What is is—Annals of Rhetoric

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[The original dateline of this post is August 15, 2007; I would have been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived at the time and had been for 22 years at that point. I have changed only one word, the penultimate one, to bring this up to date.]

It used to be schoolboys, well, my schoolmates—boys and girls—knew. Back in the 50s and 60s, they knew how to understand diplomatic language, as far as the news brought it to our ears. Somehow we had absorbed a lesson in rhetoric for our time.

Between the Cold War—largely pitting the U.S. against the Soviet Union—and the war of words that was its chief manifestation, the air (and the newspapers and the broadcast media—no ‘net back then, no Web, no blogosphere) was filled with reports about meetings between diplomats from both camps. Walter Cronkite did not have to catch his breath to explain what “full and frank” discussions meant, as the most high ranking of the government representatives present engaged the press after sessions had ended. It meant long boring talk fests between white men in suits that boiled down in plain language to, “We mainly told each other, ‘You’re basically full of shit.'” After the United States (France, Great Britain, Portugal, and a few other sovereign camp followers) “opened” Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century, these discussions could and did increasingly involve men, also in suits, whose complexions were various shades of what Caucasians took to calling “yellow,” until this became politically untenable.

There were hot components of that odd encompassing state of armed conflict, “Cold War,” an Orwellian oxymoron universally applied wherein men (few women then) actually shot weapons at and bombed and gassed and napalmed each other. In fact, we were at perpetual war—we of course still are, or why would I even mention this? in which we found ourselves with unseen enemies, save for low resolution monochromatic moving images on our primitive tv screens. These episodes, prolonged or sporadic, famously occurred between principals of one side and surrogates of the other, or, at a lower order of implementation of world policy, between surrogates of each side, with no principal involvement. Unless the latter was covert, of course, which meant that the public could not learn of it, by law of the land, until 40 or 50 years had passed after the termination of the specific unpleasantness, or the present presidential regime had ended. Unlike the meaning of “full and frank,” however, we were in the dark on this one. In those days we still believed in rules of engagement—another tortuous linguistic formulation, generally applied when humans were engaged, in fact, in the simple objective of making the other guy dead. And the rules said, we civilized nations would not do nasty things covertly to any other nation, and we trusted in God that such was the case.

We didn’t stop to think about the basic absurdity of agreeing to the limits of the methods we would use when engaged hand-to-hand, sometimes literally, in a fight to the death, assuming one of us captured one of you. There was no Emily Post of the Rules of Engagement, but there were such rules, and in those days, we didn’t think about it either (about the absurdity), and we carried our disgraceful detachment further by putting faith in our government that, when it spoke to us, it told the truth. Sometimes couched in the language of diplomacy, but, as I started to say, we understood what that meant.

Every word was studied, for as much as the English language is capable of nuance, the spare vocabulary of diplomacy, spare because specialized, a language that nations could agree was the appropriate way for all—even enemies—to muffle the truth, without abandoning it altogether. As long as we were talking, we were less likely to bomb the bejesus out of each other wholesale. Sometimes we went retail, but there were always trends, never sustained styles that created a legacy. Somehow, World War II early on became the last good war. Which leaves a lot of bad wars, before and since.

And what Americans came to realize, yet again, is that they don’t like war. It doesn’t matter to which specific realization I may be referring, we came to that conclusion repeatedly for as long as I’ve been alive, which is three-score and ten. Years.

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