President Donald Trump announced a new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan last night. But before he got to the substance, he spent 481 words on his feelings about soldiers. When you hear words like these, your heart may stir, but ask yourself: would anyone ever say anything different? Am I being manipulated?
The speech last night consisted of four parts:
- Preamble and greeting, 102 words (3%)
- Appreciation for servicepeople, 481 words (16%)
- Actual military strategy, 2099 words (71%)
- Closing, 273 words (9%)
You can argue about the substance and style of the strategy. Trump said he would focus on stopping terrorists over nation-building, challenged Pakistan for harboring terrorists, and said the goals would depend on what’s happening on the ground, rather than being constrained by a timetable. I cannot say if these are good ideas or not; clearly, what we’ve done so far isn’t working.
But let’s focus instead on the heartfelt appreciation for servicepeople he used to soften people up before getting to the substance of the speech.
Trump tapped our emotions by saying things we all agree with
Trump loves the military. You are supposed to cheer during this part of the speech, because it’s about the dedicated service of those soldiers. But when you’re writing, or reading, be skeptical of extended passages, dripping with emotion, that everyone agrees with — they have no substance. You might call them “meaningful platitudes,” because they elicit feeling but are still empty of significance. In what follows, I’ve put those platitudes in bold, and in my commentary, I show why they’re just cheerleading: I show the absurd contrary position. The absurd contrary position will upset you, because it’s unpatriotic and disloyal. This is exactly why you should suspect that the statements here are trying to manipulate you.
Since the founding of our republic, our country has produced a special class of heroes whose selflessness, courage, and resolve is unmatched in human history.
American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield for our nation and for our freedom. Through their lives — and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds they achieved total immortality.
Absurd contrary position: Our soldiers are ordinary.
Commentary: It’s necessary to call soldiers heroes to justify sending them into harm’s way.
By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God.
The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission, and one shared sense of purpose.
They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together — and sacrifice together — in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all servicemembers are brothers and sisters. They’re all part of the same family; it’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law. They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other.
The soldier understands what we, as a nation, too often forget that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together.
Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.
Absurd contrary position: The military lacks cohesion and discipline; prejudiced, hating bigots are patriots, too.
Commentary: Might as well get a passage about unity in there as the country tears itself apart over racial issues. In contrast to his statements about the demonstrations in Charlottesville and Boston, Trump needs the whole country to get behind his military strategy. And he’s certainly in a position where he needs to take every chance to say something against bigotry.
The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.
As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas — and we will always win — let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name that, when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.
Absurd contrary position: Let’s keep fighting each other as we send others into war.
Commentary: Nice sentiment. But this country is as divided as it has ever been. We fight, in many ways, for the freedom to disagree. We are not united by sacred bonds of love and loyalty, and as much as I’d like that to be true, it’s not going to happen just because Trump puts a few lines in a speech.
Thanks to the vigilance and skill of the American military and of our many allies throughout the world, horrors on the scale of September 11th — and nobody can ever forget that — have not been repeated on our shores.
Absurd contrary position: There have been no large-scale attacks on America because we got lucky.
Commentary: It’s not just the military but the intelligence services that have prevented some of these attacks. And who do we blame for the many smaller attacks that have happened? If we suffered a large-scale attack, Trump would use it to justify military action. Now he is using the lack of attacks to justify military action. See the problem?
The proper use of applause lines
I have no problem with meaningful platitudes. It’s the quantity and repetition that bothers me. They immediately make me suspicious, and you should be, too.
If you’re making an argument, certainly start with the elements everyone agrees with. Then pivot rapidly to the more substantial parts of the argument.
Admittedly, military sacrifice and strategy is an emotional issue. But Trump’s military leaders are making choices based on strategic calculations, not emotion. So should we.