A close reading of Prime Minister Harper’s absurdly jingoistic speech to the troops in Kuwait

I’m hoping to do an update later tonight/tomorrow on the likely passage of Bill C-51, but I came across this video and it was too good to resist.

I wish I had stumbled across this while preparing yesterday’s post, but oh well, here it is now – Stephen Harper addressing the troops in Kuwait during his recent super-stealthy secret surprise visit to the front lines of the war non-combat operation against ISIS.

I retrieved the full transcript from the Prime Minister’s website, but I wasn’t able to find a full video of the speech. Do check out the link above for the abridged CP video, though – Harper’s tone of voice is priceless, like that of a pompous vice-principal addressing a high school graduation ceremony with the same tired platitudes he’s been recycling for decades.

What I’d like to do with this little gem of an address is to pick it apart, piece by piece, annotating any points of interest we come across. It’s an approach I first saw used by the incomparable Lambert Strether over at Naked Capitalism; check out, by way of example, this lovely takedown of Marco Rubio’s announcement that he was running for president, and the surprising amount of insight it yields into the man and his motives.

I lack Mr Strether’s firm command of the technical vocabulary of rhetoric (as well as his colorful collection of magic markers), but I know bullshit when I smell it, and this speech is full of it.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

So here’s the speech. Just take the mood of the thing in. It’s a hideous speech, really.

Good morning.

Thank you, Jason, for that very kind introduction.

Ambassador Moreau, Chief of the Defence Staff Lawson, Brigadier General Constable, Colonel Boyle, our host base commander, Colonel Bader, members of the Canadian Armed Forces, special guests including Paul Coffey, Ryan Smyth, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.[1]

I am here today because I want to thank you all personally for your hard work and your sacrifices in the service of our country, and to congratulate you on everything you have accomplished so far in this mission.

And in saying that, I know that I speak on behalf of all Canadians.[2]

One of the things that I believe unites Canadians from coast to coast to coast is our pride in the men and women who serve.

So I’m here to thank you and to congratulate you.[3]

1) Not sure who all the military brass are (although I assume Jason is Jason Kenney, the odious Minister of Defence). Brig. Gen. Constable is the commander of Joint Task Force Iraq. For those who don’t pay attention to the world of professional sport, Coffey and Smyth are NHL stars brought along on the jaunt to play ball hockey with the troops – because one of the things that unites Canadians from coast to coast to coast is watching overpaid jocks on ice. Quite thoughtful of Harper & Co to bring them along. It’s those little touches that really elevate these photo ops to the level of art.

2) Not strictly speaking true. I’d say most Canadians don’t have a clue what exactly the military has “accomplished” in Iraq/Syria. I follow the news pretty closely and even I’m not too sure.

3) Surely not “congratulations” in the sense of “You’ve done it! Congratulations!” This speech steers WAY clear of any kind of “Mission Accomplished” triumphalism, although it’s heavily implied that victory is certain. Perhaps this is a preemptive congratulatory strike.

But I’m here to do more than just that.

I’m here to show our unconditional support for you, and for the mission you have accepted on behalf of our country.

I don’t need to tell you why you are here.

Jason made some reference to it.[4]

You are facing an extraordinarily dangerous enemy, the so-called Islamic State, ISIS and its allies who have threatened not only our partners and friends in this region and beyond, but specifically Canada and Canadians by name.

And we know that these are not idle threats.

Its adherents have already acted, striking down two of our own in cold blood on Canadian soil.[5]

Not to forget the effective work of our security agencies in thwarting many other plots to storm Parliament, to bomb the CN Tower, to derail a Via train over Niagara Falls, to name just a few.[6]

So make no mistake.

By fighting this enemy here you are protecting Canadians at home because this is an evil that knows no borders, and if left uncontained, it will spread like the plague.[7]

This is what we know.

4) Ahh, that’s our Jason! The great Cheerleader-in-Chief, as Justin Trudeau memorably dubbed him, is forever providing backup for Harper. If the two of them went clubbing, Kenney would be the wingman – and he’d be damn good at it too.

