Words in a Time of War: Department of Rhetoric Commencement

Commencement address given to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, published by

When my assistant greeted me, a number of weeks ago, with the news that I had been invited to deliver the Commencement Address to the Department of Rhetoric I thought it was a bad joke. There is a sense, I'm afraid, that being invited to deliver The Speech to students of Rhetoric is akin to being asked out for a romantic evening by an adult film star. Whatever prospect you might have of a pleasurable experience is inevitably dampened by performance anxiety - the suspicion that your performance, however enthusiastic, will be judged according to overly stern professional standards. A daunting prospect.

     The only course, in both cases, is surely to plunge boldly ahead. And that means, first of all, saluting the family members gathered here, and in particular you, the parents, who have now spent four years (sometimes more) not only coping with frightening bills and the consequent economic sacrifice but patiently explaining to your friends — whose children of course are invariably, and boringly, and annoyingly, majoring in economics, business or pre-med — that your child has chosen to be a rhetoric major, and then cringing for the invariable incredulous rejoinder ("She's majoring in WHAT?") or the inevitable lame joke ("Rhetoric? Now he'll REALLY be able to talk back to you.").

     Dear parents, I welcome you today to your moment of triumph, and not only because you've made it through that minefield of all those terrifying bills from Berkeley. For if a higher education is about acquiring the skills and knowledge that allow one to comprehend and thereby get on in the world — and I use "get on in the world" in the very broadest sense - well, then, oh esteemed parents, it is your children, not those boringly practical business majors and pre-meds your sanctimonious friends have sired, who have chosen with unerring grace and wisdom the course of study that will best guide them in this very strange polity of ours. For our age, ladies and gentlemen, is truly the Age of Rhetoric.

     Now I turn to you, my true audience, the graduating students of the Department of Rhetoric of 2007, and I salute you most heartily. In making the choice you have, and in following it through to this glorious celebratory conclusion, you have confirmed that you understand something intrinsic, something indeed….intimate about this age we live in. Perhaps that should not surprise us. After all, you have spent your entire undergraduate years during time of war - and what a very strange wartime it has been. 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 theUSS Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, a few hundred miles south of here, where the president, clad jauntily in a flight suit, had swaggered across the flight deck and, beneath a sign famously marked "Mission Accomplished," had declared that "in Iraq major combat operations have ended and we have prevailed." Of the great body of rich material named by my title today — "Words in a Time of War" — surely those words of George W. Bush must stand as some of the era's most famous, and most rhetorically unstable. For whatever those words may have meant when the President uttered them on that sunny day 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 vast aircraft carrier as stage - a stage, by the way, that had to be turned precisely around 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 had no 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 precise image of victory — the second such, after 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 "Triumph of the Will." As trained rhetoricians, however, you may well have noticed something different here, a slightly familiar flavor just beneath the surface. You have been schooled, after all — and here I quote the Rhetoric Department's informative website — "in the analysis of the symbolic and institutional dimensions of discourse" which has given you "a disciplined grasp of the contemporary character of rhetoric and language." Now if ever there was a need for a "disciplined grasp" of the "institutional dimensions of discourse," surely it is now. For we have today an administration that not only is radical — I would argue unprecedentedly radical — 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 to the fine journalist Ron Suskind and published in the New York Times Magazine in October 2004 by the proverbial "unnamed Administration official." Here, in journalist Suskind's recounting, is what he said:

 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, ladies and gentlemen, 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 to hell, "Abandon all hope, 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 from Bush's Brain 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 this schema of the new age: Power has made reality its bitch. Given the sweeping claims made for power — the ability to "create reality…as history's actors" — it is hard to expect much respect for truth; or perhaps I should say "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 who is wholly in your power, a creature of your creation?

     Of course I should not say "those such as we" when speaking of the "reality-based community." For you, dear graduates of the Rhetoric Department of 2007, you are somewhere else altogether, no doubt regarding my favorite emanation from "Bush's Brain" as the slightest commonplace. 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.

     I overstate perhaps, but only for a bit of - I hope - permitted rhetorical pleasure. Let us gaze a bit at the signposts of the history of the present age. In January 2001 the Rhetoric Major President came to power after a savage and unprecedented electoral battle that was decided not by the ballots of American voters — for of these he had 540,000 fewer than his Democrat rival — but by the votes of Supreme Court Justices, where Republicans prevailed 5 to 4, making George W. Bush the first president in more than a century to come to the White House with fewer votes than those of his opponent. In this singular condition, and with a Senate precisely divided between parties, President Bush proceeded to behave as if he had won an overwhelming electoral victory, demanding tax cuts greater and more regressive than those he had outlined in the campaign. And despite what would seem to have been debilitating political weakness, the President shortly achieved this first success in "creating his own reality." To act as if he had overwhelming political power would mean he hadoverwhelming political power.

