a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point,
I can tell you there is no such thing as a "typical"
West Pointer. They come in all shades: arrogant or modest, driven
or laid-back, genuinely brilliant or marginally intelligent. I
hear contradictory assessments from my friends and associates
all the time: both "youíre such a typical West Pointer"
and "you donít seem like a typical West Pointer at all."
there is one thing for which West Point cadets and graduates do
have a consistent reputation, though, it would be this: you can
trust what they say. A cadet lives by a time-proven Honor Code:
"a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who
do." A cadet can in fact be a moral degenerate, but his words
and actions had better conform to the standards of the Honor System
if he wishes to graduate.
a cadet gets caught lying, it is no defense for him to demonstrate
that the words he uttered were "technically correct."
A cadet can say something that is "technically correct,"
but if it is clear that his intention was to deceive, then
he is guilty of lying and is thus subject to disciplinary action.
that the commander-in-chief and his inner circle of advisers were
held to the same standards as the West Point graduates they send
Joseph Wilson went public last week about the dubious use of intelligence
in President Bushís State of the Union Address, Team Bush has
been working all angles to maintain its tenuous hold on some semblance
of credibility. Still, having admitted Monday of last week that
the statement about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa was "wrong"
and probably should not have been included in the speech, they
changed their tune a bit when it came time for the Sunday morning
statement that he made was indeed accurate," claimed Condoleezza
Rice on Fox News Sunday.
statement was "technically correct," according to Donald
Rumsfeld on ABCís This Week.
which is it? Was the statement "wrong" or "accurate"?
weíll play. Weíll even play by Rumsfeldís rules. Letís get technical.
rhetoricians, and philosophers employ specialized terms when evaluating
human speech acts. "Locution" refers to the literal
meaning of a speech act. "Illocution" refers to the
effect the speaker wants to achieve in making the utterance, while
"perlocution" refers to the actual effect of the utterance
upon the audience. The latter the "perlocution" of
a speech act, the way it is received by audience is often affected
by what is known as "extra-locutionary" factors.
example, if a man wants to motivate his son to get up early and
work, he might utter the clichť, "you know, son, the early
bird gets the worm." The man is not so much concerned about
the locution of his utterance most likely he cares very
little about the actual eating habits of birds. Instead, what
is significant is his illocution; that is, he intends to provide
ample motivation to get his sonís tail out of bed. If the manís
son responds with an indifferent shrug of his shoulders, coupled
with a "yeah, maybe," that is the perlocution, the actual
effect of the fatherís utterance upon his audience. This perlocution
could have been influenced by numerous extra-locutionary factors:
perhaps the son was particularly tired that day, or maybe he just
had enough of his fatherís pathetic attempts to motivate him.
now let us apply this terminology to the Presidentís statement
on January 28, 2003: "The British government has learned
that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of
uranium from Africa."
locution of that utterance is simply the propositional content
of the words between the quotation marks. That is not the most
important factor in human communication: most linguists would
be very quick to tell you that the meaning of an utterance is
much more broad than its mere propositional content.
is significant, then, is the illocution of the statement. What
did the President wish to communicate by uttering that sentence?
What effect did he hope it would have on his audience, the American
people? Clearly, the sentence was uttered for one and only one
reason: it was intended not so much to inform the American public
as it was intended to persuade them to adopt a significant course
of action, namely, preemptive war against Iraq.
significant is the perlocution of the utterance in other
words, did the illocution of the utterance achieve its aim? Did
the Presidentís utterance contribute to the intended effect of
moving the nation towards preemptive war with Iraq? Without a
doubt, it did achieve its intended result. And it did so with
the aid of numerous extra-locutionary factors, among them the
fact that the American public had been primed for this war for
quite some time. The Presidentís utterance landed on fertile ground,
simply confirmed what the American public (for the most part)
had wanted to begin with.
of the ways to evaluate the effectiveness of a speech act is by
observing whether or not the illocution and the perlocution of
the speech act are roughly proportional to one another. By this
reckoning, the Presidentís speech was very effective indeed: the
missile hit its intended target, and did so without any collateral
damage that is, until Joseph Wilsonís story broke.
how can President Bushís statement be both "wrong" and
"accurate" at the same time? How can it be "technically
correct" though factually false? Quite simply: in true Clintonian
fashion, Team Bush would now like us to believe that the illocution
of the Presidentís statement is insignificant. What matters now
is the mere locution of his statement, its literal meaning.
with a straight face Condoleezza Rice can tell Tony Snow, "the
statement that he made was indeed accurate. The British government
did say that." In other words, the fact that the British
made a claim about Saddam attempting to acquire uranium from
Africa is true. In its pure literalness, the statement is true.
Never mind that the statement was crafted to have a specific effect
upon its audience. Never mind that statement did influence its
audience exactly as it was intended to do.
can easily imagine how this sort of linguistic procedure, if consistently
applied through a culture, would wreck havoc upon personal and
business relationships. "Hey honey, when I said I loved you,
I really, truly, literally meant it. Iím sorry you took it to
mean that I should love only you, and be faithful to you and all
that. But what I said is technically accurate." Or "Hey,
boss, when I said I deposited the money in the bank, what I said
was true I deposited it last year. Iím sorry you were under the
impression that I meant that the money was deposited every day
this year. You have to admit, what I said was technically accurate."
West Point honor system has a name for this kind of verbal legerdemain
itís called "lying." Many cadets have received
disciplinary action, including expulsion, for lesser lies than
what we see parading before us right now on the news networks.
Many Americans are beginning to wax nostalgic for the good old
days of Boy Clinton, who at least had the decency to tell us up
front that he intended to alter the syntactical meaning of the