Examining the Rhetoric of Wartime Sacrifice

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Many wartime presidents have used the rhetoric of sacrifice, including President Bush. Using the argument of sacrifice by dead soldiers dates back to the Athenian Golden Age. The idea is that invoking the dead makes it hard to argue against a war. David Rabin reports.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

From NPR News, it's MORNING EDITION. I'm Steve Inskeep.

At the commencement at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, over the weekend, President Bush noted that 34 former cadets had died since the beginning of the war on terror. Then the president said this:

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We will honor the memory of those brave souls. We will finish the task for which they gave their lives. We will complete the mission.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: This was not the first time a president has invoked such sacrifices as a reason for continuing the war. It's an argument almost as old as the war itself.

David Rabin has more.

DAVID RABIN reporting:

Mr. Bush's homage to the dead has many antecedents, the most famous coming after a momentous Civil War battle. In the Gettysburg Address, read here by actor Sam Waterston, President Lincoln said the fallen shall not have died in vain.

Mr. SAM WATERSTON (Actor): (Reading) "That from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion."

RABIN: But Lincoln was far from the first to employ this idea. Such oratory dates back to, at least, the Athenian leader, Pericles. He delivered a eulogy containing this concept after the first clash of the Peloponnesian Wars in the Fifth Century, B.C.

So says Denise Bostdorff, Associate Professor of Communication at Wooster College. She says this form of ceremonial speech, allows family and friends to find meaning in the loss of loved ones. In addition, it makes it hard to criticize the speaker or the policy in question.

Professor DENISE BOSTDORFF (Associate Professor of Communication, Wooster College): Even if it is not a eulogy, you will sometimes see those appeals woven in with more specific discussions of policy, because it's a great way to deflect criticism by imbuing the policy talk with ceremony - where questions are not asked.

RABIN: David Zarefsky, Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, offers another oft used rationale behind this kind of homage.

Professor DAVID ZAREFSKY (Professor of Communication Studies, Northwestern University): We must do more in order to justify what we've done already, so that we won't waste our original investment.

It's not unlike the gambler who keeps putting money into the slot machine in the hope that the original investment will pay off.

RABIN: Zarefsky says the argument is often used by wartime presidents, and doesn't speak to whether the original policy decision was justified or not. It simply says the war must continue because we've sacrificed too much too quit.

Some argue presidents invoke the call for honoring the dead when a war is long and difficult. But presidential historian, Robert Dallek, says faltering support is the primary motivator.

Case in point: After the battle at Gettysburg, many northerners were questioning Lincoln, who was facing reelection.

Robert Dallek.

Professor ROBERT DALLEK (Professor of History, Boston University): His leadership, his wisdom in selecting generals, the fact that the war was going on for as long as it did. This is a victory at Gettysburg, but the Union has suffered severe losses, and it's not crystal clear, by any means, that they're going to win.

RABIN: Dallek adds that, finish-the-mission rhetoric may stir patriotism and commitment in the short run, but it can't be sustained unless supported by the reality on the ground.

A good example of sustained support is the Second World War. Hollywood spread the word with wartime movies like Gung Ho. Here, actor Randolph Scott, after an early victory that was not without its losses, looks ahead.

Mr. RANDOLPH SCOTT (Actor): (As Colonel Thorwald) Our course is clear. It is for us at this moment, with the memory of the sacrifice of our brothers still fresh, to dedicate again, our hearts, our minds, and our bodies to the great task that lies ahead. And beyond that, lies the mission of making certain that the social honor which we bequeath to our sons and daughters is truly based on freedom, for which these men died. Gung Ho!

RABIN: These sentiments were also heard in another voice from that era.

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT (Former President): It is our obligation to our dead.

RABIN: That's President Roosevelt giving one of his famous fireside chats, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

FDR said the nation learned that ocean borders could not protect us.

President F. D. ROOSEVELT: It is our sacred obligation to their children and to our children that we must never forget what we have learned.

RABIN: Moving on to Vietnam, here's President Johnson in 1967, awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to a dead Marine. LBJ gave thanks to all those who died preserving our freedom.

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON (Former President): And to them, be honor and praise. And to us, is the responsibility for redeeming their sacrifice.

RABIN: Professor Dallek says LBJ's call to arms wasn't sustainable because the battlefield reality rudely intervened.

Professor DALLEK: Lyndon Johnson - there's light at the end of the tunnel, he kept saying. And, as one wit said at the time, sometimes light at the end of the tunnel is from an onrushing train.

RABIN: Which brings us full circle to President Bush and the Iraq War. Like many wartime presidents before him, Mr. Bush is making the case that sacrifices in blood are one reason to continue fighting, not a reason to question the fighting.

For NPR News, I'm David Rabin in Washington.

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