Language of war

In our studies of language in a cultural context, we can explore the culture of war. Just as every industry has its jargon, every region has its accent and every social group has its slang, so too does war have its unique use of language. We are talking about the kind of language that is used to manipulate people and make them believe in a cause that may not even affect them. We are talking about the kind of language that political leaders use in private telephone conversations. We are talking about the use of euphemisms, bias and epithet used in newspaper reports on tragedy and violence. 

The following activities asks you to engage with four texts on the Vietnam War. How much do you already know about the war? What kinds of questions do these texts raise? What kinds of stylistic devices do these texts use, which are characteristic of the language of war? We will ask ourselves these questions in order to meet the learning outcomes for Part 1. We will analyze how audience and purpose affect the structure and content of various texts. We should also be able to show how language and meaning are shaped by the culture of war. 

What do you already know?

What do you already know about the Vietnam War? Before you start any unit or lesson on a topic, it is useful to make a KWL diagram: What do you KNOW? What do you WANT to learn? And what have you LEARNED (to be filled in after the lesson). Try filling out left two columns of the following table individually or in a group. 

Know, Want, Learned (on the Vietnam War)

What do you already know? What do you want to learn? What have you learned?

Asking the right questions

Below you see four texts (A-D) that appear in a random order. They all have to do with the Vietnam War. Notice that the title of the texts, the authors' names and the year of publication have all been removed. Place these texts in the order in which they were created (not necessarily the order in which they were published). In order to do this activity, you have to play detective and look for contextual clues within the text. Good detectives ask questions. Make a list of the questions that you had to ask in order to place these texts in the right order. Your list of questions may start like this list:

Asking the right questions

  1. Who are ‘Bob’ and ‘Johnson’?
  2. How frequently are they calling each other?
  3. Who wrote Text B?
  4. Where was Text B published?
  5. Why do they refer to the 'American imperialists'?
  6. Etc.

Text A

Telephone recording #1

Johnson: Hello, Bob?

McNamara:Yes, Mr. President.

Johnson: I hate to modify your speech any because it's been a good one, but I just wonder if we should find two minutes in there for Vietnam?

McNamara:Yeah, the problem is what to say about it.

Johnson: I'll tell you what I would say about it. I would say that we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. We could pull out of there, the dominoes would fall, and that part of the world would go to the Communists. We could send our marines in there, and we could get tied down in a Third World War or another Korean action. Nobody really understands what it is out there. They're asking questions and saying why don't we do more. Well, I think this: you can have more war or you can have more appeasement. But we don't want more of either. Our purpose is to train these people [the South Vietnamese] and our training's going good.

McNamara:All right, sir, I'll…

Johnson: I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the President [Kennedy] thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.

McNamara:The problem is?

Johnson: Then come the questions: how in the hell does McNamara think, when he's losing a war, he can pull men out of there?

Telephone recording #2

Lyndon B. Johnson: I want you to dictate to me a memorandum of a couple of pages. Four letter words and short sentences on the situation in Vietnam, the "Vietnam Picture." This morning Senator Scott said that "The war which we can neither win, lose, nor drop is evidence of an instability of ideas. A floating series of judgments, our policy of nervous conciliation, which is extremely disturbing." Do you think it's a mistake to explain about Vietnam and what we're faced with?

McNamara:Well, I do think, Mr. President, it would be wise for you to say as little as possible. The frank answer is we don't know what is going on out there. The signs I see coming through the cables are disturbing signs. It is a very uncertain period.

Telephone recording #3

Johnson: We need somebody over there that can get us some better plans than we've got. What I want is somebody that can lay up some plans to trap these guys and whup the hell out of them. Kill some of them, that's what I want to do.

McNamara:I'll try and bring something back that will meet that objective.

Johnson: Okay, Bob.

Telephone recording #4

McNamara:If you went to the C.I.A. and said "How is the situation today in South Vietnam?" I think they would say it's worse. You see it in the desertion rate, you see it in the morale. You see it in the difficulty to recruit people. You see it in the gradual loss of population control.

Many of us in private would say that things are not good, they've gotten worse. Now while we say this in private and not public, there are facts available that find their way in the press. If we're going to stay in there, if we're going to go up the escalating chain, we're going to have to educate the people, Mr. President. We haven't done so yet. I'm not sure now is exactly the right time.

Johnson: No, and I think if you start doing it they're going to be hollering, "You're a warmonger."

McNamara:I completely agree with you.

Text B

On November 21, ___ the Government of Cambodia issued a statement once again rejecting resolutely U.S. slanderous allegations against Cambodia.

