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Fun piece on war rhetoric in TruthOut

I am of course referring to William Rivers Pitt’s must-read piece in Truthout, “It’s Not War, So Stop Saying That.” Pitt has some incisive things to say about the defense of the forthcoming war against Syria, so I’d highly recommend a reading. Here I am going to perform a rhetorical reading of Pitt’s piece.

Rhetoric, from Merriam-Webster Online: “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion.” There is of course also a pejorative definition: “a type or mode of language or speech; also : insincere or grandiloquent language.” Either way, the folks in Congress are claiming some degree of expertise in the subject, and it’s plain that our politicians have all studied hard and are hoping to pass the final exam with what they’ve got.

So what’s important about Pitt’s analysis? Let’s start with the idea of a “rhetorical reading.” The important thing here is that political utterances all contain important justifications. The key element is what Aristotle calls “appeal” — and here I’d urge you to look at the list of appeals given in the Purdue Writing Center’s look at Aristotle’s “Rhetorica.” Here I would argue that the important appeal in play in justifications of a forthcoming war against Syria is “telos,” or purpose. Oh, sure, none of this rhetoric has any sense of “logos” because it’s all self-contradictory as hell. But that doesn’t explain its attempt at appeal.

Unfortunately, Pitt is too dismissive. But we can read his piece against the grain to determine purpose. Here’s the thesis statement for Pitt:

Secretary of State John Kerry made it abundantly clear during a congressional hearing on Tuesday that he is ready to ask someone to be the first to die for a mistake, and did so with a barrage of gibberish so vast that it bent the light in the hearing room.

But Kerry looks so dignified! You of course caught Pitt’s historical reference above:

… though of course Kerry isn’t asking for US involvement in a ground war, unless he is. So maybe the analogy doesn’t fit, unless it does. Anyway, all of the things Kerry mentioned have no doubt happened, and will continue to happen, in Syria, and the US has no plan to make the atrocities stop, unless it does.

Look, Kerry isn’t being disingenuous when he says:

that the president is not asking America to go to war by asking America to flip missiles and bombs into Syria, because it totally won’t seem like war to us.

because this is how war actually seems. Unless you’re really, like, involved or something, war is just a video game. But this is just the start of the rhetorical games! Pitt then directs our attention to another important Kerry utterance:

On Wednesday, Kerry’s appearance at a House hearing on the matter added depth and breadth to the gobldeygook from the day before. At one point, he informed his inquisitors that a number of Arab countries were more than willing to foot the bill for the whole shooting match.

Here Kerry is saying “look! Rich people!” Now if some rich person offered to pay for something very expensive for you, would you turn them down? Of course not. Because who doesn’t like rich people who buy stuff for you?

And then there’s this William Rivers Pitt point about rhetoric:

But it was President Obama himself who deployed the line to beat all lines during this demented catastrophe of a rush to war. During a presser in Sweden on Wednesday morning, he actually said with his bare face hanging out for all to see that, “I didn’t set a red line, the world did,” regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

So the idea is: clothe yourself in the world-community’s principles, and then claim to embody them. I think I’ve seen this rhetorical tactic before — in fact I know I have! From 1:18 to about 2:14 of this clip from the movie “National Lampoon’s Animal House”:

And then you have John McCain’s try at rhetoric:

On Wednesday morning, McCain made it clear that, though he would love nothing more than to drop ordnance on Syria, the wording of the Senate resolution wasn’t appropriately bombastic. To secure his vote, he was allowed to add amendments declaring that it will be the policy of the United States to “change the momentum on the battlefield,” even though there can’t actually be a battlefield because this isn’t actually war.

Now, unfortunately Pitt ridicules this sally like the rest. But you’ve got to admit that McCain has tapped into an important sentiment here. Battlefields and war suck, but victory is fun, so let’s change the momentum on the battlefield.

Or maybe it’s that the politicians’ confidence is in what George Carlin stated some time ago: we like war.

In summary and in conclusion, William Rivers Pitt’s recent piece in TruthOut has shed significant light on an important aspect of the forthcoming war against Syria: rhetoric. If you know the right techniques, the versatility of your message can be vastly expanded, and this more than anything will make victory without war possible in Syria.

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984