5) OK so. Hmm. The “adherents” of ISIS Harper is referring to are Martin Rouleau, a recent convert to Islam who hit two uniformed soldiers with his car, killing one of them, before dying in a hail of police bullets after brandishing a knife at them, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who shot a soldier at an Ottawa war memorial before being shot in an apparent attempt to storm the Parliament Buildings.

Both men had histories of mental illness; Zehaf-Bibeau in particular was addicted to crack cocaine and homeless. Neither men has been shown to have been in contact with anybody from ISIS at any point (although the National Post turned the fear hype machine up to eleven with its article about Zehaf-Bibeau’s Twitter-reading habits).

That both men made statements which were supportive of ISIS is well-established. But that doesn’t make them any more “affiliated” with ISIS than my support of the Montreal Canadiens makes me a member of the team.

At best, Harper can argue that they were inspired by ISIS – but our efforts to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria does nothing to stop other Canadians from being similarly inspired.

6) These other plots the Prime Minister mentions were not in any way connected to ISIS, nor were they particularly realistic or close to execution. Additionally, the fact that the RCMP and CSIS create terrorist plots from scratch, find useful idiots to try to execute them, and then bask in the free publicity they get from the whole operation, makes me skeptical of any foiled “plot” Harper may wish to mention.

(See here for my rundown of one such entrapment scheme.)

So for the PM to paint ISIS as an existential threat to Canada is a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly.

7) This is the first of several references to ISIS as being an evil thing. Specifically a thing, an it, and very explicitly evil. War propagandists have delighted since time immemorial in painting their enemies as evil, and this speech leans heavily on all the tried and true tropes of the genre. Here we see a dehumanizing grammatical transition – the “it” in “it will spread like the plague” could refer either to the “evil that knows no borders” or a thoroughly dehumanized “this enemy”.

Either way, super-evil-ISIS-as-plague is a confusing metaphor – a disease is no more evil than a flood or a hurricane, merely an impersonal force of nature which moves with a cold impersonal logic.

Now some will say we don’t know how effective our actions will be or whether this is the ideal strategy.

Of course how could we?[8]

But what we do know for certain is this:

In the face of this menace, the worst thing we could do – possibly do – is nothing. [9]

In the absence of resistance, ISIS had already established its so-called Caliphate, its quasi-state, extending all the way from near Aleppo in Syria to near Baghdad in Iraq.

The goal of ISIS is not merely to hold that territory.

It is to use that territory to launch a global jihad, an orgy of terrorist violence around the world which is what we have seen in so many countries.[10]

Acts of brutality and murder.

A war waged against everything we hold dear: freedom, democracy and human dignity, a war of enslavement and extermination begun in Iraq and Syria against anyone, anyone who is different than they are.[11]

8) Good ol’ counter-factuals! Steve is basically saying, “Go ahead, prove that it isn’t the ideal strategy! I dare ya!” When meanwhile there have been numerous detailed criticisms of the war non-combat operation offered by pundits and opposition parties alike, all of which Harper brushes off casually here.

9) That’s an incredibly weak defence. It’s not the worst thing we can do? Why not aim a little higher? Though I’m no big fan of the man, NDP leader and Leader of the Opposition Thomas Mulcair nailed it in his speech to Parliament during the vote to authorize extending this war non-combat operation:

ISIS has thrived in Iraq and Syria precisely because those countries lack stable, well-functioning governments capable of maintaining peace and security within their own borders. Canada’s first contribution should be to use every diplomatic, humanitarian and financial resource at our disposal to respond to the overwhelming human tragedy unfolding on the ground and strengthen political institutions in both those countries. With the well-deserved credibility Canada earned by rejecting the initial ill-advised invasion of Iraq, we are in a position to take on that task.

The tragedy in Iraq and Syria will not end with another Western-led war in that region. It will end by helping the people of Iraq and Syria to build the political, institutional and security capabilities they need to oppose these threats themselves.

But hey guys, at least we’re not doing nothing! Amirite?

10) Here again we see ISIS-as-ultimate-evil. Kinda glad the CP didn’t include this in their edited cut of the speech ’cause hearing Harper talking about orgies of violence would be a bit much for me. Somewhat like him insisting that the way to stop these projected terrorgies is with more indiscriminate violence.

