OxBlog

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

# Posted 10:26 AM by Patrick Porter  

SPEAKING FOR THE SOLDIERS: When I was scratching away at my Phd on the first world war, a theme that intensified as the war persisted was the struggle over who spoke for the dead and wounded.

Both pro and anti-war polemicists frequently tried to strengthen their stance and give their arguments authority by claiming that they spoke for the dead and wounded.

At times this became highly inventive, as some preachers even ventriloquised the voices of killed combatants, making up speeches that the dead would have delivered.

It is striking that in the age of nationalism and mass politics, this is part of the process where glory or honour is democratised (pardon the word), so that ordinary warriors as well as the elites that direct them are ritually commemorated and, during the war itself, become politically potent figures, often invoked in the name of certain policies.

This in itself also breeds tensions. To invoke the dead or claim to identify a political opinion with the living wounded risks the charge of demagogy and cynical manipulation.

Consider this article (cited in the excellent 'Blog them out of the Stone Age'), discussing a documentary about injured veterans returning from Iraq:

Watching a legless father go ice-skating with his two kids, among many other such scenes of courage, grit, and determination, restores your faith in humanity in a fashion that few things I have ever seen have ever done. At the same time, watching and listening to the struggles they’ve been forced to undertake all because of the lying, extremism, and incompetence of this administration and the cowardice of its enablers in the media is infuriating beyond words, particularly when you remember that including the Iraqis themselves, these stories need to be multiplied by the hundreds of thousands.

And this comment follows it:

At the same time, watching and listening to the struggles they’ve been forced to undertake all because of the lying, extremism, and incompetence of this administration and the cowardice of its enablers in the media is infuriating beyond words, particularly when you remember that including the Iraqis themselves, these stories need to be multiplied by the hundreds of thousands.

Why not just type, “I will now cheapen their sacrifice with the following words.”

If there is anything I strongly feel in the aftermath of this war, it’s that I’m f*cking tired of people using us as pawns in their agitprop.

Whether it’s the creepy Socialist Realism of (parodoxically) conservative milblogs, or the gratuitous Victim of Halliburton/Judith Miller espoused by the partisan left’s presses, the reality is that we’re collectively “cultural icons,” and not real flesh and blood people, only because of clueless pundits like Alterman.

We don’t need the arbitration of Alterman or even HBO to understand the wreckage of modern combat. I have no doubt that HBO avoided the political homily delivered by Alterman, so I’ll watch it knowing that legless men shall skate and brainless columnists, at least for that hour, shall remain silent.


As Phil Carter noted recently in his analysis of the furore over the 'Baghdad diarist', the troops as a concept and institution become a rhetorical weapon, and hear themselves constantly spoken for:

And as the argument grows louder, each side turns toward the troops, using them to stand in for their own preconceived ideas about this war.
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Comments:
It would be interesting if there were some empirical way of determining if this is more common among veterans or non-veterans.

Only speaking-for I ever liked was Kipling's Epitaphs of The War.
 
Today is about 9/11/2001.

There's only one important question concerning the attacks, did the US gov't allow/participate in 9/11?

The answer to that query would explain the illegal wire-taps, suspension of habeas corpus, banning of books like "America Deceived" from Amazon, detaining of dissenters in fences miles away from events, and multiple wars based on lies.

How can the gov't be innocent in 9/11 when we have caught it lying so many times (WACO, Ruby Ridge, no WMDs, USS Liberty, Operation Northwoods, Gulf of Tonkin, Pearl Harbor, ETC.)?

In law, if you determine a person lies ONCE during his testimony, it can be assumed that he lied in the remainder of his testimony. How come we do not hold the gov't to the same standard as it holds us to?

The gov't lied to us about Iraq and more Americans have died there than in 9/11. If the gov't lied about Iraq then why is everyone so reluctant to believe that the gov't lied about 9/11?

Final link (before Google Books bends to pressure and drops the title):
America Deceived (book)
 
First World War? Ever read Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory? Hope so.

But speaking for the dead is an old rhetorical trick. Really old. Homer did it. In Book 11, The Kingdom of the Dead, when Odysseus goes down to Hades to consult with Tiresias he runs into Achilles. When asked about whether it was all worth it, Achilles replies:

By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man--poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive--than rule down here over all the breathless dead.
 
anon 4:14,

My thesis was an attempted effort at the cultural history of world war 1, so yes I did read Fussell's book, rather often. But I managed to consult some archival materials, instead of concentrating on a narrow range of literary sources. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson have already handsomely challenged Fussell's arguments, in War in History sometime in the 1990's. Check it out.
 
Google Books has an excerpt and it looks pretty good. I will check it out. Of the library.
 
The "Baghdad Diarist," of course, was telling lies about the living for The New Republic, which isn't really the same thing as speaking for the dead.
 
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