     This, however, was only the overture of the vast symphonic work to come, a work heralded by the huge clanging echoing cacophony of 9/11. We are so embedded in its age that it is easy to forget the stark overwhelming shock of it: nineteen young men with box cutters seized enormous transcontinental airliners and brought those towers down. In an age in which we have become accustomed to two, three, four, five suicide attacks in a single day — often these multiple attacks from Baghdad don't even make the newspaper's front page — it is easy to forget the blunt, scathing shock of it, the impossible image of the second airliner disappearing into the great office tower, almost weirdly absorbed by it, and emerging, transformed into a great yellow and red blossom of flame, on the other side; and then, a half hour later, the astonishing flowering collapse of the hundred story structure, transforming itself, in a dozen seconds, from mighty tower to great plume of heaven-reaching white smoke. The image remains, will always remain, with us; for truly the weapon that day was not box cutters in the hands of nineteen young men, nor airliners at their command. The weapon that day, rather, was the television set. It was the television set that made the image possible, and inextinguishable. If terror is first of all a way of talking — the propaganda of the deed, indeed — then that day the television was the indispensable conveyer of the conversation: the recruitment poster for fundamentalism, the only symbolic arena in which America's weakness and vulnerability could be dramatized on an adequate scale. Terror — as Menachim Begin, the late Israeli prime minister and the successful terrorist who drove the British from Mandate Palestine, remarked in his memoirs — terror is about destroying the prestige of the imperial regime; terror is about "dirtying the face of power."

     President Bush and his lieutenants surely realized this and I believe we can find in their knowledge the beginning of the answer to one of the more intriguing puzzles of these last few years - which is, what lay at the root of the almost fanatical determination of Administration officials to attack and occupy Iraq? It was, obviously, the classic "over-determined" decision, a tangle of imperial ambition — in the form of the project to "remake the Middle East"; of vital interests — in the form of oil; and of fear — in the form of the famous Weapons of Mass Destruction. At the beginning, though, it seems to me was the felt need on the part of our nations' leaders, men and women so worshipful of the idea of power and its ability to remake reality itself — the felt need to restore the nation's prestige, to wipe clean that dirtied face. Henry Kissinger, a confidant of the President, when asked by Bush's speechwriter why he had supported the Iraq War, responded: "Because Afghanistan was not enough." The radical Islamists, he said, want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them." In other words, the presiding image of The War on Terror — the burning towers collapsing on the television screen — must be supplanted by another, the image of American tanks rumbling proudly through a vanquished Arab capital. It is no accident that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at the first "war cabinet" meeting at Camp David the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks, fretted over the "lack of targets" in Afghanistan and wondered whether we "shouldn't do Iraq first." He — all our leaders, with their singular ideas about power and reality — wanted to see those advancing tanks marching across our television screens, and soon.

     In the end, of course, the enemy preferred not to fight with tanks, though they were perfectly happy to have us do so, the better to destroy these multi-million dollar anachronisms with a so-called IED, an improvised explosive device, worth a few hundred bucks. This is called asymmetrical warfare and one should note here the astonishing fact that during this last half dozen years it has been enormously successful. After the Cold War, as one neo-conservative theorist explained shortly after 9/11, the United States was enjoying a rare "uni-polar moment." It deployed the greatest military and economic power the world has ever seen. It spends more on its weapons and armies and navies than the rest of the world combined. It was the assumption of this so-called preponderance that lay behind the philosophy of power enunciated by Bush's Brain and it led to an attitude toward international law and alliances that is, in my view, quite unprecedented in American history. I can't resist offering another quotation, this one from the National Security Strategy of the United States of 2003, which warns that "Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international for a, judicial processes and terrorism." Let me repeat that little troika of "weapons of the weak": international foraa (meaning the United Nations and like institutions), judicial processes (meaning courts, domestic and international) and terrorism. This is a rather strange gathering to be put forward by the government of the United States. It stems from a view of power in which power is in fact everything; in such a world law or courts can only limit the power of the most powerful. The most powerful state has no need for law — by definition, the latter is a weapon of the weak. The most powerful state makes reality.

