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Review of  War of Words

Reviewer: Xuelin He
Book Title: War of Words
Book Author: Sandra Silberstein
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 14.1402

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Date: Thu, 15 May 2003 13:59:15 +0800 (CST)
From: Xuelin He"
Subject: War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11

Silberstein, Sandra (2002) War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11, Routledge.

Xuelin He, National Research Center for Linguistics and Applied Linguistics (Guangzhou, P. R. China).


The 21st century has witnessed the fact that a just war breaks off not beginning with sly military preparation for a deadly blow, but as the consequence of a series of rhetoric activities for the public awareness of the justified causes of war. In the name of just war against terrorism, American president Bush marshals successive military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. However, before this real war started, a war of words, as the result of magical interactions between language and politics, had already begun within the United States. How an act of terror on the World Trade Center in New York is rhetorically interpreted as an act of war on the United States, which finally justifies the American military actions on other countries, is detailed in the book "War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11." The writer of the book Sandra Silberstein, who was born in New York and spent her early years there, shows a scholarly mourning for the losses of her American folk people by her eloquent rhetorical criticisms on the public and political discourses in the United States after 9/11.

The book is only 172 pages long, and is divided into 7 chapters with a writer's introduction attached at the beginning. This short introduction serves as the guide to the purpose and structure of the whole writing. The book is intended to reconstruct the linguistic route from a peaceful nation to a nation at war. On this route, several important transformations occurred: the president solidified his military and religious roles; the terrorism attacks became the symbolic attack on American freedom and democracy; New York gained her American identity; dissent voices were drowned in the national chorus for war. The writer claims that insights from her rhetoric exploration bring about not only the bitterness of criticisms but also hope for the future. The last section of the introduction is the gist of each chapter summarized by the writer herself. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of her rhetorical criticisms on the multiple discourses in America.

The first chapter "From Terror to War: The War on Terrorism" inquires the presidential rhetoric which underscores the most important transformation following the 9/11 attack: from the denunciation of terrorism to the bombing on Afghanistan. Nearly all the statements, remarks or speeches made by the president and publicized through the media are collected and attached to the end of this chapter. The phrases or sentences from the presidential discourse and the processes of language building are highlighted under the technical analysis. What the quoted words can tell as the clues to the forthcoming war is not so impressive as what they can build. The president builds his leadership in the resolution of crisis with the full use of the first personal pronoun and the active voices in the first remarks after the terrorist attack. Then with the careful choice of words, he grammatically "creates a united nation, under God."(p.4). His image as the guardian for this united nation is constructed from his pedagogical way of speaking, "one that becomes increasingly pedagogical in the days to come."(p.8). Besides this, realism and certainty fill the presidential speeches, which implies the presidential power to relieve the audience of their childlike fear and chaos. When the final rhetoric moment for the declaration of war comes, it is only the natural result of the presidential language building. The writer ends her analysis with the war speeches comparison between President Bush and Roosevelt in the World War II.

In the second chapter "Becoming President," a rhetorical analysis on the various speeches on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance (September 14, 2001) discloses George W. Bush's rhetorical journey ascending to the role of real president, counterbalancing the negative influence for being the first appointed president and having poor recordings both in school and career. This chapter comprises 4 sections, each with a subtitle. The first section "A National Cathedral" portrays the tension between church and state, and Bush family's unusual link with the National Cathedral. The second section analyzes the broadcast coverage of September 14, focusing on the commentary of the famous newscaster Jennings, which goes through the service. Although his words construct Bush's presidential role at the national religious moment, it also exposes the sharp contrast between "the rookie Bush presidency" and "the Clinton establishment." (p.45). The third section "A Service" presents the important rhetoric moment for coalition of military, religion and politics. The service begins with a military marching by soldiers and music is played by the U.S. Army Orchestra. Speeches given by different religious representatives put Bush in the place of hero to help the nation in crisis. In response to the calls for his presidential tasks, Bush's speeches at the service serve both as prayers of healing and signals of coming war. His speeches appear in the appendix to this chapter. The last section "Coda" is quite short, comprising only 3 paragraphs. It ends this chapter with a request for attention of the war theme in different discourses.

