Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Rhetoric of the War on Terror: Lessons Learned from a Past Master?

As a whole, and at all times, the efficiency of the truly national leader consists primarily in preventing the division of the attention of a people, and always in concentrating it on a single enemy. The more uniformly the fighting will of a people is put into action, the greater will be the magnetic force of the movement and the more powerful the impetus of the blow. It is part of the genius of a great leader to make adversaries of different fields appear as always belonging to one category only, because to weak and unstable characters the knowledge that there are various enemies will lead only too easily to incipient doubts as to their own cause.

As soon as the wavering masses find themselves confronted with too many enemies, objectivity at once steps in, and the question is raised whether actually all the others are wrong and their own nation or their own movement alone is right.

Also with this comes the first paralysis of their own strength. Therefore, a number of essentially different enemies must always be regarded as one in such a way that in the opinion of the mass of one's own adherents the war is being waged against one enemy alone. This strengthens the belief in one's own cause and increases one's bitterness against the attacker.

These words, written in the mid-1920s, are remarkable in that they seem to have been taken very much to heart by the current Bush administration. In a sense, the whole rhetorical project of a global "war on terror" is an excise in precisely what is recommended above, reducing various enemies of quite different natures to one single categorisation, serving to suppress questioning of the motives and justification for action in the process. In Iraq, for example, the shift in justification from weapons of mass destruction to combatting global terrorism has been well documented; we can only wonder how long a similar shift will take in relation to Iran and any resort to military force in that context. And then, of course, there is the "axis of evil" rhetoric, which brings together, under one of the vaguest umbrella terms imaginable, states as diverse as Iran, Syria and North Korea.

This thoroughly dishonest conflation and reduction of various different enemies is at the very heart of current US (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, UK) foreign policy rhetoric. It's effect is perhaps best encapsulated in an anecdote from Eliot Weinberger's piece in the London Review of Books, "What I Heard About Iraq". He notes that one US soldier serving in Iraq said "There's a picture of the World Trade Center hanging up by my bed and I keep one in my Kevlar. Every time I feel sorry for these people I look at that. I think: 'They hit us at home and now it's our turn'." Mission accomplished, in terms of the course of action suggested in the opening quote.

The passage with which I began this post, then, is remarkable for the manner in which it successfully depicts, from a distance of eighty years, what must be viewed as the deliberate and conscious strategic choice of the US administration in its formulation of foreign policy rhetoric. It is a rhetoric of "unify and conquer", through providing a devil-figure against which the masses can rally, to which all opposition can be reduced, and in terms of which all questioning of the "rightness" of the chosen course of action can be supressed. It and its manifestations must be a primary target for those who seek to allow "objectivity to step in", in order that the question may again be raised in a siginficant and effective manner as to "whether actually all the others are wrong and their own nation or their own movement alone is right".

The opening passage, incidentally, comes from Mein Kampf.

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