Rhetoric: An effective arm of the war machinery

The intentions of rhetoricians could be multifold – from mopping up support for a cause to amplifying the need for a specific action. Photo: iStock

If there is anything more devastating than war, it is war rhetoric. As the world witnesses rising tensions and the nations watch the unfolding of war-like events involving Iran and the US, the rhetoric on both sides seems pumped up.

The intentions of rhetoricians could be multifold – from mopping up support for a cause to amplifying the need for a specific action.

War rhetoric


In the book, ‘War Rhetoric, Defensible and Indefensible,’ author Wayne C. Booth says rhetoric can make and destroy our realities.

He says: “The rhetoric of war provides the clearest examples of influential political rhetoric-the clearest examples of how rhetoric makes (and destroys) our realities.”

One may recall how the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell made a persuasive presentation before UN to argue for war with Iraq on February 5, 2003. The images of him dramatically holding a pencil over the table was then widely circulated as he ‘explained convincingly’ how ‘spy sat images’ captured crucial ground facilities in Iraq.

His rhetoric seemed so convincing to the world and he said he had ‘no doubt in mind’ of Iraq’s reconstituted nuclear weapons programme. The rhetoric was so powerful that even the scaffoldings that Iraq had made and high-grade aluminium pipes procured were presented as raw material for Iraq’s ‘covert nuclear weapons program.’

The US war rhetoric is deeply ingrained in its external and internal discourse and is characterized by its general impression that only a US sleight of hand can fix the world and make it live-able.

The US rhetoric reigned supreme till the country got into the East Asia quagmire and unleashed some of the worst devils – in Islamic extremism.

The US was suddenly faced with a stream of rhetoric which was quite unlike its own – one which sought the purgation of all that was un-Islamic. The rhetoric, which initially stayed within, soon found resonance in other countries which had a substantial Muslim populations, including India and Bangladesh.

The rhetoric appealed to impressionable youths who could be easily indoctrinated and shipped to war theatres that the extremist organizations had by then opened.

Soon, the routine invocation to the God, Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest), Bolo Takbeer, and Nara-e-Takbeer (Make it Magnificent, Larger) soon got wrongly associated with war cries of Islamist terror groups.

US legal scholar Cass Sunstein had famously said that in war-akin situations “people cease relying on private information. They decide instead on the basis of signals conveyed by others. It follows that the behaviour of the first few people can produce similar behaviour from countless followers.”

Deliberative rhetoric

Political scientists call it deliberative rhetoric and it is not new. Aristotle called war rhetoric a branch of ‘deliberative rhetoric’ which has the ‘potential to transform our futures’ – something that is evident from the consequences of war.

Iran-US rhetoric

There has been no dearth of rhetoric in the ongoing Iran-US conflict. US president said the forces had killed a ‘worst monster’ after the drone strike on Iranian General Qasim Soleimani, on January 3. The Iranian side shot back saying ‘they will avenge’ the killing as the country’s supreme leader Khomenei repeatedly sprinkled the word ‘revenge.’ Iran’s media quoted president Hassan Rouhani telling the General’s daughters that ‘everyone will avenge their father’s death.’

To pace its actions with rhetoric, Iran waited till it attacked US defence bases in Iraq to hold the General’s last rites. In what seemed to be as planned as the strikes was the Iran official reaction, “It is a slap on the face.”

The intended aim of planned rhetoric is reaped well by nations. The acerbic incantations by heads of nations, which proclaim the logic and reason behind taking out one’s arsenal against the other, is mostly a self-serving act. It is being used to unequivocally justify actions, convolute narrative, and flex muscles to intimidate the less privileged. Effectively, rhetoric remains an effective and strong phalanx of the war creature.

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