Code Talker (Book Review)

Chester Nez in 2011, the year CodeTalker was published.

Chester Nez (with Judith Schiess Avila), Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of W.W.II, New York: Berkeley Caliber, 2011.

Can an autobiography be “authorized”? This one is conventional in  many ways — organised chronologically, written in the first person singular, and careful to stick with  facts. In fact it is careful, controlled, to the point where readers might wish for the occasional outburst of anger or flight of fancy, some departure from what can begin to seem like testimony, an effort to ward of potential doubts or misunderstandings about what happened to Chester Nez. Perhaps he was guided by the journalist who made hours of tapes with him, at length deciding the book should be his words, that is, an edited transcription, rather than a biography. But I had the sense of someone who continued to find his experience astonishing, even in long retrospect, that he was telling his story not just for himself, but as an affirmation: for one brief shining moment, Navajo had been the basis of an unbreakable code that was strategically critical to US victory in the Pacific.  The project was shrouded in secrecy, both as it was in progress and after: the 29 men who had developed the code had literally embodied it — no references, nothing written. They spoke, listened and cranked a manual generator — for long hours under harsh conditions, with no breaches of discipline or security. It worked.  It proved capable of transmitting any message, and no one was ever able to crack it.  The US did formally express its gratitude by awarding Medals of Honor, but only after the code was declassified in 1968 — 23 years after the victory it had facilitated.

In this book Chester Nez comes across as someone who did not consider himself heroic or even extraordinary.  This is the story of a Navaho man of suitable age and education who was recruited by the US Marine Corps in the early 1940s explicitly for his capacity to speak both Navaho and English. He does remark on the irony of suddenly being valued for exactly the skill that the same entity — that is, the “United States” — had tried so hard to supress in his formal education. But Nez is nothing if not even-handed, “fair,” or perhaps accommodating. The man who is telling the story doesn’t take sides: he is both a Navaho and a decorated US Marine, someone who recovers from post- traumatic stress (by a different name at the time) by means of a healing ceremony lasting many days and involving the whole tribe. He also wears his Marine dress blues to his own wedding. Even in his painful account of the years in  boarding school, where he was forced learn English and abstain from speaking or hearing his native language, but also to endure food shortages, inadequate living conditions, and senseless, demeaning punishments, he sticks to “hard” evidence, specific situations and personalities, resisting racial or cultural generalisations.

In fact a reader can come away with a sense of a hypothetical, rather than an actual person.  The narrator seems to insist that he only made the decisions that any “ordinary” person would have made, perceived what anyone under the same conditions would have perceived: yes, value systems sometimes clashed, as one would expect: the Marine Corps expected living soldiers to stay and fight even if the dead were all around, an unthinkably repulsive situation for a Navajo; in basic training, the sergeant might shout orders face-to-face at close range, as no Navajo ever would.  And there were also points of convergence, the pleasure of a team working together against an enemy, the pride  excelling at one’s own particular contribution to that team — convergences that finally earned a Medal of Honor.

Clearly Nez excelled in a number of critical respects. He excelled on the shooting range.  He coped exceptionally well with authority — that of Navaho tradition, that of a hated school, and that  of the United States Marine Corps. But it was in his description of the particular qualities of the Navaho language, some very subtle, that he became real, particular for me:

The Navaho language is very exact, with fine shades of meaning that are missing in English.  Our language illustrates the Diné‘s relationship to nature.  Everything that happens in our lives happens in relationship to the world that surrounds us… Pronunciation, too, is complex. Navajo is a tonal language with four tones: high, low, rising and falling.  The tone used can completely change the meaning of a word.  The words for “medicine” and “mouth” are pronounced in the same way, but they are differentiated by tone.  Glottal and aspirated stops are also employed. Given these complexities, native speakers of any other language are generally unable to properly pronounce most Navajo words…English can be spoken sloppily and still be understood.  Not so with the Navajo language.  So, even though our assigned task — developing a code — made us nervous, we realized that we brought the right skills to the job. (104-5)

Here, Chester Nez the linguist, suddenly emerges as the person who could sense the strengths and weaknesses of two dramatically different languages, and who further lived between the structures of a society grounded in oral transmission and one that unthinkingly assumes literacy — written structures of law, history, and technology. He “wrote” this book on tape, in transcription.  No wonder he resisted taking sides.

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