can do is talk about the impossibility of talking about Hiroshima.” Thus, at the end of WWII, Dawes posits, such violence results in silence. Indeed the writers he is interested in did not publish their major works about the war until the 1960s. And silence for Dawes, “is both imposed and chosen.” Language can be damaged by force, hence unequal to the task required of it. Or silence can be seen as the only reaction to an experience in which language was an instrument of the organized violence that is war.

For Heller, silence is defeat, but ordinary narrative and language no longer serve the task of the witness of war’s brutal reality. Yossarian and the others are victims, not so much of the violence of war as of the linguistic violence of propaganda and the bureaucratic entanglement that absolves those in power of responsibility for the atrocity they perpetrate daily on the men of their charge. Both the grotesque and the absurd become tools which Heller can employ in his narrative of the inexpressibility of war. The task he asks of narrative (is sanity possible in war?) cannot be achieved by the ordinary structures of narrative. And Dawes explores the way distortion and miscommunication are structurally generated by complex organizations and duplicated in the novel. The Army, a complex organization if there ever was one, uses rules, role specialization, and a motivation system of reward to control soldiers and officers alike. Milo Minderbinder represents the effectively controlled soldier. The war, for him, consists in ordering and maintaining supplies. He is a function without any larger humanity to guard him from the bureaucracy. Dawes reminds us that “Catch-22 itself, the law justifying arbitrary assertions of military authority,” is “the most fully and tragically representative” misuse of language in the service of the insanity of war. To recognize the insanity of war meant you were sane; hence you could not be excused from participating in the war.

Dawes asserts that WWII left us with two possible responses: the antiorganizational, which suspects the performative in language or the amplification of performativity. In a return to Hannah Arendt, whom he has quoted often, he maintains that “the impoverishment of referential language” contributed to Nazi atrocities “only as effectively as the stabilization of language, through accurate reporting and witnessing, would have prevented it.” The place in which language becomes usefully stabilized, Dawes maintains, is in the Geneva Conventions. In order to examine the way in which the Conventions can be useful against war, he posits the opposition of the words, ‘theory’ and ‘rights’ discourse’. Theory advances claims about the contingency of meaning that would deny rights discourse, which refers to “a set of claims (outside the positivist tradition) that hypothesizes the existence of universal, morally binding rights that inhere in the individual by virtue of natural, rational, or pragmatic necessity.” Dawes's definitions, his naming, put theory at odds with the rights community. Theorists are, thus, apologists for political quietism, cultural relativism, and “hostile to the promotion of human rights.” Given the enormity of destruction in the twentieth century, how is one to speak at all, seems to be the question the last chapter seeks to answer. Dawes quotes Richard S. Kennedy who says that we must “speak a language that power doesn’t know” and refers to Blanchot and de Man who argue for “destabilization of meaning and function.”

War according to Elaine Scarry occurs when issues can no longer be “resolved through argumentation and negotiation.” On the one hand we can blame language for its failure. But we can also reexamine language to find ways to make it more resistant to “derealization” and to reinscribe violence within the bounds of language, to disabuse war of its meaninglessness and subject it to “meanings, agreements, and definitions.” The linguistic instrument with which to accomplish this task is the language of law. The Geneva Conventions were initially established to provide that language. According to the Conventions, “protections granted to soldiers and civilians are rights inhering the individual rather than indulgences granted out of the pity and benignity of states.” This universalizing reflects one way in which we have reimagined the world since WWII. The conventions provide “universally accepted standards and vocabularies.” And they prioritize language over silence, hence interrupting the progression to war. They defend the rights of prisoners to “communicate,” they require “exercises in language (trials, warnings) to precede exercises in force (executions and bombings). The Conventions prescribe their own proliferation by including within themselves the obligation to be disseminated both in peace and in war. They also define: mercenary, civilian, medical units, wounded, and religious personnel. In other words, definitions are made part of the institutions that carry out war and work against the “object confusion” of war. Dawes believes that the conventions can be viewed as a counterlanguage to war that attempts to control the language systems of the war makers. In other words, by defining the terms belligerents can use, we can control their behavior. “Combatant” is much more neutral than “enemy” or any of the other words we use to dehumanize the soldiers of the other side. The Conventions also seek to regulate war by referring to “method and means” rather than to the intent of combatants.

Dawes’s final chapter provides an interesting conclusion to his discussion of the exclusivity of war and language. Because this is a book about language it is interesting to note that Dawes ends the book on an ambiguous note. He implies that we cannot determine the objective validity of moral categories and quotes Habermas who considers that it is in our collective interest to treat them as if they were real. He argues with James that by treating words, names, the language of moral categories as real in “nonexclusionary, intersubjective discourse, they become real, without coercion, and with the key feature of susceptibility to argument. The book is concise and dense. Dawes attempts much and succeeds well. At times his language seems unnecessarily jargon-laden; to quote only a small part of a much larger sentence: “organizationalism’s claim is that action cannot be explained effectively through atomistic models of rational, interest-seeking individuals […]” On another note, he includes films in his examples. Although language is important in film, the medium itself is image-driven and language is subsidiary to the image. Thus, even Dawes’s brief allusions to films seem to this reader to weaken his argument by widening it to another medium.

Dawes presents a fascinating analysis of the continuum of language and war. His insights into the ways in which language breaks down, thus allowing war, and the ways in which language becomes inadequate to describe the experience of war are sharp and will illustrated. He has gathered an impressive amount of research and presented it well. The book should be useful to those seeking to explore the literature of war and to those who wish to examine and postulate ways in which we can collectively study and use language to prevent war.

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