     It is worth stating here an astonishing fact: fewer than a half dozen years into this so-called "uni-polar moment" the United States, the greatest military power in the history of the world, stands on the brink of defeat in Iraq. Its vastly expensive and all-powerful military has been humbled by a congeries of secret organizations who are fighting mainly by means of suicide vests, car bombs and improvised explosive devices — all of them cheap, simple and effective, indeed so effective that these techniques now comprise a kind of ready-made insurgent kit easily available on the internet and spreading in popularity around the world, most obviously to Afghanistan, that land of few targets. As I stand here, one of our two major political parties advocates withdrawal from Iraq and many in the other party are increasingly going along. As for the broader War on Terror — well, as the State Department detailed last week in its annual report, the number of attacks has never been higher, nor have they ever been more effective. True, al Qaeda has not attacked again within the United States. They do not need to. They are alive and flourishing. Indeed, it might even be said that they are winning. For their goal, despite the rhetoric of the Bush Administration, was not simply to kill Americans but, by challenging the United States, to recruit great numbers to their cause and to move their insurgency into the heart of the Middle East. And all these things they have done.

     How could such a thing have happened? I would argue that in their choice of enemy the terrorists of Al Qaeda had a great deal of dumb luck. For they attacked a country run by an Administration that had a radical idea of the potency of power. At the heart of the principle of asymmetric warfare — Al Qaeda's kind of warfare - is the notion of using your opponents' power against him. How does a small group of insurgents without an army or even heavy weapons defeat the greatest conventional military force the world has ever known? How do you defeat such an army if you don't have an army? Well, you borrow your enemy's. And this is precisely what al Qaeda did. Using the classic strategy of provocation, the group tried to tempt the superpower into its homeland: the original strategy behind the 9/11 attacks — apart from humbling the superpower and creating the greatest recruiting poster the world has ever seen — was to lure the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan, where the one remaining superpower — like the Soviet Union before it — was to be trapped, stranded and destroyed. It was to prepare for this war that Osama bin Laden, two days before 9/11, assassinated, via bombs secreted in the video cameras of two terrorists posing as reporters, the Afghan leader, Ahmed Shah Massood, who would have been the United States' most important ally.

     The United States, well aware of the Soviets' Afghanistan debacle — it was after all the US that supplied most of the weapons that defeated the Soviets there — avoided a quagmire there, sending few troops and relying on its Afghan allies. But if bin Laden was disappointed in this he would have instead a much more valuable gift. The United States would invade Iraq, a country that, unlike Afghanistan, was a the heart of the Middle East and central to Arab concerns, and a country, what's more, that sat squarely on the critical Sunni-Shia divide — which meant that it had the potential to serve as the ignition switch for the great dream of al Qaeda, a regional civil war. It is on that precipice that we find ourselves teetering today.

      Critical to this strange and unlikely history, I would argue, is the administration's peculiar ideas about power and its relation to reality. We have heard the master statement of those ideas a few moments ago, uttered, apparently, by the man known as Bush's Brain. Power, untrammeled by law or custom; power, unlimited by the so-called "weapons of the weak" — be they international institutions, courts or terrorism — power can remake reality. Lurking beneath this line of thinking, of course, is a rather familiar imperial attitude, if put forward in a strikingly crude and harsh form: "We're an empire now and when we act we create our own reality." It is no accident that one of Karl Rove's heroes is William McKinley, who stood at the apex of America's first imperial moment, and led the country into a glorious colonial adventure in the Philippines that was to be the military equivalent of a stroll in the park and led, in the event, to several years of bloody insurgency — an insurgency, it bears noticing, that was only finally put down with the help of extensive torture, most notably water-boarding, which has recently made its reappearance in our own imperial battles.

     If we are an empire now, as Mr Rove says, perhaps we should add, as he might not, that we are also a democracy, and therein, Rhetoric graduates of 2007, lies the rub. A democratic empire, as even the Athenians discovered, is a rather odd beast, like one of those mythological creatures born equally of lion and bird, or man and horse. If one longs to invade Iraq to, among other things, restore the empire's prestige one must convince the democracy's people of the necessity of such a step. Herein lies the pathos of the famous Weapons of Mass Destruction issue, which has become a kind of synecdoche — forgive the term — for the entire lying mess of the past few years. Center stage of our public life is now dominated by a simple melodrama: Bush wanted to invade Iraq, Bush told Americans that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; Iraq did not have such weapons. Therefore Bush lied, and the war was born of lies and disaster.