Chapter 3 "From News to Entertainment: Eyewitness Account" is the most linguistic part in the book, as the writer claims in the Introduction. It "examines the role of television in creating September 11 narratives and in constructing social identities."(p.61). This chapter is divided into 9 blocks with a subtitle respectively covering nearly every aspect of televised news report. The writer borrows two linguistic tools: the methodological analysis of news discourse by Ron Scollon, to question the norms of TV news coverage; and the oral narrative structure by William Labov, to observe the eyewitness narratives as a part of the process of manufacturing the news into entertainment. A TV news magazine for high-ranked interviewees and a TV series about rescue workers are under rhetorical scrutiny to support the writer's argument that news report of 9/11 attack are highly edited to cover the emotional reactions of people. The chapter 4 "New York Becomes America(n)" deals with the rhetorical reconstructions within American culture after 9/11. The first two sections in this chapter is about how New York city mayor Giuliani becomes an America's mayor and also a hero; the other two sections depict how New York identifies itself with America. By inspecting the often-used words in speeches and media report to describe Giuliani and rescue personnel, the writer unveils the process of building working class hero. In the analysis of New York's melting into America, two concerts are chosen as the rhetorical moments. On the benefit concert on October 20, the assurance of their New York identity and loyalty from film stars or singers symbolizes the cultural union between New York and the rest of America. The other concert for uniformed personnel causes debates about race, class and politics because of some words from the mouth of participants. Despite this, for the first time, some one can say that American "have become a family."(p.105).

In chapter 5 "Selling America", a rhetorical analysis is made on the advertisements in relation with this terrorist attack. One kind of advertisement from the Ad Council of America, a nonprofit agency, sends messages of patriotism and tolerance for rebuilding. The other kind of advertisement emanates from big companies, pushing forward consumerism in the name of patriotism. American people shift from reluctance to shopping as the mourning way for the lost beings to increasing expenditure to show their patriotism and support for the government in crisis.

The writer criticizes the emergence of the New McCarthyism through
examining a report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni(ACTA) in the sixth chapter. Patriotism is overdone after 9/11, which is marked by the report from ACTA listing more than 100 citations from the dissent voices of the American campuses. This report stirs up American intellectual circle, and it is quickly matched with the McCarthyism or "witch hunts" in history. The chapter is focused on the report with many citations republished to show their innocuousness in essence. More insights come from the rhetorical analysis on the report, which exposes the fallacies in its logical structure. Although the report ends up with the statements of non-involvement from Ms. Cheney and Joe Lieberman, the founder and co-founder of ACTA, its influence has come into being.

The 9/11 attack has made many Americans realize they have a blank in their knowledge about Islamic religion and countries. In chapter 7 "Schooling America: Lessons on Islam and Geography," the writer makes a comparative study on ABC documentary "Minefield" by Peter Jennings and CNN documentary about Islam by Christiane Amanpour. Islam in the former documentary was portrayed as dangerous and a problem worldwide. Also from this documentary, in dealing with the relationship between the Islamic countries and the U.S., America embraced a sense of management and superiority, and also a belief in the Islamic people's positive reaction to American cultural invasion. U.S. strategic interests are everywhere in Jennings' coverage. Despite holding on to the same strategic interests, CNN documentary exposes an alternative view on Islam to avoid the potential clashes between two kinds of civilizations. Two different documentaries aired within a single week is, the writer believes, an example to show the public discourse transformation in post-9/11 America.


For any linguists practicing in public rhetoric criticism, they never forget to find powerful critical weapons from pragmatics (He Zi-ran, 2000), because their criticisms are generally founded on two premises: one is to regard language as social action (Duranti, 1997), the other to treat politics as using language (Carmen Rosa, et al., 1996). So it is usual to examine language through the lens of politics or vice versa. However, this book introduces another factor to form a triangle of language, politics and acts. Between the act of terrorist attack and the act of war on Afghanistan is a politics-involved process of language building. This method of analysis provides more insightful understanding both on language and politics. It questions the media exposure as the public's access to political information. Although Russell J. Dalton (1988) shows his optimism on increment of public political sophistication in America after World War Two, the American president can still shape the public opinions by his privileged access to media. The writer in this book seems to assume the potential danger of dictatorship within the advanced industrial democracy.

Each parts of the book is well formed and logically related to each other. During analyzing America's rhetorical trajectory to war, the writer always keeps "skeptical, discerning and imaginative," meeting the quality of good rhetorical criticism (Hart, 1990:40-47). This book does not require that readers have specialist backgrounds in language study. I shall say, any linguistic apprentice would benefit from reading this book as their first step to applied linguistics.


Caldas-Coulthard, C. R. and Coulthard, M. (1996) Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge.

Dalton, R. J. (1996) Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies. Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, Inc..

Duranti, A. (1997) Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, R. P. (1990) Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company.

He Zi-ran (2000) Enlightenment from Pragmatics on Rhetoric Studies (in Chinese). Journal of Jinan University (Philosophy & Social Sciences Edition, Bimonthly), Vol.22, No.6, China: Guangzhou.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Xuelin He, a linguistics lecturer in Fujian Normal University, is now pursuing her doctoral degree of applied linguistics in Guangdong Foreign Studies University. Her academic interests cover pragmatics, sociolinguistics and philosophy of language.