Mark Danner: Words in a Time of War

Roundup: Media's Take

[Mark Danner, who has written about foreign affairs and politics for two decades, is the author of The Secret Way to War; Torture and Truth; and The Massacre at El Mozote, among other books. He is Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His writing on Iraq and other subjects appear regularly in The New York Review of Books. His work is archived at]

... When most of you arrived on this campus, in September 2003, the rhetorical construction known as the War on Terror was already two years old and that very real war to which it gave painful birth, the war in Iraq, was just hitting its half-year mark. Indeed, the Iraq War had already ended once, in that great victory scene on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, where the President, clad jauntily in a flight suit, had swaggered across the flight deck and, beneath a banner famously marked "Mission Accomplished," had declared: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

Of the great body of rich material encompassed by my theme today -- "Words in a Time of War" -- surely those words of George W. Bush must stand as among the era's most famous, and most rhetorically unstable. For whatever they may have meant when the President uttered them on that sunny afternoon of May 1, 2003, they mean something quite different today, almost exactly four years later. The President has lost control of those words, as of so much else.

At first glance, the grand spectacle of May 1, 2003 fits handily into the history of the pageantries of power. Indeed, with its banners and ranks of cheering, uniformed extras gathered on the stage of that vast aircraft carrier -- a stage, by the way, that had to be turned in a complicated maneuver so that the skyline of San Diego, a few miles off, would not be glimpsed by the television audience -- the event and its staging would have been quite familiar to, and no doubt envied by, the late Leni Riefenstahl (who, as filmmaker to the Nazis, had no giant aircraft carriers to play with). Though vast and impressive, the May 1 extravaganza was a propaganda event of a traditional sort, intended to bind the country together in a second precise image of victory -- the first being the pulling down of Saddam's statue in Baghdad, also staged -- an image that would fit neatly into campaign ads for the 2004 election. The President was the star, the sailors and airmen and their enormous dreadnought props in his extravaganza.

However ambitiously conceived, these were all very traditional techniques, familiar to any fan of Riefenstahl's famous film spectacular of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will. As trained rhetoricians, however, you may well have noticed something different here, a slightly familiar flavor just beneath the surface. If ever there was a need for a "disciplined grasp" of the "symbolic and institutional dimensions of discourse" -- as your Rhetoric Department's website puts it -- surely it is now. For we have today an administration that not only is radical -- unprecedentedly so -- in its attitudes toward rhetoric and reality, toward words and things, but is willing, to our great benefit, to state this attitude clearly.

I give you my favorite quotation from the Bush administration, put forward by the proverbial "unnamed Administration official" and published in the New York Times Magazine by the fine journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004. Here, in Suskind's recounting, is what that "unnamed Administration official" told him:

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors.... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"
I must admit to you that I love that quotation; indeed, with your permission, I would like hereby to nominate it for inscription over the door of the Rhetoric Department, akin to Dante's welcome above the gates of Hell, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."

Both admonitions have an admirable bluntness. These words from "Bush's Brain" -- for the unnamed official speaking to Suskind seems to have been none other than the selfsame architect of the aircraft-carrier moment, Karl Rove, who bears that pungent nickname -- these words sketch out with breathtaking frankness a radical view in which power frankly determines reality, and rhetoric, the science of flounces and folderols, follows meekly and subserviently in its train. Those in the "reality-based community" -- those such as we -- are figures a mite pathetic, for we have failed to realize the singular new principle of the new age: Power has made reality its bitch.

Given such sweeping claims for power, it is hard to expect much respect for truth; or perhaps it should be "truth" -- in quotation marks -- for, when you can alter reality at will, why pay much attention to the idea of fidelity in describing it? What faith, after all, is owed to the bitch that is wholly in your power, a creature of your own creation?

Of course I should not say "those such as we" here, for you, dear graduates of the Rhetoric Department of 2007, you are somewhere else altogether. This is, after all, old hat to you; the line of thinking you imbibe with your daily study, for it is present in striking fashion in Foucault and many other intellectual titans of these last decades -- though even they might have been nonplussed to find it so crisply expressed by a finely tailored man sitting in the White House. Though we in the "reality-based community" may just now be discovering it, you have known for years the presiding truth of our age, which is that the object has become subject and we have a fanatical follower of Foucault in the Oval Office. Graduates, let me say it plainly and incontrovertibly: George W. Bush is the first Rhetoric-Major President....
Read entire article at Commencement address to a group of Department of Rhetoric graduates at University of California, Berkeley. Published by