Obama’s use of the phrase ‘unconventional weapons’ offers a nuance that to use them is sneaky and underhand
For a modern American culture that runs on a religion of incessant disruption and innovation, it’s odd that “unconventional weapons” are anathema. In the field of things designed to kill people, it seems that original thinking is bad. And so dark wielding of the phrase “unconventional weapons” has lately been one of the rhetorical leitmotifs of the argument that western powers should attack Syria. If we don’t, Barack Obama was reported as saying, we will “allow President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to get away with murdering children with unconventional weapons”.
To speak this way is useful from a bellicose perspective since it implies that there might be more in the Syrian leader’s eldritch arsenal than just the “chemical weapons”, allegedly deployed by government forces, that killed 1,400 people near Damascus. The phrase “chemical weapons” sounds particularly terrifying in an evil scientist way. But ordinary explosive bombs, of the kind you’ll find in the warhead of a cruise missile or the belly of an aircraft, and with which you can kill an awful lot more people, are made of chemicals, too. (The International Crisis Group wondered mildly why any use of “chemical weapons” now necessitated an attack, given that “Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action”.) It’s high time some enterprising arms manufacturer developed a range of hypoallergenic and eco-friendly “organic” weapons.
Since the 2003 Iraq invasion, western leaders agitating for war can no longer really use the phrase “weapons of mass destruction”, that being the slogan around which official “regime change” progaganda was organised “for bureaucratic reasons”, as Paul Wolfowitz nonchalantly revealed afterwards. (A curious reverse echo of Iraq rhetoric appeared recently in the New York Times, which in a news report commented sardonically that Assad “routinely refers to armed insurgents and rebels as ‘terrorists'”. Where could he have learned that trick? Subsequently, an “updated” version of the article removed this comment.)
Compared with the now-unusable phrase “weapons of mass destruction”, Obama’s “unconventional weapons” lacks the old rhetorical amplification of death but offers a different nuance instead: to use them, it seems, is sneaky and underhand. It’s just not cricket. (One magazine story from the late 19th century described “a rusty knuckle-duster”, “a cruel-looking gimlet knife”, and a “roughly wrought bowie” as “unconventional weapons”, too: not the sort of thing a gentleman fighter would use.)
But just as by far the most destructive kind of WMD are nuclear weapons, huge arsenals of which the righteous invaders of Iraq inconveniently owned themselves, so “unconventional weapons” have long been understood to include the nuclear type. To be “unconventional”, then, is OK for us but not for them. A sceptical observer of American rhetoric might even suggest that death-dealing flying robots, of the kind that routinely kill people (including children) in US drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are pretty “unconventional weapons” too by historical standards.
To describe a leader and his weapons as uniquely iniquitous is one pillar of a pro-war Unspeak propaganda strategy. Another is to characterise one’s own proposed actions in terms of justice and cleanliness. Sadly for admirers of its creatively antiseptic death-as-medicine metaphor, the idea of a “surgical strike” seems also too tarnished from its Iraq-era use to be resurrected for the Syrian case. Instead the proposed attack, it is said, will be a “limited strike” to “degrade” the government’s “delivery systems” (they do not mean targeting post offices).
It will also, we are told, be a “punitive” strike. Presumably, Assad or the commanders who supposedly ordered the Damascus attack will be safe in palaces and bunkers. So the punishment for their alleged actions will instead fall on random members of the Syrian military, who apparently deserve to die just for staying in their jobs. So goes the brutal collective-punishment ethos of the geopolitical correctional officer.
It has even been reported that perhaps the main purpose of the attack on Syria will be to send a message to another actor entirely: Iran. This doesn’t mean actually writing messages on the bombs, which would obviously be pointless because the messages would be illegible after the bombs exploded. It means bombing Syria as a way of warning Iran that the US won’t tolerate its pursuit of “unconventional weapons” either. This sounds clever. It’s just a shame that bombing one set of people to impress another is more or less the definition of terrorism.
After meeting with Obama, John McCain reported with satisfaction that he understood any strike on Syria would be “very serious” and not “cosmetic”. Even doubters can surely agree that it’s good that any such attack will at least be “serious”. To kill people frivolously, after all, would just add insult to injury.