Desktop version

Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics

Excavating meaning from utterances

As a demonstration of how this method works, I examine speech acts incorporated into a brief passage taken from remarks by President Barack Obama at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony, in West Point, New York, on May 31, 2014. This address was seen as a significant statement of US defense strategy in light of a draw-down of US forces in Afghanistan (Highlights of the West Point Speech 2014; US Foreign Policy: Principle and Pragmatism (Editorial) 2014). Essentially, Obama announced the endgame, a way to limit American commitments to military entanglements. While much of the text provides strategic guidance - differentiating between circumstances requiring versus not requiring military intervention - emotional tropes emerge as well. Indeed, the initial paragraphs are best understood on this emotional register.

I look for expressives, declarations, assertives, directives, and commissives to find a credible explanation for the what and the why of national interest. These speech acts may be present, or they may be elided, in which case their absence may be meaningful. I want to avoid the tautology of revealed preferences, so I do not make the claim that the national interest can simply be extrapolated from US policies. Instead, I examine or imagine how that policy is or could be connected to an expressed emotion or declared value that is dearly held. Only one brief passage from the speech is included in the demonstration presented here. My intention is to provide a plausible narrative explaining a reason why the national interest is configured as it is. I do not intend to provide an exhaustive, fine-grained reading of every phrase in the speech.

In this passage below, the themes of mourning, fear, and anger connect with soldiers, sacrifice, freedom, and threat to establish a grounding for why the national interest requires certain policies.6 Power and the need to assert power over is absent, which contradicts the expectations of realism. The importance of emotion stands in contrast to realist and liberal explanations. The passage is near the beginning of the speech. After introductory preliminaries congratulating the graduates,7 Obama begins to unfold his policy:8

This is a particularly useful time for America to reflect on those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom, a few days after Memorial Day. You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. (Applause.) When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counterterrorism efforts were focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership — those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks. And our nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Parsing the passage helps reveal an underlying structure of speech acts and rules. What follows takes this paragraph apart phrase by phrase.

This is a particularly useful time for America to reflect

That America(ns) should reflect is a directive. President Obama is reminding America and Americans of the obligation to reflect. Moreover, he is directing Americans to feel - reflection being more typical of feeling than, say, thinking.

on those who have sacrificed so much

The reflections are to be on soldiers “who have sacrificed so much.” The assertion of this phrase defines soldiers as sacrificers, a key theme. It becomes an instruction rule because soldiers have been sacrificers, in general. The soldiers’ bodies are by definition at risk; their lives are less certain than other citizens’. Further, it is implicit (since there is no military conscription) that the sacrifice is voluntary and therefore the sacrificing soldier is marked by self-abnegation, valor, and heroism. (An unwilling sacrifice would be marked by pathos.) The words, “so much,” could be seen as an exhortation reminding Americans of the ever-present likelihood of having sacrificed soldiers to mourn.

for our freedom,

The reason these soldiers sacrificed was “for our freedom.” “[Soldiers] who have sacrificed for our freedom” is a declaration that begins to touch upon why our national interest was realized in policies that sent the soldiers in harm’s way. The statement is tethered to an important but implicit instruction rule that recurs in American political discourse: freedom is the highest value and it is always at risk.9 Sacrifice is to be made “for our freedom,” and not necessarily for our security,10 for others’ freedom or human rights, or for other less lofty goals. (Those goals are referenced later in the speech.)

“For our freedom” is hyperbole, but one which forces upon the listener a kind of affectivity: the speech act requires an embodied response. The word “freedom” is itself a directive rule for Americans. We are conditioned to feel the love of our freedom in our bodies - a straightening of the shoulders, a lifting of the gaze - since it is the most exalted thing, the thing for which men and women are willing to sacrifice themselves.11 The invocation of “freedom” then contributes to an intensification of fear. Because freedom is, by assertion, always at risk, Americans fear for freedom. 9/11 confirmed that the fear was credible despite the fact that on 9/11, America was in no danger of being conquered and Americans were in no danger of losing freedom.12

Yet another instruction rule can be inferred. To say that soldiers sacrifice for freedom is to imply that if a soldier sacrificed then it was for freedom. Any time American soldiers die or lose limbs or are otherwise harmed, the harms (i.e., sacrifices) have happened on account of the soldiers’ efforts for America’s freedom. There is an obvious tautology here, yet the totalizing effect of the instruction rule ontologically defining American soldiers as sacrificers-for-freedom makes the inferred rule believable.

