The War Syllogism in American Presidential Rhetoric
In his December 3, 2010 remarks at the Bagram Air force base, in a move revealing of a tradition of American militarism in American presidential rhetoric, President Barack Obama encouraged soldiers to continue waging war abroad in order to salvage American freedom at home. What is notable in this moment is that the president compared the founding father’s decision to wage a revolution for American independence with succeeding American efforts to wage US wars abroad. In his speech, the president describes soldiers in US history ranging “from that icy river to the fields of Europe, from the islands in the Pacific to the hills of Korea, from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq, those who went before you, they also found themselves in this season of peace serving in war.” He then rationalizes American intervention abroad stating that “They did it for the same reason that all of you do—because the freedom and the liberty that we treasure, that’s not simply a birthright. It has to be earned by the sacrifices of generations—generations of patriots, men and women who step forward and say, send me. I know somebody has got to do it, and I’m willing to serve. Men and women who are willing to risk all and some who gave all to keep us safe, to keep us free” (“To the troops” ). Significant in this statement is the logic of the endless war—that the United States must at all times and in all places and most importantly, from generation to generation, wage war to save freedom under attack from an International enemy.
The president’s call to war in this respect, however, is by no means unique to the Obama administration and draws on a culturally prescribed narrative in presidential rhetoric, invoking the international devil as a scapegoat who must be vanquished in the name of US freedom. In this article, I argue that the tendency for American presidents to associate American militarism with national prosperity draws on tradition of presidential rhetoric, which is what I call the syllogism of war.
To make this claim, I turn to Kenneth Burke’s theory of the scapegoat, and analyze the president’s 2009 and 2010 Bagram speeches and assert that the president’s rhetoric of war is informed by a center right narrative whose roots lie in a culturally prescribed syllogism that assumes American militarism as its major premise. From here, I draw on Donald Pease’s analysis of state fantasy and assert that the power of this center right narrative lies in the fantasy of American identification that associates US military intervention overseas with global solidarity and rebirth of the American dream via the Middle East. Specifically, I argue that the fantasy of American identification include the following features of a center right narrative:
1) The construction of an operating syllogism that presents 9/11 as an act of war and not an act of terrorism, limiting the scope of national debate on war, to military tactics only.
2) The characterization of the enemy as an imminent threat to the US and thus an imminent threat to global security.
3) The unquestioned linking of American militarism with globalization of the American dream and thus the promise of a democratic transformation in the Middle East.
I select the president’s Bagram speeches for analysis because these speeches are addressed to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and they occur prior to the Obama administration’s capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. In addition, these speeches, which appear midpoint in the president’s term in office, signal important years devoted to a president’s preparation for reelection. Because the audience and timing for these speeches are factors that help reveal rhetorical moves unique to the narrative of the scapegoat, it is my contention that analyzing how President Obama frames the call to war in these speeches can provide us with important clues for understanding the construction of the war syllogism in American presidential discourse. These clues may help us to undertake a more studied look at the popular themes of American militarism in presidential rhetoric and therefore the questions that can be anticipated in national discussions addressing the Other.
To understand how American presidential rhetoric is closely linked to a cultural narrative deeply rooted in the scapegoat ritual I turn first to Kenneth Burke’s definition of the scapegoat. In his book, A Grammar of Motives, Burke explains that the scapegoat is a substitute or vicarious stand-in for a community’s ills and must therefore take the blame for those ills and be sacrificed in order to purify the community of its sickness (406). A telling moment where one sees the narrative of the scapegoat in the president’s rhetoric of war, lies in President Barack Obama’s August 17th, 2009 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. What is significant here is that the President blames 9/11 on terrorists in Afghanistan and promises to purify the US of terror by going to what he states is “war” in Afghanistan. The use of war as a term is pivotal. Note, as he expresses his position on Afghanistan, he states, “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. This is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people.” The use of the term “war” and the omission of any language describing the 9/11 attacks as terrorist attacks reflects a national tendency to assume military force as part of the syllogistic frame in public discourse and thus the act of purifying the Other. This inability to speak and listen outside of a war frame is symptomatic of a cultural narrative where complicity in the scapegoating of the Other means avoiding any real definition of war and distinguishing terrorism from war. The logical next step in such a discourse that assumes military aggression as its underlying premise is the endless war.
