The Official Deployment (and Public Perception) of War Rhetoric

In this world of 24 hour news, hyper-real video games and largely uncensored proliferation of Youtube clips, it can sometimes seem that news and events cease to shock as they once supposedly did. In recent weeks, however, the eye-witness accounts and amateur film footage coming out of Syria, of ordinary people – including many women and children – suffering and dying due to the effects of chemical weapons, reminds us just how shocking the world can be. It is not surprising that these events have sparked a global flurry of comment and debate both in terms of popular and everyday ‘talk’ amongst friends and colleagues, as well as at governmental levels, as reported in the global media. While appalled at the images – and much of the ensuing debate – I also find it instructive to reflect further on the heritage of much of this public comment.

Much of the initial commentary connected the attacks in Damascus to a speech made by US President Barack Obama, almost exactly a year ago in August 2012, when he seemed to suggest that the use of chemical weapons would represent the ‘crossing of a red line’. This resulted in strong pressure for the US and its allies to make a military intervention in Syria, and a heated debate that is still developing. What Barack Obama actually said last year does not seem to be as straightforward as the rhetorical use of it today would seem:

Whatever he did or did not say, however, the deployment of the idea of ‘crossing a red line’ seems to have an affective capacity today. Indeed, along with the repeated – and slightly nostalgic – use of the term ‘allies’, and the even more provocative referral to a ‘Munich moment’ by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, it all seems to correspond to an affective assemblage of war rhetoric folk heritage:

Where does the idea of crossing the red line come from? It seems to me to be a purposeful invocation towards a mix of a line in the sand, and a thin red line, both of which have a heritage that seems apposite at this time. The ‘thin red line’ makes a link to the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854, when the 93rd Highland Regiment (and their Turkish allies) held off a Russian cavalry charge. Although it is usually deployed in a fashion that seeks to make a Briton proud of its armed forces, Wikipedia suggests that to the British press of the 1850s it became an icon of the quality of the ordinary soldier in a war that was poorly managed and increasingly unpopular:

In other words, the thin red line is resonant of popular critique of official military incompetence and a warning to those that seek to make political capital from posturing military pronouncements that may cost the lives of thousands of people.

The notion of a line in the sand appears to be more ubiquitous and has less of an imperial overtone. It seems to appeal to Biblical sensibilities, with Jesus drawing a line in the sand when speaking to people who were accusing a woman of adultery. The ensuing speech by Jesus is perhaps quite apt when considering the use of military intervention in Syria: “He who is without sin amongst you, let him throw a stone at her first”.

While the debate in the US Congress is still far from complete, within the UK Parliament last week it was a different heritage that seemed to resonate more loudly. Here, it was a folk memory of ‘dodgy dossiers’ and the memory of the Iraq War that over-ruled an Executive desire for military intervention. The people voting might be MPs and politicians, but the sentiment was very much more the offspring of popular protest and demonstration a decade ago. Along with millions of others, I had been angry that my voice had seemingly not been herd when I marched in London on the 15th February 2003, and yet now I find that a key element of UK Foreign Policy is being driven not by the Executive, nor even Parliament, but by the affective and emotive power of the folk memory of war rhetoric.


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