In the next phrase, the connection to mourning becomes more apparent: a few days after Memorial Day.

With these words, the president directs Americans to reflect on soldiers’ sacrifices because this time of year is a period for memory and mourning. The affective register comes into play: to use Memorial Day as a set time for communal remembrance and mourning is to require Americans to feel the complex and contradictory emotions of recognizing the (self-)sacrifice of soldiers who died for our freedom.

And then the mood shifts:

You are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Addressing the West Point graduates, the president asserts a change in their expected ontological status. They are soldiers but not sacrificers. The bond between soldier and sacrificer is shown to be breakable, and a narrative of difference emerges. Now the risk has receded, and so President Obama articulates a weak assertion: it is possible that those sitting before him “may not be sent into battle in Iraq or Afghanistan.” The assertion combines with an implicit declaration: these soldiers have a greater chance of being safe, not sacrificed, and there is value in keeping them safe. What is not stated is that America’s opponents may be no safer: fighting may continue through technologies that are violent without risk of sacrificing American soldiers.

The audience, as expected, reacted positively to the idea that the West Point graduates were not expected to go to Afghanistan or Iraq. The transcript notes:


With their applause, the audience members communicated back to the president and to each other, but the precise meaning of the communication is not apparent. By convention, such applause signifies “approval,” but exactly what is being approved is unclear. Approval may be expressed for an end to the ontological status of soldier-sacrificer (certainly a feeling that many parents in the audience must have felt), for the announced end of the post-9/11 period of threat to our freedom, or for something else. The applause could signal that the president’s statement about keeping soldiers out of Afghanistan and Iraq was accepted as a commitment by the audience: we accept the president’s promise about keeping our soldiers out of harm’s way. There was, of course, the possibility that the applause is nothing more than a polite acquiescence.13

The declaration of difference continued:

When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq.

We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan.

This declarative statement simply draws the audience’s attention to changes. The year 2009 was still part of the post-9/11 era of threat; 2014 is part of another era, as demonstrated by the fact that the number of troops deployed had decreased.

At this point, President Obama introduced another rationale for military action:

Our counterterrorism efforts were focused on al Qaeda’s core leadership — those who had carried out the 9/11 attacks.

“Counterterrorism efforts” (notably not the “war on terror”) were not being undertaken “for our freedom,” but rather to retaliate directly against “those who carried out the 9/11 attacks” - either a contradiction or an expansion of reasons for policy In this statement, there is an allusion to soldiers taking on something of a policing function since tracking down individual perpetrators is not the same as war-fighting. The soldiers’ ontology has shifted yet again. Fighting for our freedom and tracking down al Qaeda’s leadership can be connected to two separable emotional states, I believe: fear and anger, respectively Constituting our freedom as always at risk means that we always have to be in a state of fear for our freedom. Tracking down al Qaeda’s leadership refers to punishing perpetrators of evil acts and extracting retribution, something that someone wants to do in the heat of anger. The demand for retribution is also a response to mourning.

Referring still to the year 2009, the president then introduced yet another threat to be fearful of:

And our nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since

the Great Depression.

The jump to the economic crisis at the end of this paragraph is jarring. The juxtaposition of all the talk of security concerns - Iraq, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and soldiers’ sacrifice or their safety - with the state of the economy implies another instruction rule: economic threats are as dangerous as military and terrorist ones. That is quite surprising: how do economic threats, caused arguably by domestic policies that failed to regulate financial instruments properly, come to have some sort of equivalence with the sacrifice of soldiers and threats from terrorism?14 The mention of the economic crisis at this moment seems to put it on par with 9/11 as a national security threat. As such, the health of the economy becomes part of “our freedom” that soldiers are to protect. The president continued to assert the differences between 2009 and 2014, and by 2014, the condition of the economy was no longer endangering freedom.15

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics