Two war stories caught my attention last weekend. One was about the apparent decline of the Islamic State. The other was about terrorism being a greater menace than ever before. In one sense, this is yet another example of the archetypal metaphor of high tides and low tides, which expresses the natural rhythm of forever warfare.
Something else seemed significant. It was hard to put my finger on it. There was a vague sense of something missing, something displaced by these stories of hope and despair.
The story of hope, from the perspective of the US and its allies, was that “the Islamic State appears to be fraying from within as dissent, defections and setbacks on the field sap the group’s strength and erode its aura of invincibility among those living under its despotic rule.”
The story of despair, again from the perspective of the US and its allies, was about the Director of National Intelligence informing Congress that terrorism trend lines are worse “than at any other point in history.” This on top of the commander of US special operations forces in the Middle East telling counterterrorism strategists that the Islamic State is a worse threat than al-Qaeda had ever been. A former CIA deputy director allowed that his “grandchildren’s generation will still be fighting this fight” against al-Qaeda and its spawn.
What is missing here? What lurks behind the image of war’s ebb and flow?
This is the kind of question Kenneth Burke encouraged critics to ask about the narratives that structure our attitudes and that motivate us. Every story has its strategic emphases and omissions. Filling in the missing parts complicates otherwise simple stories of good fighting to overcome evil.
Upon reflection, it strikes me that the power of this cyclical story of hope and despair is located largely in its rhetorical form. As Burke observed, form appeals by creating and fulfilling an expectation. We are sufficiently satisfied by the apparent completeness of the story that we don’t think to ask about complicating omissions.
A complication in this case is that no matter how much we spend in lives and treasure to fight the specter of terrorism, it just keeps haunting us. The uninvited and unanswered question is whether warfare is more the problem than the solution.