At the beginning of the last decade James Der Derian wrote his part travelogue part post-modern theoretical text outlining a theory which, despite receiving little academic acclaim, provided an interesting insight into how the west would think, talk, and act out conflict over the next decade and a half.
Intended to provoke thought in what he saw as a confused post-Cold War field of International Security, and heavily influenced by both the NATO intervention in Bosnia, as well as by his own interactions with an increasingly insular United States military, ‘Virtuous War theory’ was one man’s vision of the future of western war-fighting. Although heavily criticised for its anti-military bias, numerous contradictory thought processes, and an often journalistic approach to both writing style and source referencing; the central tenet has emerged as more and more credible in the decade following 9/11. At least this was the case until intervention in Syria became a real possibility.
Essentially the theory can be split into two central themes; firstly, the belief that we in the west have attempted to gain the capacity to wage ‘virtual’ and ‘clean’ wars, and that our language has changed to reflect this advance. Secondly, that there exists a general collusion between the military, industry, media, and public entertainment networks, (MIMENET), seeking to entrench and glorify the idea of virtual/virtuous war in the consciousness of the general western public. The second argument is the one which has attracted the greater critical academic discussion; however, it is the first that relates most obviously to the rhetoric surrounding the current Syrian crisis.
Der Derian relates how ‘virtue’ and ‘virtual’ share an etymological root; they stem from an understanding of power above and beyond that available to men. He argued that advances in the technology of conflict have removed the actuality and physicality of war, at least for dominant western militaries, to the point where remote-control combat has become the goal. His thoughts were heavily influenced by the experiences of NATO’s intervention in the Balkans in the decade before he wrote, where superior technology led, for the interveners that is, to a ‘clean’conflict. He saw this as the west reaching a level of technological near-omnipotence; power through technology giving an armed force the ability to deal death from above anywhere, anytime, to anyone. Omnipotence is a word that cannot be used without the recognition of its religious aspect; it is a defining trait of the divinity to have absolute control over the life and death of man; in gaining this power we also begin to adopt rhetoric more commonly associated with religious sermons than with military and political reports.
In the post-9/11 arena the use of emotive and charged language by political leaders in the west became ever more evident. Speeches from western leaders alluded to black and white dichotomies between good and evil, right and wrong, and a moral and immoral way of killing. The west seemed to have become used to its conventional military superiority and the language used by leaders turned allegorical, backed by unwavering self-confidence, and full of righteous zeal. The west became opposed to the ‘Axis of Evil’ and was concerned with freeing the world from ‘terror’ by fighting a just war against the enemies of liberty, freedom, and democracy. Virtual war very quickly becomes ‘Virtuous war’ when technology grants the illusion of omnipotence; with power comes self-confidence, and a rhetoric based on a perceived clarity as to right and wrong.
Where then is that same certainty and decisiveness today? For the decade after 9/11 the fiery language continued, as did the focus on good and evil, and the use of overwhelming force against those deemed on the wrong side of the dichotomy. However this enthusiasm has noticeably run dry over the last year; we have heard noticeably less about grand narratives of evil, strength, and unrelenting justice and markedly more allusion to ‘red lines’, ‘sitting on the sidelines’, and ‘game-changing’ events. It would appear that fire and brimstone has lost favour in the west; when Obama talks about Syria it sounds more like the terminology of a sporting event than the existential exhortations we have heard over the last decade. Even this toned down language has been subject to intense criticism, many believing that Obama’s talk of red-lines over the last year has inadvertently trapped him into taking action when it is not to his advantage.
So why has this rhetoric cooled from that of the ‘Virtuous war’ to a far more cautious and unsteady rattling of sabres?
One clue can be found in the insistence by Der Derian that Virtual must exist for Virtuous to be possible; if the antagonist does not have the technological ability to play God then the rhetoric that supports military action will not be of the form seen thus far this millennium. The theory suggests that the change in the way the west talks about war is perhaps a reflection on the basic belief in its own ability to carry a conflict out on its own terms. To put it another way, when virtual war comes up short, the virtuous and clear cut nature in which western intervention is presented suddenly falls silent.
Even in the face of mounting evidence of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against populated areas, and the increasing likelihood of western action, the language used by leaders is more one of moral outrage than of throwing down a gauntlet to the other side.
Recent events in the Middle East and MENA region, not least the now infamous interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, have shown that the right and wrong dichotomy with good and evil players in a set frame is absolutely and inherently flawed. More than this, the west has had to learn very difficult lessons about the dangers of trusting in overwhelming force and technological superiority to provide long term solutions to complex governance issues.
The physical military capability of the west remains phenomenal, but there is now recognition in western speech that phenomenal capability is not the same as omnipotence and that no matter how cleanly fought, all conflict has a terrible cost.
It is true that the rhetorical change over the last decade could be down to other factors, for example leadership changes, but they have been so stark and so sudden with Syria that they can only be attributed to a paradigm shift in the thoughts behind the words. Perhaps the west has begun to reach a new stage in its own awareness, it has stopped believing in the power video games and is beginning to realise the harsh realities of intervention.