When Soldiers Talk with Civilians – Lexicon and Meaning

[The general] ran into misunderstandings between military and civilian leadership over things as simple as terminology…. “What it really showed was because different cultures — the military, civilian, whatnot — all have their own lexicon, you can be having a conversation where you think you’re communicating effectively … but you’re not.”

General Stanley McChrystal has published a memoir, My Share of the Task, which puts light on, among other things, the sometimes startlingly different meanings conveyed by the lexicons of soldiers and civilians. The general was interviewed this morning by Rachel Martin on NPR’s program Weekend Edition, where McChrystal offered his view of the events leading up to his offer to resign his commission. Apart from the flak surrounding the jaundiced Rolling Stone article The Runaway General that caused the dilemma, the general remarked on the challenge to communication caused by “cultural differences.” Unexpectedly, in one breath the general said that military and civilian are cultures as different as Afghan and America.

“We had put on paper the word ‘defeat’ and to a military person that’s got a very precise meaning. It means we are going to prevent the enemy from accomplishing his mission. It doesn’t mean you have to kill any of the enemy. It just means that you gotta prevent’em from doing what they’re trying to do. And yet we found that there were people in the White House that were interpreting that as eliminate the enemy – wipe ’em out.”

“…because different cultures, the military, civilian [and] whatnot, all have their own lexicon, you can be having a conversation where you think you’re communicating effectively, and it’s all good people, but you’re not. It’s more obvious when you’re dealing with an Afghan leader with a big beard who doesn’t speak your language because know there’s a cultural barrier, but when you’re both speakin’ English, you don’t remember sometimes there may be a cultural barrier that’s just less visible.”

In his memoir, the general “describes a cultural gap between the military and civilian worlds, a lack of understanding that he says complicated the U. S. war effort in Afghanistan, and bred distrust between the White House and the Pentagon.” Not the first occasion of distrust, of course. To wit, Vinegar Joe Stillwell and Franklin D. Roosevelt, or the Gaijin Shogun Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman, and not just a few others.

In McChrystal’s comment on lexicon, and meanings conveyed, we hear a familiar echo from China in 1860, that communication between speakers of foreign languages, whether Afghani or Chinese or pidgin English, confront the obvious challenges to understanding, but often there rise up much less apparent obstacles between we who seem to share the same language and culture. Actually, of course, one need only go across town, or down the block, to discover how various are the connotations of our language, sometimes even just the denotations. When we hear about ravens, falcons, sea hawks, eagles and cardinals, are we listening to bird-watchers or NFL football fans. Lady-woman-chick, building-house-home, homeless-vagrant-bum, author-writer-scribbler (or blogger), are other obvious examples of the drift of interpreted meaning between community and context. Or McChrystal’s example of “defeat:” foil the enemy’s mission, or totally annihilate the enemy.

In 1860s Shanghai, the meaning of neutrality also was variously interpreted, in this case, by soldier, civilian (read “merchant”), and diplomat. Great Britain dictated the definition when the British consul declared it “unlawful for any British subject within any part of China to assist either the existing Chinese Government or any party engaged in opposition to that Government, whether by personal enlistment or by procuring other persons to enlist, or by furnishing or procuring warlike stores of any description, or by fitting out vessels, or by knowingly doing any other act for either party for which neutrality may be violated.”

In Yang Shen  the American consul equivocates about neutrality:
     “Well, sir,” the consul said, “I suppose that is not an impossibility; however, we Americans are under orders to maintain strict neutrality in the fighting between rebels and imperial troops. It is against the laws of America to fight on either side in this insurrection.”
     “But you certainly would take up weapons,” the taotai said, “to defend the lives and property of your citizens in the American settlement.”
     “But only in the American settlement,” the consul said.
     “You would not man barriers outside the native city in order to prevent rebels from advancing into your part of the settlement?”
     “Hmm. This kind of question I cannot answer without first conferring with the American minister and with the Secretary of State in Washington.”

From the Ch’ing government’s point of view, use of foreign troops was an admission of inadequacy and entailed risks of control. Yet without foreign assistance, Shanghai would fall, and recovery of eastern Kiangsu would be delayed. The Manchu regarded the Westerner’s neutrality as an obstacle to governance.

To American merchants, neutrality posed a threat to trade depending on how it was enforced. “Nearly all our property is in China, and so safety depends upon whether the English do, or do not, respect the neutrality of China. If they do, our steamers and houses, lands and property in the China ports are safe. If not, we can’t help it as they are all-powerful in these waters – I shall try to have the steamers and small craft…under neutral flags. But the difficulty [is] in doing this according to law…we must depend upon the neutrality of China being respected. Our property in Hong Kong must be respected according to European international laws, but what I am afraid of is that American law is not the same and that the English may seize American property in their colonies….[J. Heard to A. Heard, Shanghai, 5 Feb, 1862, Augustine Heard Collection, Baker Library, Harvard University]. The defensive tactics contemplated here were either transferring property titles from Americans to neutrals, so that under the law the English would have no right to confiscate such property (thus making neutrality a haven), or shipping in non-American bottoms.

