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What Is War Rhetoric?

By Micah MacBride
Updated May 23, 2024
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When the Roman Senator Cato the Elder wanted Rome to declare war on the North African state of Carthage, he would include the phrase “Carthage must be destroyed” in all of his speeches. This was typical of war rhetoric, the persuasive methods by which leaders who want to go to war convince both other leaders and the nation's citizens of a conflict's necessity. These can include presenting a country as an imminent threat to the nation, accusing those opposed to war as working against the nation's interests, and frequently repeating the necessity of war.

War rhetoric focuses on a reason why a nation must go to war against another country. This could be that the enemy country poses a direct military threat to the nation, that the country is helping those who wish the harm the nation and its people, or that the country is damaging the nation's economic interests. The individuals who want to create support for going to war among the citizens of a nation will typically cite the country's present actions, as well as any wrongs the country has dealt the nation in the recent or distant past, as evidence of their claims. In war rhetoric, such evidence is frequently exaggerated or fictional.

Leaders who engage in war rhetoric often emphasize that their nation's military is more capable than that of the enemy country. This generally has the effect of stirring up nationalism, the belief that one's own country is better than other countries, among its citizens. Creating this feeling of superiority over the other country can lead people to believe that their victory in the conflict is a certainty, and eases concerns about the potential costs of the war.

The advocates of war usually take rhetorical steps to marginalize or discredit critics who are against their nation initiating a conflict. This commonly takes the form of attacks on the patriotism or personal courage of those individuals. These advocates may also portray opposition to war as hurting one's own nation and aiding the enemy country. Casting opposition in this light typically pressures citizens to support the war to prove their patriotism.

Repetition is a key component to war rhetoric. Leaders who try to convince their nation to go to war often repeat their claims about the conflict's necessity to citizens through a variety of media outlets. These can include speeches, opinion editorials in newspapers, and interviews on radio or television shows. The more often these individuals repeat their claims, the more likely people are to accept the claims and support a declaration of war.

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Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Feb 04, 2015

I can think of a lot of examples of war rhetoric in the US. There was "Remember the Maine!', a call for action when the Spanish allegedly blew up a US ship docked quasi-legally in Cuba. Then there was a call for action after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. I think that was probably the best and most justified use of war rhetoric, since it got the US involved in more than just a retaliatory war against Japan.

I vaguely remember hearing stories about the Domino effect, which meant if one country in Southeast Asia fell to the Communists, they would ALL fall eventually. That's why we had to send troops to Korea and Vietnam. It was more war rhetoric, and I think when we failed to win the war in Vietnam, people became more aware of the government's ability to manipulate the public through war rhetoric.

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