Let slip the dogwhistles of war

In discussions, potential possibility, no commitment, carrying out a scoping mission – the plan to send NZ military forces to Iraq to combat Islamic State is only the vaguest of options at this point. The story was broken by Australian media first, but John Key has wasted no time in jumping on the bandwagon, talking up the idea of a joint mission with the Aussies operating under the ANZAC badge.

Yep, in the centenary year of World War One, as he’s on shaky ground over dirty dealings, lying to journalists, granting sweeping new powers to an intelligence service whose political neutrality is compromised, John Key has had the brainwave of flying a (newly-designed) nostalgia flag.

After hearing our Prime Minister refer to the deployment of troops as “symbolic“, given the timing, my reaction was this:

But the political logic seems obvious enough: there’s a good chunk of our national identity in the ANZAC campaign, evoking our rugged go-getting colonial upstart beginnings. And joining the fight against IS isn’t a hard sell, on the face of it, after weeks of news coverage amping them up into the worst threat the world has faced since Saddam Hussein (read as many levels into that as you will.) And of course, they’re just going to be trainers. Not combat troops. They’ll be safe in their little bases running drills for the actual fighters.

The only difficult bit should be balancing the safety concerns with the desire to show some muscle and talk up the “taking the fight to IS” rhetoric.

Yet this isn’t going over easily. We’ve got far too much recent experience of our “trainers” ending up in firefights. Ten Kiwi soldiers have died in Afghanistan, including our first woman to die in a combat role. I don’t think many people really begrudge the idea of sending in reconstruction teams to help a war-torn nation rebuild itself, but we also know, from recent, bloody international experiences, that a warzone is a warzone and there’s no safe little corners where the only threat is someone smashing their thumb with a hammer.

And maybe we – the political nerds, the media, the public – are just a little bored of hearing John Key spin something out of nothing. From the jam-tomorrow promises of budget surpluses to the vaguest of tax cut promises in the election campaign to the “potential possibility” of an ANZAC deployment, even the most die-hard fanboy has to be wondering when we’ll hear the Prime Minister say something concrete.

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