When Is It Appropriate to “Light Your Hair on Fire?”

May 21st, 2015

This week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest became agitated after repeated questions about the fall of Ramadi in Iraq.  Finally, he asked in exasperation, “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time there is a setback . . . ?”

Using history as a guide, this is an interesting question.  At what point, might it be a good time to get a little excited about a military “setback”?

For instance, during the American Civil War, General Robert E. Lee made the strategic decision to invade the north ending in a defeat for the Confederate Army at Gettysburg.  Anyone familiar with that three day battle knows that after the first day things were far from positive for the Union.

Imagine if White House Press Conferences were the norm back in Lincoln’s day as that battle unfolded.  At what point would it have seemed most appropriate for Lincoln’s press secretary to express some level of heightened concern over the situation?

Would it have been after that first harrowing day, or would the public have been more comforted with a little urgency earlier as CSA troops crossed the border into Maryland or even later into Pennsylvania?

Earlier in the war, Confederate and Union troops crossed paths in two conflicts at Bull Run or Manassas (depending on what part of the country you’re from).  Those battles occurred a mere carriage ride from Washington, D.C., which would seem on its face to be troublesome to say the least.

Later in the war, as Sherman marched through Atlanta, if asked, it would certainly have been bad form to seem anything less than deeply concerned if you were Jefferson Davis’s press secretary.

Earlier in history, during the War for Texas Independence, General Santa Anna met his final defeat after being surrounded by Texas soldiers while napping (literally).  He was probably too groggy to get very excited by events, but it’s likely that the folks back home in Mexico City would at least like to have believed that his last thoughts before surrender included some sort of urgency.

Currently, negotiations are underway to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by Iran.  Israel and other Arab neighbors are concerned to say the least.  Under Mr. Earnest’s theory is there any point at which they might actually consider metaphorically “lighting their hair on fire?” Should they?

It is true that it’s better to appear cool under pressure than to seem like you’re panicking.

Still there is a point where it’s better to set your own hair ablaze than to wait for an enemy to do it for you.



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