The American authorities would have prosecuted Fletcher Thorson Wood for violation of the Neutrality Law if they could present sufficient fact to substantiate an indictment but, according to the acts of 1818 and 1838, “it is not a crime under American neutrality laws for a person to leave the country with intent to enlist in foreign military service….” Fletcher had no regard for neutrality and found the British and American neutrality in China laughable.

The British themselves recognized inconsistency in their policy and the paradox of Lord Palmerston’s oxymoron “armed neutrality.”
     “As before,” Minister Blaine said, “Her Majesty wishes to remain neutral in the war between the Taiping rebels and the Chinese emperor, so we shall na’ take any steps to actively interfere in rebel operations. However, we also must ensure the safety of the lives and property of our citizens in Shanghai, and to achieve that end we are prepared to defend the set’lement wi’ support from our steam frigates, gunboats, and British marines. Thus our policy would be one of armed neutrality.”
Armed neutrality, thought the American consul? High concept! I suppose that next we’ll have unarmed allegiance? If the neutrals arm, will the belligerents disarm? Oh, this is high concept. Please, Lord, get me soon to Bedlam. Moreover, how can we allege neutrality and assert that we interfere with neither side, when clearly we deny the insurgents access to the entrepot of Shanghai, deny them the opportunity to relieve the imperials of Shanghai’s arms, supplies, and finances? If only the taotai could hear this and witness how gently doth the little lamb of logic lie down between the enormous paws of the serene British lion.

The British consul (thought to be in sympathy with the Taiping) considered the neutral stance adopted by the Western powers in China theoretically admirable, but practically advantageous to the Manchu government. Western “neutrality” abetted trade benefitting Peking. The consul viewed this as a shortcoming of a neutrality policy, however he was not above using the neutrality policy to suppress the Foreign Rifles and disadvantage the Manchu government’s effort against the rebels. He further suggested that the Foreign Rifles’ activities would change the indifferent rebel attitude toward foreign trade and cause them to interfere with silk shipments. These alarmist words found sympathetic ears among foreigners who saw any military activity in the Shanghai area ‑ whether imperialist, Taiping, or foreign ‑ as a direct threat to trade [Meadows to Bruce, July 5, 1860, FO 228/29].

In Shanghai of the 1860s, it must have seemed that God had again frustrated men’s tongues and created another Babel: English, French, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Prussian, Tagalog and related dialects, Mandarin and other dialects of Chinese, and other languages all held together by a thin ligament of pidgin English. Histories gloss over the detail of how those people managed to communicate; novelists flail about trying to imagine what they said to each other. There must have been much repetition and hand waving deadly to dialogue.

So we invent (read “contrive”) stratagems that enable a Chinese banker and an American mercenary to follow one another’s speech (the banker once was a comprador for Jardine Matheson, so walah! he can understand some English). And there’s the dubious device of the interpreter, few of whom were very fluent, cleverly maneuvered into outlandish venues where he can perform his linguistic parlor tricks and explain to the benighted how things really were. If we draw upon the little actual language that has come down to us, in order to lend authenticity and cleave as closely as we can to actuality, we still cannot be entirely certain of what meaning was intended, and so the novelist himself becomes the interpreter, and trowels on yet another layer of meaning to perplex the innocent reader.

“Guess the big mandarins all went back to Shanghai,” Fletcher said. “Probably for a powwow with the taotai – calculating how to get my scalp. That is, take off my hair….”

Yang Fang did not understand what anyone would want with Fletcher’s hair, but he wondered for a moment about other eventualities….

This fragment from a future chapter is a trivial yet telling example of how far 1860s China was from the American West of that day. Even though Fletcher explains his connotation of scalp, Yang Fang still could never imagine a painted plains warrior scraping a dull knife over the top of a white man’s head. Much is “lost in translation” and, while most readers understand, the characters still must stumble over the mounting debris of obscure speech to find a foothold on real meaning.

In telling a story, it is easy to lose sight of the ambiance of so many languages. Much risk to meaning occurs when inventing dialogue and hazarding sufficient dialect to convey polyglot conversations between dissimilar characters. McChrystal’s remarks refresh our wavering sense of that ambiance, of the language of soldiers and civilians in its larger context, and how constantly it threatens to obscure meaning between even the best intentioned. The challenge for a novelist is somehow to convey an appreciation of the ambiance without fatiguing the reader.

Read excerpts from the interview online at NPR: I Accepted Responsibility’: McChrystal On His ‘Share Of The Task’ by NPR Staff.

Listen to (or download) the entire interview at NPR


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