     I hesitate to use that most overused of rhetorical terms — irony — to describe the emergence of this narrative to the center of our national life but nonetheless, and with apologies, it is ironic. The fact is that officials of the Bush Administration did believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, though they vastly exaggerated their certainty and, even more, the threat they might have posed had they been there. In doing this, the officials believed themselves to be, as it were, "framing a guilty man." That is, like the cops planting a bit of evidence in the murderer's car, they believed the underlying case was true; they just needed to dramatize it a bit to make it clear and convincing to the public. What matter, once the tanks were rumbling through Baghdad and the war was won? Weapons would be found, surely; and if only a few were found, what would it matter? Who would care? By then the United States military would have created a new reality.

     I have often have a daydream about this. I see a solitary Army private — a cook perhaps, or a quartermaster — breaking the padlock on some forgotten warehouse on an Iraqi military base, poking about and finding within a few score, a few hundred, even a few thousand, old artillery shells, leaking chemicals. These shells were forgotten, unusable, dating from the time of the first Gulf War, when Iraq unquestionably possessed chemical munitions — indeed, the United States had supplied targeting intelligence that let the Iraqis use them against the Iranians. And yet they were weapons — weapons of mass destruction, to use the misleading and absurd construction that has headlined our age - and therefore the case would be proved. Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Case closed.

     My daydream could easily have come to pass. Why not? It is nigh unto miraculous that the Iraqi regime, even with the help of the United Nations, managed so thoroughly to destroy or remove their once existing stockpile. And if my private had found those leaky,  dusty old shells what would have been changed thereby? Yes, the Administration could have pointed to them in triumph and trumpeted the proven character of the threat Saddam had posed. Much less embarrassing than the "weapons of mass destruction program related activities" that the Administration now doggedly asserts were discovered, to our general embarrassment. But in fact, dusty shells or not, the underlying calculus would have remained: that in the months leading up to the war the Administration relentlessly exaggerated the threat Saddam posed to the United States and relentlessly understated the risk the United States would run in invading and occupying Iraq. As the quaintly fact-bound British Foreign Secret put it eight months before the war — in a secret British cabinet meeting made famous by the so-called Downing Street Memo — "the case [for attacking Iraq] was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

     Which is to say, the weapons were a rhetorical prop and, satisfying as it has been to see the Administration beaten about the head with that prop, we forget this underlying fact (again, my apologies) at our peril. The issue was never whether the weapons were there or not; indeed, had the weapons really been the issue why could not the Administration let the UN inspectors take the time to find them (as of course they never would have)? The Administration needed, wanted, must have, the Iraq war; the weapons were a symbol, the necessary casus belli, what Hitchcock called the Maguffin — that glowing mysterious object in the suitcase in Tarnatino's Pulp Fiction: that is, a satisfyingly concrete object on which to fasten a rhetorical or narrative end, in this case a war to restore American prestige, project its power, remake the Middle East. The famous weapons were chosen to play this leading role for "bureaucratic reasons," as Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defense and now the unhappy head of the World Bank, once remarked in the hearing of a lucky journalist. Had a handful of those weapons been found, the underlying truth would have remained: Saddam posed nowhere remotely near the threat to the United States that would have justified running the enormous metaphysical risk that a war of choice with Iraq posed. Of course when you are focused on magical phrases like "preponderant power" and "the uni-polar moment," matters like numbers of troops at your disposal — and the simple fact that United States had too few to sustain a long-term occupation of a country the size of Iraq - must seem mundane indeed.

     I must apologize to you, Rhetoric Class of 2007. Ineluctably, uncontrollably, I have slipped back into the dull and unimaginative language of the reality-based community. It must grate a bit upon your ears. We live in a world in which the presumption that we were misled into war, that the Bush officials knew there were no weapons and touted them anyway, has supplanted the glowing magical image of the weapons themselves. It is a presumption of great use to those regretful souls who once backed the war so fervently — not least a number of Democratic politicians we all could name and indeed many of my friends in the so-called liberal punditocracy — and who now need a suitable excuse for their own rashness, gullibility and stupidity, and for this Bush's mendacity seems perfectly sized and ready to hand.

