A look back at World War I as the first great twentieth-century pollution of language.
Truth, the British politician Philip Snowden wrote in 1916, is the first casualty of war. This line is often attributed by mistake to the classical Greek playwright Aeschylus, or to an obscure US senator, Hiram Johnson, who may have used the phrase in a speech two years after Snowden published it in his introduction to a book called Truth and the War by E.D. Morel. Foreign intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has revived this theme, yet the insight’s resonance runs deeper than a mere critique of politicians who inveigle young people into sacrificing their lives, or persuade us that our side is winning when we are losing or stuck in a quagmire. The corruption of language caused by wartime propaganda infects every realm of society. In this centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, as we seek to remember a conflagration that created the modern world yet is now beyond living memory, one way to look back on the war is as the first great twentieth-century pollution of language.
Recollections of war shade from the personal to the official. When a war is far in the past, the official realm has free rein to tailor historical events to present-day political ambitions. This was evident in the Harper government’s presentation of the War of 1812 on its bicentenary as the first flexing of a warrior nation’s muscle. Aside from historians, no one alive was in a position to refute the government’s depiction of this contradictory conflict as an event that unified Canadians around an ideology of military service. Propaganda about Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, by contrast, can be rebutted by those who suffered from, fought in or reported on these wars; even the Second World War remains in living memory, in the childhood experiences of people now in their seventies or older. The First World War is more problematic. It is the nearest major historical event that we can no longer remember.
Canada was not exempt from the war’s debasement of language. Prime Minister Robert Borden’s jingoistic rhetoric divided the country, alienating Quebec and causing the most serious national unity crisis since Confederation. More than 60,000 Canadians died in the 1914−18 conflict, a staggering figure if one considers that the country’s population at the time was 7.9 million people. To have experienced an equivalent impact in Vietnam, for example, the United States, with a population that was then about 215 million, would have had to lose more than 1.6 million soldiers. (In fact, the US casualty toll was 58,000.) For Canada, the traumatic 1914−18 war was not a coming of age, but a prolongation of surly adolescence. By the end of the war, a generation of young men had died, a divisive election and chauvinistic policies had cleansed government and the officer corps of French-speaking Canadians, and Canadians born in “enemy countries” had lost the right to vote (Canadian women gained the vote, but only if they were related to a serving soldier). Yet collective definitions of an event’s importance lose their potency unless we can also make a personal connection.
In my own case, I am reduced to trying to remember anecdotes told to me in childhood by my grandparents’ generation. My biological grandfathers were too young to serve in this war; my step-grandfather, though, did serve. He survived because he was not sent into the trenches in France. A lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, he learned to ride at a military base in Colchester and was dispatched to the Middle East, where the mortality rate was lower than in Europe. My step-grandfather spoke of joining the cavalry in Syria, of being a patient in a military hospital where he was fed “weevil biscuits,” and later working in the boiler room of a vessel on the Suez Canal. In a similar vein, family history recounts that my maternal grandfather’s older brother Norman, a youth of nineteen, flew a Sopwith Pup in France in 1918. Recalled to England for advanced pilot’s training, he went into a spin during an exercise, crashed and died in hospital. My great-uncle was a casualty of the First World War, if not one who died on the battlefield. Tantalizing though they may be, these morsels don’t tell me what I need to know about the war’s impact on those who survived it. I’ve gained a fuller understanding in literary responses to wartime language.
Bombastic propaganda flowed from all sides in 1914. Writers who survived the war tried to resuscitate its first casualty by employing a language capable of defying the wartime culture of distortion. One of the most revealing examples of this effort is Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s magnificent novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932). Céline, whose disenchantment later crossed the line into anti-Semitism and support for fascism, makes his narrator, Bardamu, speak with uncompromising directness. Imbued in the natural world of the countryside, Bardamu is incapable of linguistic subterfuge; his frankness demolishes France’s patriotic pretensions. In one scene he addresses his commanding officer in a parody of official jargon; he later tells the reader that a soldier must choose between lies and death. The stain on Céline’s later life does not detract from the enduring value of this novel’s spirited demolition of a public sphere debased by propaganda.
Where Céline repels lies with sardonic verbosity, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) retreats from slogans by reducing language to hard-won essentials. Rereading this novel two years ago, I found the shadow of the First World War hanging over its pages even more ominously than I remembered. When Hemingway’s novel is approached in this light, the central characters’ flight to Spain becomes a pilgrimage to a country that had remained untouched by the war and its linguistic decadence. The pared-down descriptions of fishing and bullfighting, like the characters’ suppression of their physical and emotional scars, act out a refusal to perpetuate bloated wartime diction. By the end of both of these novels, the First World War’s residue of propaganda gives birth to fresh uses of language which, in their hostility to cant, prove to be the conflict’s truest legacy.