11) “They hate our freedoms,” basically. And that why we declared war authorized a one-year Glorious Non-Combat Operation to fight ISIS train Kurdish troops to fight ISIS – because of the scale of the threat they pose.

That’s why, as the national anthem says, you stand on guard.[12]

Today alongside a wide coalition of the international community to comfort and defend the innocence [innocents?] in this part of the world and to make sure this threat does not despoil our home and native land.[13]

This is how it has always been.

You stand on guard between the civilization we enjoy, and the savagery that seeks to come to our shores.[14]

And you are making a difference.

12) Hoo boy. Talk about jingosim. Rallying ’round the troops by riffing on the lyrics of the national anthem? That’s the most patriotic thing I’ve ever heard!

13) More of the same. Also, “despoil”? Plunder, pillage, etc.? The word choice here helps to paint ISIS as somehow medieval, primitive even.

14) Probably the truest two lines in the speech. And the most terrifying. The use of violence and force to “other” large groups of people and render them less human has a history that stretches back into the mists of time. “Savagery” is the closest Harper comes to outright explicit racism and Islamophobia; it’s a judgement call as to whether he crosses that particular line or not, but there’s no doubt that it’s heavily insinuated.

Last week, just last week I met with King Abdullah of Jordan.[15]

He was straightforward in his assessment, and I quote: “Your presence in our part of the world is more important now than ever.”

Your CF18s have struck ISIS garrisons, field positions, bomb factories, vehicles, equipment, and storage depots.[16]

Your Auroras are providing reconnaissance information that is vital to the coalition’s success.[17]

And your Polaris refueller has provided millions of pounds of energy to coalition aircraft.

Meanwhile, as I saw yesterday, members of the Canadian Army are providing crucial advice and assistance – active assistance – to our allies on the ground in northern Iraq.[18]

15) Remember how ISIS hates our freedom and our democracy? Then shouldn’t they be on King Abdullah’s side? Just saying.

16) But not, according to Cheerleader-in-Chief Jason Kenney, any civilians at all! Brigadier General Constance concurred as recently as April 1 of this year, saying he was “very confident” Canada wasn’t responsible for any civilian casualties. More recently, DND is quietly denying (paywall) that we played any role in the deaths of 52 civilians in Syria earlier this week. Whether all this is true or not is impossible to say, but if we’ve learned anything from almost fifteen years of conflict in the Middle East, it’s that there will be civilian casualties. No matter what.

17) Did their reconnaissance information play a role in the mass civilian bombing in Syria this week? Inquiring minds want to know! Golly I wish I could get through that paywall and parse the DND statement more closely!

18) But we’re totes not fighting a war. No sirree! We may be dropping bombs, and providing recon, and refuelling other bombers, and we may have armed troops on the front lines of the conflict who are authorized to fire back if fired upon, but it’s a Non-Combat Operation, because we said so goddammit!

But our efforts are geared not only to fighting the enemy.

We’re also helping its victims.

We’re also providing relief to the vast number of refugees displaced by ISIS violence.

We’re helping to provide food for 1.7 million people in Iraq, shelter and supplies for a million and a quarter more, and access to education for half a million children.[19]

On the home front we’re working to give our security agencies the whole range of modern tools necessary to identify terrorists and thwart their plans, including greater ability to stem the recruitment and the flow of homegrown terrorists.[20]

We’re supporting new and innovative ways to blunt and counter the ISIS propaganda machine, and we’re taking action with our international partners to cut off its sources of finance.

19) I haven’t dug into this, so this is just a guess, but the weasel word that jumps out at me here is “helping”. As in, the outsized list of benefits Harper lists is something Canada is “helping” to provide, along with unspecified others. A nifty way of inflating yer accomplishments!

20) A transition to Bill C-51 so fast it made my head spin! We went from feeding refugees to censoring political speech and criminalizing dissent in Canada faster than you can say “parliamentary oversight”! To equate humanitarian relief efforts with the most noxious anti-civil liberties bill since the War Measures Act is so shameless it’s impressive.