The slander campaign has been intensified over the past months. The U.S. press, radio, State Department and War Department have been coordinating their efforts to this effect. Of course, the Saigon puppet administration and the Thai reactionary ruling clique, lackeys of the American imperialists, have taken an active part in it. As expected, masters and valets have been harping on shop-worn themes. Recently, on November 10, AP and the Voice of America spread the news that some American correspondents had ‘discovered’ a ‘Viet Cong base’ in Cambodia. That same day, a spokesman of the U.S. State Department threateningly express the U.S. Government’s concern about Cambodia being used as a base for the ‘Viet Cong’. On November 14, ____, on U.S. orders, the Saigon puppet administration then circulated a note in the U.S. reporting so-called Cambodian forms of support to the ‘Viet Cong.’

It must be pointed out that the present slander campaign is a new U.S. manoeuvre to expand the aggressive war to Cambodia. The November 21 statement of the Cambodian Government has stressed that this sustained U.S. campaign against Cambodia’s neutrality proves that the United States still plans to expand its aggression to Cambodia. The truth is that the U.S. propaganda machine has overtly spoken of destroying peaceful and neutral Cambodia. In its August 29, ____ statement, the Cambodian Government energetically denounced the U.S. rulers for having let the U.S. New and the World Report carry on August 28, ____ an article revealing their scheme to turn Cambodia into a “new theatre of operations” with a map showing Cambodia territory left of the Mekong river to be annexed by the United States. In its November 11, ____ statement, the Cambodian Government once again condemned the brazen scheme for aggression by the American imperialists against Cambodia as revealed in the New York Times of November 6, ____. The United States, the paper wrote, cannot guarantee that U.S. troops or Saigon puppet troops do not encroach on Cambodian borders. There is not a shred of doubt that the slander campaign against Cambodia is part of the plan to prepare world opinion for eventual U.S. armed aggression against this country and expansion of the aggressive war in Indo-China.

As a close neighbour and comrade-in-arms of Cambodia, the D.R.V.N. Government people remotely condemn the American imperialists and the henchmen’s repeated violations of the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Indo-China, gross infringement of the sacred national rights of the Khmer people. The D.R.V.N. Government and people fully support the November 21, ____ statement of the Cambodian government rejecting the slanderous allegations against its country and laying bare the U.S. scheme to expand its aggressive war from South VietNam to Cambodia. United with the Khmer people in the Indo-Chinese Peoples’ Front, the Vietnamese people consistently and thoroughly support the just struggle of the Khmer people against the American imperialists and their stooges in order to defend Cambodia’s independence, sovereignty, neutrality and territorial integrity. The Vietnamese people determinedly side with the fraternal Khmer people to defeat the U.S. imperialist aggressors, the common enemy of the Indo-Chinese peoples. As Samdech Head of State Norodom Sihanouk point out in his message of thanks to President Ho Chi Minh and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong on November 2, ____, “Victory will certainly belong to the nations like ours which are determined to check any foreign attempt to enslave us once more.”

Text C

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that -- negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

Text D

Washington, Aug. 7 -- The House of Representatives and the Senate approved today the resolution requested by President Johnson to strengthen his hand in dealing with Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.

After a 40-minute debate, the House passed the resolution; 416 to 0. Shortly afterward the Senate approved it, 88 to 2. Senate debate, which began yesterday afternoon, lasted nine hours.

The resolution gives prior Congressional approval of "all necessary measures" that the President may take "to repel any armed attack" against United States forces and "to prevent further aggression."

The resolution, the text of which was printed in The New York Times Thursday, also gives advance sanction for "all necessary steps: taken by the President to help any nation covered by the Southeast Asia collective defense treaty that requests assistance "in defense of its freedom."

Johnson Hails Action

President Johnson said the Congressional action was "a demonstration to all the world of the unity of all Americans."

"The votes prove our determination to defend our forces, to prevent aggression and to work firmly and steadily for peace and security in the area," he said.

"I am sure the American people join me in expressing the deepest appreciation to the leaders and members of both parties in both houses of Congress for their patriotic, resolute and rapid action."

The debates in both houses, but particularly in the Senate, made clear, however, that the near-unanimous vote did not reflect a unanimity of opinion on the necessity or advisability of the resolution.

Except for Senators Wayne L. Morse, Democrat of Oregon, and Ernest Gruening, Democrat of Alaska, who cast the votes against the resolution, members in both houses uniformly praised the President for the retaliatory action he had ordered against North Vietnamese torpedo boats and their bases after the second torpedo boat attack on United States destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.

There was also general agreement that Congress could not reject the President's requested resolution without giving an impression of disunity and nonsupport that did not, in fact, exist.

There was no support for the thesis on which Senators Morse and Gruening based their opposition- that the resolution was "unconstitutional" because it was "a predated declaration of war power" reserved to Congress.

Nevertheless, many members said the President did not need the resolution because he had the power as Commander in Chief to order United States forces to repel attacks.

Several members thought the language of the resolution was unnecessarily broad and they were apprehensive that it would be interpreted as giving Congressional support for direct participation by United States troops in the war in South Vietnam.

