Euphemism and American Violence

The New York Review of Books, Vol. 55, No. 5, April 3, 2008

By David Bromwich

In Tacitus’ Agricola, a Caledonian rebel named Calgacus, addressing “a close-packed multitude” preparing to fight, declares that Rome has overrun so much of the world that “there are no more nations beyond us; nothing is there but waves and rocks, and the Romans, more deadly still than these— for in them is an arrogance which no submission or good behavior can escape.” Certain habits of speech, he adds, abet the ferocity and arrogance of the empire by infecting even the enemies of Rome with Roman self-deception:

A rich enemy excites their cupidity; a poor one, their lust for power. East and West alike have failed to satisfy them…. To robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of “government”; they create a desolation and call it peace.

The frightening thing about such acts of renaming or euphemism, Tacitus implies, is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost. Maybe the most disturbing implication of the famous sentence “They create a desolation and call it peace” is that apologists for violence, by means of euphemism, come to believe what they hear themselves say.

Continued . . .

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