Another moment indicative of the cultural narrative of the scapegoat can be seen in the president’s March 28, 2010 speech to the troops at Bagram, which signifies a clear theme prevalent throughout much of the president’s rhetoric of war. For example, in this speech, we see the president articulate an “us versus them” binary construction which frames the conflict between the United States and terrorists as an essentialist conflict of good versus evil. The president constructs this frame by describing al qaeda as so overwhelmingly blameworthy he characterizes them as a far reaching global threat. Note how he asserts, “[T]his is not simply an American mission or even just a NATO mission. Al Qaeda and their extremist allies are a threat to the people of Afghanistan and a threat to the people of America, but they’re also a threat to people all around the world, and that’s why we’re so proud to have our coalition partners here with us.” Here, the president’s characterization of the enemy as an imminent and far reaching threat suggests that it is the United States duty to save the world from this threat and that indeed “the world” can be changed, transformed and saved.
What is telling about this moment is that within this “us versus them” mindset, a mindset that ensures the division between an “us” from the “scapegoat”—the themed Other, the president equates national values for diversity and multiculturalism with the American dream and associates US militarism overseas with the propagation of a vaguely defined American dream. This dream we are called to assent to can be further understood in relation to the analysis of the term “fantasy” that Donald Pease in his book The New American Exceptionalism extrapolates upon. Pease looks to Jacqueline Rose’s discussion that fantasy is part of statehood and makes the case that “state fantasy does not refer to a mystification but to the dominant structure of desire out of which US citizens imagine their national identity” (1). Importantly, he observes that “the state cannot get into rationally purposive action that the individual citizen can logically explain—it can only do so in terms of the inner meaning it holds for citizens on the subjective beliefs they attach to it” (2). Pease’s interpretation of fantasy is what I wish to draw your attention to as a powerful component of the president’s rhetoric of war. The president in his Bagram speech, invites the audience to participate in what I call a fantasy of American identification which is an appeal to a semblance of perceived shared and imagined values about the “inner goodness” of all Americans. Note the president states: “all of you want to build—and that is something essential about America. They’ve got no respect for human life. You see dignity in every human being. That’s part of what we value as Americans. They want to drive races and regions and religions apart. You want to bring people together and the see the world move forward together. They offer fear, in other words, and you offer hope.” Here, Obama’s narrative of war draws on a fantasy of American identification that calls on Americans to identify American militarism with the construct of a global melting pot through a Middle Eastern transformation of the American dream.
The president’s rhetoric of war reveals the past and current state of language use in public discourse whereby terms and themes favorable to advancing American militarism abroad via a long term scapegoat, are sanctioned over others and thus define how we choose to engage in the national debate on war.
In his book, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, Andrew Bacevich contends that current domestic and international ills facing the United States is symptomatic of the militarization of US foreign policy and that this problem is not the making of a sole presidency. Indeed, he claims that “if a problem is bigger than a particular president or single administration—as I believe that problem of American militarism to be—then simply getting rid of that president will not make that problem go away. To pretend otherwise serves no purpose” (xiii).
Like Bacevich, I contend that President Obama’s rhetoric of war in Afghanistan speaks to the larger problem of civic engagement in American Presidential rhetoric and one deserving of further inquiry when it comes to formal presidential declarations that war is over. The question that remains for not only the Obama administration but future administrations is if presidents in power are capable of resisting the American war syllogism that associates American prosperity with American militarism in US presidential rhetoric. Can presidents and their citizens be persuaded to reverse the center right syllogism of war? Current American military interventions in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia are grim signs that much, much more work is yet to be done. Let us hope that we may someday be persuaded to revise our thinking.
Nathalie Kuroiwa-Lewis is a professor of English at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. She can be reached at NKuroiwaLewis@stmartin.edu.
Bacevich, Andrew. The new American militarism: how Americans are seduced by war. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of CP. 1954. Print.
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