Language of War: Literature and Culture in the U.S. From the Civil
War Through World War II
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002
$39.95, 308 pages, ISBN 0-674-00648-8.
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 Russias 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. Cranes
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 Hemingways 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 Hemingways 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,
Frederics concern with right and duty
and Catherines 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 OBrien.
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 Hellers 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 wars 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 doesnt 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.
Dawess 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:
organizationalisms claim is that action cannot be explained
effectively through atomistic models of rational, interest-seeking
] 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
Dawess 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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