Columns

Fighting Words

Stephen Henighan

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 6, 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,.) 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 grand

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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