Final Rhetorical Criticism Project

Ask any American millennial what warfare looks like, and they’ll give you a very different answer from their grandparents. The history of the United States is coated in the blood of war, from struggles for colonial independence to mass invasions across Europe and Asia. We are a nation driven by conquest and a perceived authority on international justice. And yet, as technology has evolved alongside the tactics of combat, we have witnessed a complete shift in the way we conduct war. Describe a drone strike to a soldier on the beaches of Normandy, and they wouldn’t have the slightest notion of what that meant. Thus, given the current state of militaristic affairs, one must ask if the anti-war movement is relevant anymore.

When I began my research into the rhetoric of the anti-war movement, I identified very strongly as a pacifist; someone who believes armed intervention and killing is never the solution, under any circumstances. However, as I delved further into the topic, I began to realize that the answer may not be as simple as that. If killing isn’t the solution under any circumstances, is it ethical to allow groups such as the LRA or ISIS continue their work? Certainly the arrest of their leaders would be an ideal circumstance, yet that most assuredly isn’t the easiest to attain. As my views began to shift, I began to question the status quo of anti-war rhetoric, and whether anyone could arguably identify as a completely anti-war advocate. What I want to uncover in this essay is how the rhetoric of this movement has changed over the years, how it looks now, and hopefully where it’s headed. To do this, I have selected several distinct artifacts and methods of rhetorical evaluation to develop my view.

The American anti-war movement has been an on-again-off-again conflagration throughout our history, springing up when conflict met our shores. However, the most notable and famous period for the anti-war movement was during the Vietnam war, when Americans felt their interests weren’t being accurately or ethically represented in our invasion of South East Asia. Many felt that the government wasn’t representing them, and many abhorred the inhumane atrocities our soldiers were committing in a foreign nation. Thus spurned the strongest rhetoric ever witnessed by the anti-war movement; from the campuses of Universities, to the streets of Washington DC, to the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco. Therein lies the scope of my argument. The window of time between the Vietnam War protests to 2015 represents the most notable evolution of the anti-war movement.

To discuss this, I will use the following rhetorical criticism methodologies; narrative criticism, cultural/fantasy theme criticism, and ideological criticism. My artifacts for this argument are two films, Apocalypse Now (1979) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), two speeches, one by President Kennedy in 1963 and one by Senator Obama in 2002, and finally an interview with Bernie Sanders, a 2016 presidential candidate. Through these artifacts, I hope to reveal the nature of the modern anti-war movement and whether or not it’s relevant anymore.

Narrative criticism is a school of rhetorical criticism which focuses on the stories embedded in our speech. It addresses the existence of characters, settings, plots, and themes. In our everyday language, we call upon fragments of great narratives passed on through our culture to be more persuasive. Think of the story of Johnny Appleseed, an often called-upon allegory that represents the crux of the American dream; fulfillment and success through hard work and perseverance. These stories exist ad infinitum in our rhetoric, and serve a very essential purpose. The characters in our grand narratives are either everyday heroes or epic heroes who exist in archetypal roles. Our settings often conjure grand imagery of battlefields or gorgeous heartlands that tell a story of their own. Our plots are driven by conflict and tension to fuel the dramatic action, and develop the theme of our grand narratives, delivering a greater message. These tropes exist very persistently in our cultural artifacts, and permeate our rhetoric. The two artifacts I have chosen to critique with regards to my research question are two films, Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), directed by Katheryn Bigelow. The reason I have selected these two films in particular is because, while they depict very dissimilar social and political landscapes, they have highly similar narrative elements. To avoid a lengthy retelling, I will suffice to say that both films tell the story of a troubled protagonist haunted by the harsh realities of the wars they find themselves involved with. As the narratives progress, both characters are called upon by a higher authority to hunt down and capture or kill a man who has committed crimes against the United States. In their pursuit, they are exposed to the bloodlust, violence, and trauma that accompanies warfare and confront truths that no human should have to face. The heart of my argument, however, exists in the differences between these films.


