Jill Lepore's The Name of War is “a study of war, and of how people write about it.” In it, Lepore breaks away from traditional military history that examines battles, campaigns, or even armies, and instead writes about war and language, memory, and identity. While arguably any war and the language associated with it influence and may in fact create memory and identity, Lepore chose as her subject King Philip's War, a short but bloody encounter of the pre-photograph, pre-television colonial era when words held the weight of meaning that is today associated with visual imagery. Her thesis is twofold. First she makes an explicit statement about the relationship of words to war, that “wounds and words—the injuries and their interpretation—cannot be separated, that acts of war generate acts of narration, and that both types of acts are often joined in a common purpose: defining the geographical, political, cultural, and sometimes racial and national boundaries between people” (x). And second, that these words about war, specifically the colonists' and early Americans' words about King Philip's War, were instrumental in creating American national identity.
Rather then relying on a strictly chronological narrative retelling of King Philip's War and the words that surrounded it, Lepore identifies four categories for her analysis: Language, War, Bondage, and Memory. Her description of these four themes in the introduction is much more explanatory than any one of the one-word titles suggests. Within each of these parts, Lepore explores the way in which the realities of war are connected to the words that surround them. Lepore's careful integration of narrative and interpretation allows her great flexibility in the organization of the book. Toward the end of the work, Lepore attempts to connect these words with an emerging sense of American identity. By not stopping her account at the physical end of the war, Lepore reinforces the idea that history is constantly being rewritten and that identity is constantly being forged.
In some ways, Lepore is bound by her own notions of words and meaning. She is limited by what people wrote, and further limited by the fact that Indians wrote very little. But on the whole, she is sensitive to the fact that words rarely hold the weight applied to them, that they are often inadequate to describe real events. But for Lepore, words must mean what she says they mean. Her interpretations, though often speculative, are plausible and even compelling. Her care in interpretation is revealed by her care in writing. Her prose is fluid, readable, and enjoyable, and she has gone to considerable lengths to explain her methods and choices. Similarly, she has marshaled significant research from other fields and theoretical models, all of which is noted in detailed footnotes. Some will claim this is not a work of military history, but Lepore has made a compelling case that the history of words about war are as significant as the wounds and physical damage inflicted by it.
This report prepared by Jackie Whitt