COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS – Equating war with individual evil has become ubiquitous – if not universal – in contemporary international politics. Wars are fights against evil tyrants and the illegitimate governments they control. Such rhetoric makes wars easier to justify, easier to wage, and easier to support, especially for elected leaders who must respond directly to swings in public opinion. Such language works equally well for any society in today’s media-obsessed age.
Little wonder, then, that political leaders consistently personalize international conflicts. Alas, such commonplace language also makes wars harder to avoid, harder to end, and arguably more deadly.
The rhetoric of personified evil is easily seen through American examples, but is hardly a uniquely American phenomenon. Chinese leaders blame Taiwanese leaders for cross-straits tensions, and blame the Dalai Lama for all that ails Tibet. So, too, have protestors around the world made George W. Bush resemble Hitler, and mullahs throughout the Islamic world ritualistically harangue US presidents as earthly Satans, simultaneously noting their basic affection for the American people.
Recent American leaders, for their part, find it nearly impossible to deploy military force without first employing such rhetoric as both mantra and crutch. The most famous example came in 1917. Woodrow Wilson, asking for a declaration of war against Germany, said, “We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their Government acted in entering this war.” Only the Kaiser and his evil henchmen were to blame.