This is a good date to start the blog, as Britain extends its war in Syria following a long debate in the House of Commons in which some of the media have been captivated more by rhetoric, than evidence. So the first blog is about the need for clear analysis rather than the fine words.


 No evidence, no problem – there is always rhetoric


Rhetoric takes people to wars. The messy complexity of the real world is hard to grasp, but a good tub thumping speech dispenses with the need for hard thinking. Look for a moment at the excellent analysis offered by the Conservative MP Adam Holloway. He patiently explains that more bombing to liberate those controlled by IS would be pointless, since these people are Sunni, and are more afraid of what the Shia ‘liberators’ will do to them than they are of IS.


Confusing? Then just listen instead to a speech which says we are the good guys standing shoulder to shoulder, the others are very bad, so bad in fact that they are like Nazis and Hitler. This is a favourite piece of rhetoric, almost routinely wheeled out. 


In 1990, George Bush senior was trying to win congressional support to go to war in Kuwait against Saddam Hussein. The US public was divided, but he explained in an impassioned speech that Hussein was so evil that his troops pulled babies from incubators to take the machinery. Later, the Channel 4 programme, How to Tell Lies and Win Wars (3 January 1996) reported that the story had originated in a public relations company and had turned out to be untrue. But along with other stories of brutality, it helped to justify the rhetoric: 


“Kids in incubators thrown out and the machinery shipped to Baghdad… and that’s what we are dealing with. We are dealing with Hitler revisited, a totalitarianism, and a brutality… and that must not stand.” (George Bush, 23 October 1990). 


Then we had Afghanistan and the full Iraq war. Each time, wise heads suggested that the result would be chaos, that replacing a Sunni dictatorship in Iraq with a Shia one would not bring peace. But why quibble, when Tony Blair is suggesting we stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with our American friends after the atrocity of 9/11. 


Now we have Hilary Benn, saying we should stand alongside our French allies, once again ‘shoulder to shoulder’. We must free those under ‘the yoke of IS’, and he describes in detail their ‘calculated brutality’. They also hold us in ‘contempt’, which he says three times in his pro-war speech, in what is known as ‘the rule of three’. The same thing is repeated with greater emphasis each time, an old favourite with orators. And what is his conclusion? It’s Hitler and the fascists again:


“And we are faced here by fascists, it is why this entire house stood up against Hitler and Mussolini… We must confront this evil” (House of Commons, 2 December 2015)


So we go in full circle, with Bush in 1990 being echoed by Benn in 2015. No need to ask how we went from facing a couple of hundred terrorists 30 years ago, to where we are  now  -  just as long as Hitler can be revisited as necessary. 



Professor Greg Philo