by Joseph Sobran
January 11, 1999
I miss Hemingway.
This may seem an odd time for literary lamentations, but it’s not just my nostalgia speaking. The fog of war is aggravated by the fog of official language, and our rulers seem unable to open their mouths without emitting cant, cliché, dead metaphors, and useless abstractions – about “democracy,” “freedom,” “terrorism,” “Islamofascism,” “diplomatic solutions,” et cetera – which, far from defining the problems we face, only compound the confusion.
At times like this, we need clear, spare, specific language that acknowledges what we are really talking about, the kind of prose that made writers like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, both unsentimental war correspondents as well as novelists, so useful, invigorating, and even in a way consoling to read. Even today, when you read them, you know you aren’t reading dated propaganda. Good reporters still, as ever, avoid the false, loaded language of politicians. This always irritates partisans, who suspect objectivity of being disloyal and treasonous. The more we kill, the more we seem to demand euphemism.
You don’t have to be neutral in order to be honest. You merely have to describe what you see and stick to what you really know. You must ruthlessly suppress anything that smacks of wishful thinking, letting the details do the talking even when they hurt your own side. Good writing should be calm, even cold, something the reader can trust amid all the shooting and shouting.
This is a hard discipline, because impassioned people always want to justify their own side, no matter how urgent the need for the simple perspective of fact. It’s no use denouncing “cowardly terrorists,” for example, when terrorists are often fanatically, terrifyingly courageous and nothing is gained by pretending otherwise.
Likewise it’s no use complaining about “extremism” in an extreme situation, which is what war is. War by its nature inverts ordinary morality. The combatants do and approve things that would horrify them in peacetime. Devout Christians become murderers. Soldiers are honored for killing and dishonored, or worse, for refusing to fight. Atrocities are excused, except when the enemy commits them. Any scruples about killing are said to “handcuff” our own troops.
At such times unflinching honesty becomes a rare virtue. Few can look at their own side with cold eyes, or admit that the enemy is essentially no different from a moral point of view, even if his cause is bad.
In war we naturally adopt a double standard, with one vocabulary for our side and another for the enemy. Americans still cherish the memory of Axis atrocities in World War II and justify their own, particularly the intensive bombing of German and Japanese cities – things nobody would have predicted, much less advocated, before the war broke out. Even today, we commonly justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for “shortening the war” and even saving Japanese lives.
But which side’s rulers were tried and put to death for “war crimes” after the war? Which side is even now expected to do eternal penance for what it did during that war? America brought the world into the nuclear age, a permanent and irreversible horror. Was that a war crime?
No, we fret that these weapons of mass murder and mass terror may fall into “the wrong hands.” Ours, of course, are the “right” hands, in which they may be safely trusted. And we marvel that much of the world hates and fears us.
This is why we need that rare minority who can, even in wartime, look at ourselves dispassionately and speak in the disillusioned language, without rhetorical embellishment, of men like Hemingway and Orwell. Such writers do still exist, plentifully enough to help keep us sane, and they are much more likely to be found, I regret to say, in the liberal than in the conservative press. I suppose this is because, since World War II, conservatives have abandoned their old skepticism of war. This is both an explanation and a fact that needs explaining itself.
We live in terrible, confusing times, the worst I can remember. Events are so far beyond our control that about all we can hope to achieve is to keep our own minds clear. It’s not just that our rulers lie to us; it’s that they wouldn’t know how to tell the truth if they wanted to. Honest language is among our few remaining hopes.
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