Notes From the Margins…

Hail to the Warrior-President

  • May 08, 2011
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Amazing what shooting an unarmed man in his pyjamas in the face can do to a US president’s public image.   In the eyes of the media, any doubts or reservations regarding the masculinity of Barack Obama have now been resolved by the Abbottabad operation.   The ‘professorial’ former community leader from Chicago with the dancer’s physique has now become ‘Warrior Obama’ – ruthless, decisive and positively seething with Ramboesque testosterone.

Thus Time magazine’s website tells us that ‘Obama, Now the Warrior, Wants to Revive Immigration Reform.’  In a piece in the Huffington Post entitled ‘Reimagining Obama after gutsy bin Laden raid,’  Nancy Benac describes how ‘Obama has offered himself as a decisive leader willing to take bold risks’.

Pride of place must go the BBC’s Matt Frei, a pompous and credulous court stenographer straight from the His Masters Voice school of journalism,  who writes admiringly in  his blog that ‘Even in the eyes of his critics, Barack Obama has made the transition from wimp to warrior president.’

The swooning BBC commentator  can hardly contain his enthusiasm as he goes on to describe the bin Laden raid:

It was a huge gamble, etched on the president’s face in those now famous stills from the Situation Room. Notice also how the commander-in-chief sat hunched in the corner, while his war cabinet was watching the live feed of the raid, mouths agape. Other presidents would have sat at the head of the table, chest out, chin up.

Yep, that hunched posture and tight jaw really says it all doesn’t it?   Never mind that these stills were staged for PR purposes to extract maximum political capital from an operation that has already become so steeped in lies, contradictions, and reversals that there is hardly a single component of it that makes any sense.  Or that the current official narrative makes it clear that bin Laden could have been captured.

Anyone reading Frei’s gormless panegyric would be forgiven for thinking that Obama had been out there in Abbottabad draped in bullet belts, his face daubed in animal blood, wearing a bandanna and cradling a heavy machine gun (or a sword?) in his bristling biceps, instead of sitting in an office watching the raid – assuming that this is what he was actually doing.

What is revolting about these ‘warrior’ narratives is not just the dim and atavistic awe of state violence and killing that underpins them, but the suggestion that war – however loosely defined – is an essential masculine rite of passage that all ‘leaders’ must pass through before they can be taken seriously.  The same assumptions  surrounded the appearance of George Bush – the fratboy draft dodger from the Vietnam War – in his pilot’s gear in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

This warrior-talk might seem somewhat anachronistic in an era of technological push-button warfare in which wars are increasingly fought by Western states at least, with UAVs, bombs and missiles, against adversaries who are invariably weaker and unable to respond in kind.  One might easily question what the whole notion of ‘warrior’ or even ‘combat’ means, at a time when a drone missile strike can be directed in Pakistan from an office in Kansas by ‘fighters’ who take lunch breaks and go home afterwards to pick the kids up from school.

But there has always been a discrepancy between the reality of war and the way that wars are perceived from a distance.   Years ago, on the eve of the first Gulf War, Jeremy Paxman once lamented the fact that his generation had yet to be ‘blooded’ by the experience of war, and clearly saw the imminent conflict as an opportunity to acquire some surplus gravitas, regardless of the usual massive disparity between the contending forces.

For journalists like Paxman – and for much of the public – being ‘blooded’ meant watching war on television.   This is still the case.   But even in this age of war-as-entertainment and war-as-spectacle’ politicians are still expected to live up to the old warrior mythologies of the past, appearing with the troops for photo ops with their shirts undone in order to demonstrate their proximity to the  ‘battlefield’ .

Obama had already to some extent demonstrated his willingness to play this commander-in-chief role, through his decision to intensify the war in Afghanistan and step up the drone raids in Pakistan.  But until now, there was a suspicion at least, that such actions were out of character and were even forced upon him and that he was not a real man – in the Tea Party/Republican sense of the term.

Now Obama has personally associated himself with what he has called  ‘  one of the greatest  intelligence and military operations in our nation’s history’ and demonstrated that he is up for it.  The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been well and truly blooded and he has astutely chosen to capitalise on his new reputation for lethality, knowing that for many Americans – and not just Americans – fantasy warriors are as compelling and appealing as the real thing.

 

 

 

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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