We vowed to degrade ISIS capacity for terror and bloodshed, and so you have.

ISIS has stopped gaining territory and is starting to lose some.

Its leadership is being hunted down and taken out.

As it is pressured here, its capacity to wage war abroad is being reduced.

But while ISIS is battered it is far, far from beaten.[21]

21) “We’re totally routing these guys! Seriously! Go team! But also, we’ve got a long, long, loooooong ways to go, because they used that stupid Mission Accomplished banner to beat Dubya at every opportunity, and I am not gonna make the same mistake!”

So we must press on – our resolve undiminished – as I know yours is.

Because we know that you who carry our flag into battle, you who are our sword and shield, are the very best in the world.

Your courage, your dedication and your professionalism are unequalled.

My friends, you, we, didn’t ask for this fight.

We don’t start fights like this.[22]

As Canadians the only conquest we aspire to is over oppression and injustice.

The only treasure we desire is the security of hearth and home, and the only glory we seek is that of lasting peace. [23]

But we have always been relentless in those pursuits.

22) The “reluctant warrior” trope is pretty played out, IMHO. Although to be fair, historically this is true. Canada has by and large steered clear of wars of aggression – see Vietnam and Iraq 2.0, for instance. But there was that little matter of the twelve-year war in Afghanistan, a nation that never attacked us or any of our allies, NATO resolutions notwithstanding…

23) I’ll give him this – Harper does a mean humblebrag. Too bad he’s indifferent to the oppression and injustice faced by, for instance, Canada’s indigenous people, cold in the face of homeless people freezing to death in Canada’s largest cities, intent on militarizing the police and tying our armed forces with the increasingly imperial US military. But still. He talks a good game.

It has been said many centuries, many, many centuries ago, it has been said that the secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is a brave heart. [24]

Your courage, like the courage of generations of service personnel before you, is the currency in which our freedom, our lifestyles, have been bought and paid.[25]

For that, the Canadian people offer you our deepest admiration and our eternal gratitude.

We will keep you in our minds and hold you in our hearts until you return safely home.

God bless you and keep you safe.

God bless Canada.[26]

24) Harper goes all first-year-philosophy-student on our asses and quotes ancient Greek philosopher Thucydides. Or rather, misquotes him. This one made the rounds in the lead-up to the Iraq War: “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage.” But as Brad DeLong pointed out at the time, Thucydides said this in a context that was explicitly anti-war. (It’s a long story that defies brief summary – check out DeLong if you care.)

25) A bizarrely transactional metaphor, apropos for our economist PM perhaps, but awkwardly impersonal nonetheless.

26) I can’t be the only one who detests this American import, can I? In the context of fighting religious militants, it seems particularly absurd – God is on our side, not theirs! 

As a whole, this speech is a pretty incoherent defence of our policy regarding ISIS. We’re told that they are an existential threat to our very way of life, that they seek to destroy us completely and were on the verge of doing it – until we made our relatively small contribution to the fight against them. We’re told they hate us for our freedom and democracy(!), but then we get a message of praise from our autocratic repressive monarch ally. We’re told that ISIS is a virulent evil, a savage hateful jihadi force intent on spreading “orgies of violence” around the world, then told that victory is all but assured, then told we are far from victory.

In other words, it’s pretty confused.

The most basic message of the speech, though, is not hard to decipher – vote for Stephen Harper and the Conservatives! They support the troops! They oppose those bad Muslims! They’ll protect your freedoms (if you’re white and have your citizenship and you’re not poor)!

As an election-season spectacle, the speech served its purpose – giving the Prime Minister a great photo op and some wicked footage on the evening news of him standing in front of fighter jets denouncing Terrorism. But as a window into the PM’s thinking (or the thinking of his speech writers, anyway), we don’t get much of a coherent vision.

Maybe that’s because the thing was slapped together on the flight over. But maybe that’s because there isn’t a coherent vision, because the PMO doesn’t have any idea what they’re actually doing, because the whole war non-combat operation is as much a spectacle for the voters as the Prime Minister’s absurd stealth mission to the front lines..


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