This will not be our finest hour: the dangerous rhetoric of war

By Jill Segger
December 7, 2015

We have to hope that committing a country's armed forces to acts of war is one of the hardest decisions a politician ever has to make and one which makes the greatest demand on conscience. But observation makes hard to rid oneself of a suspicion that many senior politicians have a not-so-secret desire to play the role of war leader.

Remember Margaret Thatcher in headscarf and goggles posing in the turret of a tank during the Falklands war? Tony Blair striving to look blokish and casual against a backdrop of bored-looking soldiers in Iraq? George Bush on the flightdeck of an aircraft carrier, sporting a USAF bomber jacket? And on Saturday (5 December), we saw the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon at RAF Akrotiri with a fighter plane in soft-focus behind him, unable to suppress a smirk as he proclaimed: “We will hit them harder”.

“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier”, said Samuel Johnson. There does seem to be something in the male psyche – though it does not belong exclusively to that gender – which finds vicarious glory and a sense of power in all the tackle of armed conflict. Maybe this has its roots in our primate natures – watch the larger, more powerful animal use its stature and weight to frighten or dominate a smaller creature. In the boardroom, the pub, the street or the international arena, there is still something of the jungle in us.

What is basic may quickly become base when it is not kept in check by analysis and moral reflection. Where these civilising attributes are absent, the prioritisation of force over other responses is inevitable. The thin case made by David Cameron for UK airstrikes has made this disturbingly clear.

Rhetoric is the principal instrument of politicians' love affair with military force and of all the speeches which have followed the terrible events in Paris, Hilary Benn's seemed to me the most dangerous. It combined skilful deployment of the techniques of rhetorical discourse with a poor grasp of the immense complexities of the Syrian conflict. Behind its actorly cadences – as with so much grandiose peroration on the exercise of armed force – was a ghostly echo of Churchill's oratory from a different war, a different time and a very different geo-politics.

It is significant that memories of our 'finest hour' still inform – even though on a subliminal level – so much about our present-day responses when the war-shout goes up. The generation which lived and suffered through World War 2 has almost passed and when living memory dwindles, legend-making and a tendency to romantic illusions gain ground.

“All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal.” These are the words of John Steinbeck and politicians are unlikely to want us to reflect upon them. Not least, because they remind us that however evil we may perceive our antagonist to be, we must bear at least some responsibility for his flourishing.

It would be idle to expect many politicians to share the Quaker view that true peace cannot be imposed by military might and that ideas can never be eradicated by bombs. But it is not unreasonable to question the eagerness of our elected leaders to deck themselves in the garb of warrior chiefs. The decision to go to war should always be a last resort, better clothed in sackcloth and ashes and expressed in the plain speech of sorrow for our collective failure.

© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.