Men of War

James T. Snyder: Dzevad Karahasan later explores how language is destroyed and becomes a tool of destruction in conflict. This is perhaps a strange thing to care about, when mortars and artillery laid waste to Sarajevo’s landmarks and snipers filled the cemeteries with fresh graves. But he understands how the nefarious employment of language can stoke and perpetuate conflict, and his experience applies well beyond the Balkans.

His essay “Literature and War” is a cold rebuke, in the finest tradition of George Orwell and Czeslaw Milosz, of the abuse of language and literature for political or aesthetic purposes. Language is sacred for Karahasan. “The world is written first,” he writes. “The holy books say that it was uttered in words and all that happens in it, happens in language first.”

When language becomes a mere tool, he argues, when it becomes stripped of its moral purpose, language is defiled. And when language becomes part of the landscape destroyed by war, it can become a weapon. This is more than an attack on postmodern word games, of which he is sensible.

He launches a two-pronged assault on writers who aestheticize human experience, especially human suffering, and those who write what he calls “heroic” literature. His bitter insight seems arcane at first glance but reveals itself to be startlingly germane given our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last few years.

Parsing the first target—“art for art’s sake literature,” […] today’s forever wars have favored those who abandon the hard labor of rendering judgment for the task of pure craft. Sebastian Junger’s and Dexter Filkens’s self-conscious, literary wartime reportage, for example, surrender moral and human judgment to untainted evocation. Verisimilitude becomes the supreme value. While we may understand something about the nature of warfare from reading these books, we won’t understand much more about human conflict. This is “literature that has liberated itself by removing its meaning and sense, reasons and values.”

That is the guilt of this art-for-art’s-sake literature, which is indirectly responsible for all the horrors of the contemporary world….The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon—completely sidestepping questions about good and the truth—is an artistic decision. That decision started in the realm of art, and went on to become characteristic of the contemporary world.

When Karahasan goes on to describe heroic literature—“People in this literature are Serbs, Croats, Communists, Royalists, or something similar, in the first place, and only after that, in the second or third place, are they people with personal traits,” he explains—he is writing about political tracts, polemics, and invective.

Indeed, what made the wars of the former Yugoslavia particularly alarming was the role of self-styled nationalist intellectuals calling for the destruction of the Yugoslav international experiment, and Karahasan calls these writers out by name. But we need only remember that peculiar consensus of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives on the invasion of Iraq, and the screeds they published to make their names, to hear Karahasan’s point resonate fifteen years later.

Language’s ability to explore and render human judgment is regularly abandoned for its conscription in the service of blunt political interest. More here.

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