The Devil Made Me Do It
The comedian, Flip Wilson. popularized the expression, "The Devil made me do it," said while in the guise of his female alter ego "Geraldine." This is the view that some leaders or nations take to justify military actions. They represent themselves as being is forced by events not under their control to do things that they would otherwise not want to do. Today in my morning paper, the headline for a story on the invasion of Gaza by Israel read "Palestinian rockets pull tanks into Gaza." This use of "pull" suggests a direct causal relationship, unmediated by any thought by Israel's leaders, between rockets being sent into Israel by Hamas soldiers and the tanks rolling into Gaza." The Devil Rockets made Israel's otherwise well-behaved tanks to start rolling into Gaza.
I don't mean to be passing judgment on Israel's actions but rather to comment on the language used in the headline which Israel is not responsible for. A classic example of this deflection of blame for one's actions is neatly captured in a near-legendaryphrase in the passage:
1998 marks one-hundred years since the explosion aboard the Battleship Maine in Havana harbor that triggered the Spanish-American War.I found this quote at The World Socialist Web site using the search terms "bombing of the Maine triggered" trying to find the particular linguistic construction "X triggered Y." It seems that the verb phrase "triggered the Spanish-American War" and "sparked the Spanish-American War" (a common alternative -- check the World Library Journal's comments at Amazon.com) have become frozen for all time.
William R. Hearst is represented in some quarters as the architect of the Spanish-American War. If you can believe the Sparknotes account of his battle with Joseph Pulitzer for circulation of their respective New York Newspapers, Hearst exploited "Yellow Journalism" to gain subscribers. In the process he allegedly used his power to help stir up the people in support of the U. S.'s going to war with Spain over Cuba. The artist Frederic Remington went to Cuba at Hearst's behest to provide pictures he hoped would help him sell newspapers. According to this site,
[Frederic] Remington reported back to Hearst that the rumors were overblown. To this, Hearst famously replied, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."The essential linguistic point is that countries are presented by their leaders and the press through their linguistic choices as something like bombs that outside forces must set off before they will explode, i. e., take action.
While preparing my book on The Language of Politics, I ran across a July 11, 1093 issue of U. S. News and World Report that did its best to pound the drums of war by way of helping to promote Ronald Reagan's initiating a war against Nicaragua. One passage in the set of stories devoted to Nicaragua is priceless.
No one in Washington wants to send Americans to war. But events in the region could force Reagan's hand.This is a classic instance of "The Devil made me do it." In language very similar to the headline that prompted this blog, the article said
A rush of developments in the first days of summer rekindled fears that U. S. military forces could be drawn into combat in Central America.So, Israeli tanks are pulled and U. S. military forces are drawn into combat. Note also the sense of urgency of this passage (due to "rush"). The article later told of events that could
... compel Reagan to resolve the apparent inconsistency in his policyand events that could
trigger greater U. S. involvement, perhaps even participation [in the guerilla war in Nicaragua]The magazine goes on to say that
... events on the ground are forcing [Reagan] to expand the role of the United StatesSentence after sentence represent Reagan as having little or no freedom of action. Only the bad guys have freedom of action. This is how every free nation goes to war.
This was clearly true of George Bush's invasion of Afghanistan, an effort I applauded, and his invasion of Iraq, an effort I deplored. In both cases we had a devil and in both cases Bush represented himself as being forced to act. This goes back to a fundamental American myth, namely that we are a peace loving nation that goes to war only when we are forced to. Lyndon Johnson phrased our actions in Vietnam in this way. And Reagandid so during his Presidency as well.
Generally speaking, Presidents paint the enemy in extremely negative terms. Reagan called the Soviet Union "The Evil Empire" and more recently George Bush referred to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea "The Axis of Evil," borrowing language from WWII ("The Axis" consisting of Germany, Italy, and Japan) and Reagan. Since then we have gone to war in Iraq and are at loggerheads with Iran and North Korea. It is, of course, their fault, not ours since other nations force our hand. The USA is, of course, not the only nation that uses "the devil made me do it" rationale to defend its actions. It seems built into the human psyche. It is, of course, important therefore to listen carefully to what Presidents say and how syncophantic reporters write and talk so as not to be taken in by this devil made me do it defense of indefensible actions.