     There is, in any event, full enough of that mendacity, without artificially adding to the stockpile. Indeed, all around us we can hear the distant sound of ice breaking, as the accumulated frozen scandals of this Administration slowly crack open to reveal their queasy secrets. And yet the problem, of course, is that they are not secrets at all: one of the most painful principles of our age is that scandals are doomed to be revealed — and to remain, stinking there before us, unexcised, unpunished, unfinished. If this age of Rhetoric has a tragic symbol then surely this is it: the frozen scandal, doomed to be revealed, and revealed, and revealed, in a never ending torture familiar to the rock-bound Prometheus and his poor half-eaten liver. A full three years ago the photographs from Abu Ghraib were broadcast by CBS Sixty Minutes II and published by The New Yorker; nearly as far back I wrote a book entitled Torture and Truth, made up largely of Bush Administration documents that detail the decision to use "extreme interrogation techniques" or — in the First President of Rhetoric's phrase — "an alternative set of procedures." He used this phrase, I should note, last September, in a White House speech kicking off the midterm election campaign, at a time when accusing the Democrats of evidencing a continued softness on terror — and a lamentable unwillingness to show the needed harshness in "interrogating terrorists" — seemed a winning electoral strategy. And indeed Democrats seemed fully to agree, for they warily elected not to filibuster the Military Commissions Act of last October, which arguably made many of these alternative sets of procedures explicitly legal. And Democrats did win both houses of Congress, a victory perhaps owed in part to their refusal to explicitly block Bush's interrogation law. Who can say? What we can say is that if torture today remains a "scandal," a "crisis," - it is a crisis in that same peculiar way that crime or AIDS or global warming are crises: that is, they are all things we have learned to live with.

     Perhaps the Commencement Address to the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley is not the worst of places to call for a halt to this spinning merry-go-round. I know it will brand me forever a member of the reality-based community if I suggest that the one invaluable service the new Democratic Congress can provide us is not to offer a date certain for the end of the Iraq War — the War, alas, will go on, and on, whether it spreads throughout the region or not. The one invaluable service Congress can provide is to endeavor to provide us — all Americans — with a clear, societally-sanctioned accounting of how we came to find ourselves in this present time of war: an authorized version, as it were, which is, I know, the most pathetically retrograde of ideas. This would require that people like Mr. Wolfowitz, Mr Rumsfeld and many others would come before Congress, perhaps a select, bi-partisan committee, under subpoena or not, and tell us what, in their view, really happened. I squirm with embarrassment putting forward such a retrograde and pathetically unsophisticated notion, especially on such an occasion. I plead, however, extenuating circumstances; failing at least the minimally authorized version that Congress could provide, we will find ourselves striving, through ancillary matters like the revelation of the identity of Valerie Plame or the question of whether or not George Tenet bolstered his slam dunk exclamation in the Oval Office with an accompanying Michael Jordan-like leap and stuff, to understand where we are and how exactly we got there.

     Don't worry, though, Rhetoric graduates: such a proposal has about it the dusty feel of past decades; it is as "reality-based" as it can be and we are unlikely to see it in our time. What we are likely to see is the ongoing cratering of our first Rhetoric Major President. Tempting as it is, I will urge you not to draw too many overarching conclusions from his fate. He had, after all, a very long run — and I say this with the wonder that perhaps only comes with having covered both the 2000 and 2004 election campaigns, both from Florida, and the Iraq War. I last visited that war in December, when Baghdad was cold and grey and I spent a good deal of time drawing black X's through the sources in my address book, finding them, one after another, either departed or dead. Baghdad seemed a sad and empty place, with even the traffic jams gone, and the resonating explosions attracting barely glances from those few Iraqis to be found on the streets. I will read to you now a bit of an account of that war — or rather an account from a young Iraqi woman of how the war has touched her and her family. I apologize to you in advance, for the words are terrible and hard to bear but you have made a determined effort to learn to read and to understand and this is the most reality I could find to tell you. This is what lies behind the headlines and the news reports and it is as it is.

We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over. The young men of the family, as was customary, rose to go.


"NO!" cried his mother. "Isn't my son enough? Must we lose more of our youth? You know there are unknowns who wait at the Morgue to either kill or kidnap the men who dare reach its doors. I will go."


So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I.


I was praying all the way there.


I never thought a day would come when it was the women of the family, who would be safer on the roads. All the men are potential terrorists it seems, and are therefore to be cut down on sight. This is the logic of today, is it not? To kill evil before it even has a chance to take root.


