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All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise

"Apocalyptic." "End-of-days strategic vision." "Beyond anything we have ever seen." "An imminent threat to every interest we have." "Beyond just a terrorist group." "We must prepare for everything."

So are they Martians? Alien invaders from Planet X? Destroyer spacecraft from the movie Independence Day?

The word movie is the clue. Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. It only needed Tom Cruise at their press conference to utter the words “Mission impossible”. Who writes this God-awful script? Can’t the US Defence Secretary and his joint chiefs chairman do better than this?

Even the titans of World War Two – Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin – never used this kind of rhetoric when they confronted real-life evil empires.

Churchill talked of Hitler threatening “a new dark age” and Stalin urged the Soviets to destroy the “robber hordes” of Germany. Roosevelt described the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour as “a day which will live in infamy”. Did the victors of the 1939-45 conflict ever use such trashy semantics to define their mortal enemies?

Never. They said what they meant. They would not dream of insulting our common sense by referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s crackpot “caliphate” as apocalyptic. Even at his most insane, General Gordon (of Khartoum fame) wanted only to “smash up” the Mahdi – the latter being the 19th century equivalent of Baghdadi – and look what the Mahdi did to Gordon!

The followers of Mohamed Ahmed ibn Abdullah, against orders, chopped off Gordon’s head. Revenge took many forms, including the Battle of Omdurman where the British destroyed the Dervish army of the now-dead Mahdi’s successor.

One of those Britons was Churchill himself, who commented eloquently that “the weapons … and the fanaticism of the Middle Ages were brought by an extraordinary anachronism into dire collision” with modern organisation, adding generously that his opponents were men “of the most desperate valour”.

Those were the days. You could slaughter your cruellest enemies without exaggerating their power or ignoring their courage.

But the art of rhetoric – of exaggerated and artificial language – is intended to deflect reality. At one point, almost unnoticed, a White House official, Ben Rhodes, said that the US would not now be limited by “geographic boundaries” – after Dempsey had told the world that the Iraqi-Syrian border was “non-existent”.

Odd that. It wasn’t non-existent a few months ago when the Assad regime was about to be given the Isis treatment. But now Assad’s lads are chatting – so I hear – to Dempsey’s lads about their mutual apocalyptic-visioned enemy, which has just beheaded an American journalist who (so American officials claimed not long ago) was in an Assad jail.

Long forgotten now is that one of the journalists viciously murdered in Gordon’s 19th-century war against the Mahdi was Frank Power, Khartoum correspondent of The Times who tried to make it through enemy lines down the Nile. He was tricked with his companions into eating with the rebels – who then murdered the lot. They say Power was beheaded. Certainly his severed head is produced in that old Hollywood clunker Khartoum when Gordon (Charlton Heston) meets the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier).

But Obama can relax. He called Isis a “cancer”, but Gordon never met his adversary – that bit of the movie was a hoax – until the Mahdi saw Gordon’s own chopped-off head in a leather bag. Someone should tip off Chuck and Martin on the difference between Hollywood and reality.

Oh yes, and I noticed that Chuck said of the “Islamic State” that it was “as sophisticated and well-funded as any group we have seen.” Sophisticated? Really? And funded by whom, I wonder? If our new enemies have an end-of-days vision, where does the cash come from, Chuck?