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The Despondency of War, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Chief Joseph’s discourse of surrender is distinguished according to what may be termed its humanitarian character as opposed to its political character. Namely, to the extent that war is considered to be an intrinsically political act, Joseph’s speech focuses on the human dimension of war and the suffering it creates. What makes Joseph’s speech especially pertinent is that it acknowledges the utter destruction that war causes, as his discourse is centered on enumerating the ways in which the conflict with the U.S. Army has annihilated his people. There is a certain hopelessness in Joseph’s speech, insofar as he realizes with his words the genocide that has occurred and the impossibility for the Native American community to ever exist as they once did. Chief Joseph’s speech foresees the radical changes that the Native Americans will make in their very existential situation, radical changes that essentially annihilate the Native American form of life because this form of life no longer remains possible on the American continent since the arrival of the European settler. At the same, with this acknowledgment, Joseph makes a compelling critique of war as a tool of government policy, insofar as it leads to the explicitly anti-humanitarian destruction of a people.

The actual content of Joseph’s surrender speech is foreshadowed by his initial response to U.S. Army incursions into Nez Perce territory. Namely, Joseph, as Chief of the Nez Perce tribe, was faced with the geopolitical desires of the U.S. government, which demanded the Nez Perce territory, according to a presented legal argument that the government owned the land in question. As Gunther notes, this logic was foreign to Joseph, as “the government’s insistence that they owned the land of his fathers made no sense to him. The statements made by the government’s agents over the years were not proof that the land had been sold. Neither he nor his father had sold the land.”[1] Yet having witnessed the genocide of other Native American tribes, Joseph, despite realizing the nonsensical nature of the government claims, understood that the only hope for his tribe to live with a certain autonomy would be to leave their land. It is this realization of the disproportional strength of the American war machine against the Native American forces, combined with the desire for Chief Joseph to continue the way of life of his tribe, that initiated the flight of the Nez Perce. Furthermore, this flight itself foreshadows Joseph’s speech, as he understood that the technological superiority of the U.S. government meant his people’s way of life would be annihilated in a conflict situation: the only opportunity to continue their particular mode of existence would be to seek out a living space elsewhere. War is portrayed in this decision not only as policy decision that exists on the political level, but one that affects the existence of entire peoples.

The despondency that marked the decision for flight is repeated in Joseph’s ultimate speech, after the capture and destruction of his tribe. The speech is above all a declaration of existential exhaustion, not only on an individual level, but also on a communal level. The lament of Joseph’s discourse is an individual expression of sadness: but this subjective sentiment is engendered by the witnessing of the destruction of those who surrounded him. Hence, Joseph states: “I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed…the old men are all dead.”[2] Joseph here recognizes that the leadership of the Nez Perce tribe has been liquidated: there is no one to install an order and continuity into the tribe. The deaths of these men are not only the deaths of particular individuals, but rather the very social foundations of the tribe. War is portrayed by Joseph as a human practice that annuls the very social binds that constitute human and social communities. In this regard, Joseph posits the anti-humanitarian nature of war itself, despite the paradox that war is practiced by human beings.

Accordingly, with these words, Joseph is not only acknowledging the despair of his own people, but rather the destruction of war in general. In his last moving words of the discourse, he states: “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired, my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”[3] In these emotional lines, Joseph shifts from the figure of the warrior chief to the figure of the poet, lamenting for the death of his people, and also criticizing the obscenity of war. Whereas Joseph’s commitment to a pacifism is the result of his own existential trauma, it is arguably untied to the particular fate of the Nez Perce tribe. Rather, through the destruction of the tribe through conflict, Joseph emphasizes the destructive core of conflict itself. It is no longer a case of being victorious in a particular war, but rather the realization that all war itself is foreign to everything other than despondency.

Hence, whereas Joseph’s discourse is clearly a recognition of the genocide of his people, it also functions as a penetrating critique of war. Joseph’s emotional testimony aims to show the absurdity of war, by portraying the destructiveness it causes on a radically immanent level. Joseph is witnessing the death of an entire existential form of life; he is also witnessing the cause of this same death, through the practice of war. In Joseph’s speech, we see that there are no platitudes of optimism in war, only the despondent destruction of human life.

Bibilography

Chief Joseph, “I Will Fight No More.” In a Sacred Manner I Live: Native American

Wisdom. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005.

Gunther, Vanessa. Chief Joseph: A Biography. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2010.

[1] Vanessa Gunther, Chief Joseph: A Biography, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2010), 96.

[2] Chief Joseph, “I Will Fight No More”, In a Sacred Manner I Live: Native American Wisdom, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), 66.

[3] Ibid., 66.

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