When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. "We identified him by the cell phone in his pants' pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don't know what he looks like."


…We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and EVERYWHERE body parts.


We were asked what we were looking for; "upper half" replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. "Over there." We looked for our boy's broken body between tens of other boys' remains'; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.


Millenia later we found him, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.

I apologize for reading you this, and particularly to the families here. I looked long and hard for something that might convey the reality of the present war, that might return us to my theme today, "Words in a Time of War." The foregoing were words from an Iraqi family, people who find themselves as far as they can possibly be from the idea that when they act, they create their own reality - that they are, as Bush's Brain put it, "history's actors." The voices you heard come from history's objects and we must ponder who the subjects are, who exactly is acting upon them. The car bomb that so changed their lives was not set by Americans; indeed, young Americans even now are dying to prevent such things. I have known a few of these young Americans myself. Perhaps you have as well, perhaps they are in the circles of your family or of your friends. I remember one of them, a young lieutenant, a beautiful young man with a puffy, sleepy face, looking at me when I asked whether or not he was scared when he went out on patrol — this was October 2003, as the insurgency was exploding — I remember him smiling a moment and then saying with evident pity for the reporters lack of understanding. "This is war. We shoot, they shoot. We shoot, they shoot. Some days they shoot better than we do." He was patient in his answer, smiling sleepily in his young beauty, and I could tell he regarded me as from another world, a man who could never understand the world he lived. Three days after our interview an explosion near Fallujah killed him.

     Contingency, accidents, the metaphysical ironies that seem to stitch history together like a lopsided and awkward quilt — all these have no place in the imperial vision. A perception of one's self as "history's actors" leaves no place for them. But they exist and it is invariably others, closer to the ground, who see them, perhaps smile at them, surely suffer their consequences. You have chosen a path that will let you look beyond the rhetoric that you have studied and see those consequences: see the gaps and the loose stitches and the remnant threads. It is a grim age, this Age of Rhetoric, still infused with the remnant perfume of imperial dreams. You have made your study in a propitious time, oh graduates, and that bold choice may well bring you pain; for you have devoted yourselves, with uncommon determination, to seeing what it is that stands before you. If clear sight were not so painful many more would elect to have it. Your parents, I hope, are proud to think that, and proud of you. I certainly am. Reality, it seems, has caught up with you.

Commencement address given to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, published by

The Rhetoric-Major President

By Scott Horton

We're at peak commencement season right now, and so far we've paused in this column to note several speeches by administration figures — Cheney's disgraceful speech at West Point, Gates's noble address to the midshipmen in Annapolis. But from all the texts I have seen, one commencement address really stands out for its immediacy and importance. It was delivered a few days ago by a former Harper's writer, Mark Danner, at the University of California in Berkeley, and it's called "Words in a Time of War." Danner labels President Bush as the first "Rhetoric-Major President," and he deconstructs the Bush presidency's use of cheap political rhetoric to obscure reality. Here's a snippet, in which Danner reflects on the same fairly obscure (but very consequential) document on which I will have some words to say in the upcoming July issue of Harper's:

It was the assumption of this so-called preponderance that lay behind the philosophy of power enunciated by Bush's Brain and that led to an attitude toward international law and alliances that is, in my view, quite unprecedented in American history. That radical attitude is brilliantly encapsulated in a single sentence drawn from the National Security Strategy of the United States of 2003: "Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism." Let me repeat that little troika of "weapons of the weak": international fora (meaning the United Nations and like institutions), judicial processes (meaning courts, domestic and international), and…. terrorism. This strange gathering, put forward by the government of the United States, stems from the idea that power is, in fact, everything. In such a world, courts - indeed, law itself - can only limit the power of the most powerful state. Wielding preponderant power, what need has it for law? The latter must be, by definition, a weapon of the weak. The most powerful state, after all, makes reality.

Now, of course, the Bush rhetoric is imploding all about him, pointing to the risk a politician takes when he pursues inflammatory rhetoric dangerously at odds with reality. Bush believed that his words and America's military power had the power to craft a new reality, but in this he was like the sorcerer's apprentice of that famous poem by Goethe, who has now unleashed forces he cannot control ("Die ich rief, die Geister,/Werd ich nun nicht los.")

Danner's remarks appear today in an abbreviated form in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times but it's best to read the whole text—crafted as a commencement address to the Rhetoric Department, but its proper audience is our entire nation.

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© 2021 Mark Danner