Answer key

1 - Text A: Morris, Errol: ‘The Fog of War’, 2003. Telephone recording #1: February 25, 1964. # 2: March 2, 1964, #3 March 10, 1964, #4 June 9, 1964

3 - Text B : ‘Stern Warning to the U.S. Imperialists and Their Lackey’s Schemed Aggression Against Cambodia’, Vietnam Courier, December 4, 1967

4 - Text C:Walter Cronkite: "Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?" February 27, 1968

2 - Text D: ‘Congress Back President on Southeast Asia Moves; Khanh sets State of Siege’ New York Times, 8 July 1964

The language of war

Below you see several kep concepts and some passages from Texts A-D. What do these concepts mean? Which passage from the right column illustrates each concept from the left column?

The language of war

Key concept Example from the text
  1. dysphemism
  2. epithet
  3. hyperbole
  4. euphemism
  5. bias
  6. glittering generality
  7. expression
  1. The silver linings they find in the darkest clouds
  2. “The votes prove our determination to defend our forces, to prevent aggression and to work firmly and steadily for peace and security in the area”
  3. to strengthen his hand in dealing with Communist aggression
  4. “whup the hell out of them”
  5. As a close neighbour and comrade-in-arms of Cambodia,the D.R.V.N. Government people remotely condemn the American imperialists and the henchmen’s repeated violations of the 1954 Geneva Agreements
  6. American imperialists
  7. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster

Answer key

1 - 4
2 - 6
3 - 7
4 - 3
5 - 5
6 - 2
7 - 1

Teacher talk

These activities raise a lot of questions about teaching texts in and out of context. Two of the three activities rely on an information gap exercise, and one relies on a knowledge sharing exercise. How do these strategies facilitate learning language in a cultural context?

Language, context and the information gap

Teachers often ask "How do we teach language in a cultural context?" This is a very large question with many implications. It is interesting, however, to turn this question around and ask, "Is it possible to teach language out of a cultural context?" If we define language as anything that constructs meaning, then it is impossible to leave culture and context out. Even grammar and vocabulary building exercises teach us something about culture. Even history textbooks teach us something about language. The two are inseparable. 

Nevertheless, the problem is understandable. What if student A has a broader understanding of the Vietnam War than student B? Must the teacher 'pre-teach' the history of Vietnam to student B before analyzing the language of these texts? Perhaps it is better to step back and ask ourselves what our goal is. Is it to give students a better understanding of the histories and cultures of the word? Or is it to make them more perceptive readers? 

Notice how the final activity asks students to engage with the texts using key concepts. Wouldn't it be great if students could find examples of these concepts (bias, epithet, etc.) in other texts about war? This contributes to the aim of making them more perceptive readers. They may forget about Robert McNamara, the Gulf of Tonkin and the importance of Cambodia, but hopefully they will come away from this lesson with some tools that can be applied to other texts. In fact, their understanding of the Vietnam War, the culture of war and the history of the US and Vietnam are all great by-products. 

To return to the main question "How do we teach language in a cultural context?" let's focus on the word 'how'. If we aim to develop language analysis skills, believing that culture and context follow automatically, then what teaching strategy should we use to actively engage students with the language? 

The information gap exercise is an effective tool for several reasons. First of all, it levels the playing field. Even if student A knows everything about the Vietnam War, he or she will be working with the same handicap as student B who knows nothing: They both do not know the origin of each text. They are both forced to look for contextual clues (i.e. language) within the frame of the text. In fact the activity is not really about placing the texts in the right order. It is about asking the right questions. 

This brings us to the second advantage of information gap activities: People like questions that have a right or wrong answer. As simple as it may sound, people want to get the answer right. Information gap exercises are fun, and they turn learning into a game. 

Finally, it must be said that information gap activities are good from the perspective of cognitive psychology. They require us to use our working memory. In order for learning to 'stick' and find a permanent place in our long-term memory, we have to engage with materials/texts. In other words we have to think about them for a while. In the case of the last activity, students are juggling several terms, such as 'bias', 'euphemism' and 'dysphemism'. This forces students to engage with the passages from the texts for a sustained period of focus. The end of the activity is clearly defined; seven matches must be made. 

Toward assessment

Paper 1 - Text B is an excellent text to analyze as a practice Paper 1 at SL. Even HL students can benefit from analyzing single texts before doing comparative analyses. 

Written task 1 - The author of Text C, Walter Cronkite, received a lot of criticism for writing that text. It was a very controversial piece in its time. You could write several shorter etters to the editor of the newspaper that published this piece. Be sure to question his role. Is he writing as a news reporter or an opinion columnist?

Further oral activity - The telephone conversations can be heard in the 2003 documentary on Robert McMamara titled, The Fog of War. As you watch the documentary, take notes on how language is used by both McNamara and others in relation to war. Present your findings in a presentation.

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