Pentadic Criticism and the War on Terror

Part of what defines a pacifist is an opposition to declarations of war. Their identity centers on their belief that war is never the answer. However, as warfare has evolved to a point where army vs. army battles are no longer the case, it has become increasingly difficult to ascertain ones’ anti-war beliefs. The complexities of modern international politics make it difficult for anti-war movements to rally any support simply because our armed conflicts are so frustratingly multilayered and complicated. Should militarily-endowed nations intervene in the affairs of developing countries? What should our response be to terrorist actions? Is there a diplomatic and nonviolent solution to the dismantling of terrorist networks?

Surely no single anti-war advocate could unravel this complex ball of yarn. Now, it is the duty of pacifists to instead shift their focus towards the rhetoric of those we have elected to office and identify whether their intentions are truly peaceful and diplomatic. One of the most efficient and effective models of rhetorical criticism is Pentadic Criticism, developed by Kenneth Burke in his studies into Dramatism. 

The rhetorical artifact I have elected to critique is a speech made by President Bush on September 20th, 2001. In his address to congress, the President makes a response to the events of September 11th and how he intends for America to respond.

The reason this method is called a ‘Pentad’ is because it is comprised of five distinct parts:

  • Act – What is being done?
  • Scene – Where/When is this happening?
  • Agent – Who is involved?
  • Agency – How are they involved and what methods will be used?
  • Purpose – Why is this being done?

Through this set of critical guidelines, I will examine the intentions and impact of the President’s speech and how his message affects the community of the anti-war movement.

Act

In this speech, President Bush is making a declaration of war. However, this isn’t a war against an army, or a country, or even a group. He declares a war on “terror”, an emotion or abstract idea. He states that those who inspire terror in the citizens of a free nation must be taken out by our military in an efficient manner.

Scene

The scene President Bush describes conjures images of dusty, gritty warfare in the Middle East. It is a war fought in covert operations across Afghanistan and Pakistan, with civilian-dressed soldiers infiltrating cells. While he endeavors to create a scene of the American military courageously patrolling a less-fortunate, developing nation, the scene he truly devises is much more bloodstained and invasive.

Further, he attempts to create a scene of terror on the homeland. He discusses the burning rubble of the WTC and the resilient hearts of New York City. He creates a scene of an unsafe America, an America open to attack. He compares 9/11 to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and draws parallels between response methods.

Agent(s)

The agents described in President Bush’s speech are those who are imperative to the crushing of terrorist cells across the world, namely himself, congress, world leaders, his cabinet, and, of course, the strong and free people of America. He details how global participation with leaders from around the world will stand united against the tide of terror, and how we must all fight together to defeat this menace.

The agents of terrorist cells are demonized by the President. He calls on their destruction because they reflect the opposite of American values of freedom, liberty, and progress. Interestingly, he also calls upon the peaceful muslim community of the world to support him as well. He makes a point in acknowledging that Islam is a peaceful and harmonious religion, and that the extremist involved in the attack do not represent its core values.

Agency

Bush highlights a number of potential methods for the dismantling of terrorist networks. On a global scale, he mentions the use of diplomacy, particularly between himself and the leaders of nations which may house terrorists. He emphasizes the peaceful intentions of these interactions.

On the battlefield, he emphasizes the use of covert operations and strategic invasions to conquer these cells. He discusses the might of the American military and how we are a force to be reckoned with.

Finally, on the home front, his methods become complicated, and to many Americans, highly controversial. He mentions the use of increased surveillance to undermine sleeper cells on American soil, hinting at the possibility of privacy invasions and what would come to be known as the Patriot act. As we’ve all seen in recent years, the prevalence of surveillance on innocent Americans has become a hotly contested issue, reflective of the sacrifices we’ve made in this war.

Purpose

Finally, the purpose he envisions is the maintenance and prevalence of freedom. Specifically, the brand of freedom that accompanies notions of American exceptionalism and liberty. He even repeats the word ‘freedom’ several dozen times to assuredly emphasize its importance in his response. Freedom is the ideology that Americans cling to the most proudly, so it was a tact decision on the President’s part to exploit our strong response to the word.

On an underlying, ulterior-motive level, I believe the purpose of this rhetoric extends beyond the intangible notions of freedom and revenge to a more basic, primal, tangible incentive; money. At this time, America held powerful economic allegiances with nations of the Middle East, and operations intended to dismantle terrorists and anti-west proponents in these regions would assuredly maintain our strong trade agreements.

Combining these elements of pentadic criticism and applying them to the President’s declaration of war reveals something of great importance to modern anti-war supporters; namely, that the ideologies that counter pacifist beliefs still exist hidden in political rhetoric. Our politicians have found ways to warp their rhetorical impact to appeal to the widest possible audience, and in doing so, have convoluted the rhetoric within our discourse community to a point where we disagree on complicated issues that would otherwise be more accessible to the public.

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3 thoughts on “Pentadic Criticism and the War on Terror

  1. Found your post incredibly interesting Cole, particularly in your analysis of the “act” of Bush’s War on Terror speech. As you discussed, his direct appeal to terror, or pathos, targets and persuades the large demographics that are not strictly anti/pro-war. Given the scene, being post 9/11, many could consider this immoral because the speaker is attempting to emotionally coerce and intimidate the audience into supporting the war.

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  2. Great post, Cole. I appreciated your detail and thoroughness, specifically of the five dramatistic elements of your movement. I think you make an important and interesting point: “this isn’t a war against an army, or a country, or even a group. He declares a war on ‘terror’, an emotion or abstract idea.” I wonder what the effect would have been if he named it the “war on terrorism.” The title of this movement and the repetitive language that Bush uses throughout his speech reveals more about the underlying motives, purpose, and ideology of this social (and political) movement.

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  3. Great job introducing the topic, and identifying in detail what a pacifist is. I love the question asked at the start, which show how complex this issue is and add layers such as “Should militarily-endowed nations intervene in the affairs of developing countries? What should our response be to terrorist actions? Is there a diplomatic and nonviolent solution to the dismantling of terrorist networks?” these questions frame the topic to be looked at in a certain way before starting the Pentadic Criticism.

    Cole does a good job of breaking down each part using a speech from President Bush. Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose are each given as Bush’s speech is analyzed.

    A very interesting concluding paragraphs that states “that the ideologies that counter pacifist beliefs still exist hidden in political rhetoric.” I would agrue that most of the time these belifs are not hidden. They are very much public and pro-war. The money quote is: “On an underlying, ulterior-motive level, I believe the purpose of this rhetoric extends beyond the intangible notions of freedom and revenge to a more basic, primal, tangible incentive; money.” I absolutely agree, as sad as it is.

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