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March 27, 2003 - Rhetoric of War - 2003-03-27

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": March 27, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster – the rhetoric of war.

RS: Professor Amos Kiewe is director of the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University in New York State. He says research on the rhetoric of war shows that the language conforms to a pattern.

KIEWE: “That no matter who is the president or whatever the war may be, it is primarily the rhetoric of patriotism, it is the rhetoric of values -- in the sense that patriotism is a value -- and it is the rhetoric that often functions by creating a dichotomy between 'us' and 'them.'"

AA: "Now, interestingly, the one thing you don't tend to hear in American rhetoric is the sort of, I guess, the colorful or more graphic language that you hear, for example, in Saddam's speech on television [broadcast March 24] in which he talked about cutting the throats of the enemy."

KIEWE: "That is correct. And here you are talking about things that are not universal but are very cultural, and that may explain why it gets to be a bit more vicious, if you wish, whereas our is more measured."

RS: "You're talking about Western rhetoric."

KIEWE: "Yes, Western and American rhetoric of war. I think that that is out of character for us to talk about cutting other people's throats or seeing blood flow in the street. That clearly does not come from our historical experience."

AA: "Now I suppose some would argue that when you keep emotion out of what you're saying, when you refer to injuries to civilians as 'collateral damage' or terms like that, that you are ... "

RS: "Distancing yourself."

AA: " -- distancing yourself from it and putting a cold cover over what you are really talking about."

KIEWE: "It is indeed part of the motivation, because language is the perspective, is the window through which we see reality. So if you use the language that distances, then language is metaphorical and it allows you to be somewhat detached from the harshness, the reality, the brutality of war. But in another culture, that would be the opposite. They may use embellished language precisely to do the opposite, to generate hatred or to generate support that could not be possible with logical language."

AA: "Now let me ask you a question, as the images have been coming from Iraq of dead American soldiers and prisoners and so forth, have you detected any change in the political rhetoric coming from politicians or from military leaders? Has there been a different tone in reaction to public reaction to these images?"

KIEWE: "Not yet. I was thinking about this, and I was waiting to see. But I think that, at least Democrats who oppose the war, are careful not to be quick to now criticize the President three, four, five days into the war, only because for the last three days we have seen prisoners of war. I think that they are cautious. Not that they are not seeing it or feeling it, but they are being cautious.

"I would say that the only place where I see this affecting is the media, the vehicle that actually carries the pictures. The time given by major networks to the story of the dead and the prisoners of war -- that tells me that there is a lot of sensitivity to any individual who has been killed or who has been imprisoned. And this kind of sensitivity can change public opinion."

AA: "And if you could just describe the sort of language you're hearing in these interviews, how the families are responding to having members either killed or taken prisoner."

KIEWE: "It's fairly interesting and it's fairly consistent, and it is in a way a reflection of the rhetoric of war that we started focusing on earlier. The parents, in particular, are proud of their kids, whether they have been killed or been imprisoned. 'They were good kids,' is the statement. 'They are brave.' 'They're good Americans,' 'they believe in this country,' 'they're patriotic.' The same language that you hear, on the one hand, from the President and the political elite is reflected in the language of the families."

RS: Amos Kiewe, director of the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University, speaking to us earlier this week.

AA: Our e-mail address is, and our Web site is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.