The Vietnam War is almost incomparable to the US occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan. While the former focused on hunting down and eradicating the presence of communism, the latter has been justified as a War on Terror. The notion of declaring war on terror, an emotion, is strange when considered in an abstract way. Obviously, no one enjoys feeling terrified, so why doesn’t everyone support this war? The answer lies in the justifications and decision-making of those in power, and my narrative artifacts presented here exemplify this. When America first watched Zero Dark Thirty, it widened the rift between war supporters and war oppositionists.  Some were disturbed by the content, while others applauded the decisions made by our government, depicted in the film. Ultimately, this rift serves to represent the lack of relevancy the anti-war movement has nowadays. When Apocalypse Now was released, it was applauded as an anti-war film because it fueled the rhetoric of anti-war protestors and unapologetically depicted the realities of the war. This kind of unanimous reception was not paralleled by Zero Dark Thirty, signifying that the ethical justifications for actions during wartime has significantly changed over the years.

In contrast to narrative criticism, ideological criticism focuses more on the beliefs and credence fueling the rhetor’s argument. Specifically, Marxist ideological criticism aims to critique the justifications of those in power by asking lots of questions. The purpose of the Marxist style of ideological criticism is to evaluate and question the justification of marginalization. It achieves this through defining the material conditions and realities that are constructed and maintained through the rhetoric of the hegemony, or master story. It takes into account the privileged values and how the status quo is maintained.  Considering all this, I looked into two speeches that fall into the scope of my analysis. The first is a commencement speech by President John F. Kennedy given at the American University in June 1963, and the second is by the, then, Senator Barack Obama at an anti-war rally in 2002. While both speeches have elements of Marxist criticism embedded in their rhetoric, both have different rhetorical impacts, as one is given by a President while the other is given by a critic of the President. Both represent different periods in our nation’s military history.

When Kennedy delivered his commencement speech, the United States had unofficially entered a mutually destructive arms race with the Soviet Union. This was the beginning of a new style of warfare, known as proxy war. Essentially, our nation would use the strength of another puppet state to attack our main enemy, and vice versa. In his speech, Kennedy references this arms race, stating “both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race.” His speech was intended to instill a principle of cooperation and symbiotic international growth through negotiation and diplomacy, essentially revitalizing the notion of peace. He stresses that peace isn’t attained through inaction, but rather positive action. This concept was unprecedented, and began to pierce the sharp binary of the nation’s anti-war movement, which essentially boiled down to “you’re either for war or against it.” This criticism by Kennedy planted a seed of new thinking in the movement, one that I believe persists to this day.

On the other side of the same coin, Barack Obama’s speech focused on denouncing President Bush’s declaration of war on terror. Rather than focus on the purpose of this denouncement, I find that the most significant and noteworthy element of his speech was his repetition of the phrase “I do not oppose all wars.” When the anti-war movement was at it’s height, one was expected to oppose all wars, as that was the central tenant of the movement. However, Obama’s message reached a broad audience and fell upon listening ears; his rhetoric made sense. His, much like Kennedy’s, speech addressed the faulty binaries of anti-war rhetoric, almost as if he was saying “it’s okay to support war sometimes.” This concept of conditional wisdom and common sense criticism is what drove me to reconsider my stance on this movement.

Having looked at rhetoric from recent years, it’s apparent that the anti-war movement no longer exists in the same manifestation as it did during the Vietnam War. But rather than declare its nonexistence now and forever, I’d rather look at the potential future of the anti-war movement, or as I’d prefer to label it, the “non-binary common sense movement.” Earlier this year, independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy the 2016 Presidential race, and I wholeheartedly support this man. In a 2014 interview with Wolf Blitzer, he states “everything is in the language, you can’t talk in a general [binary] sense… I support, have and do, support the President using airstrikes against… I think that they are working, I support them… but I am very very nervous about… ground troops.” This, much like the majority of Senator Sanders’s rhetoric, is based in logic and critical thinking. It would be unwise to find yourself trapped in the binaries of ‘war is good’ or ‘war is bad’. In reality, War occurs when policies are pushed forward. Sanders advocates for addressing the cause before the effect; War is neither good nor bad, the motivations behind it make it so. Rather than tacitly accepting the status quo, Sanders challenges our cultural adherence to binaries. He is neither a democrat nor republican, but rather an independent, and I believe that this stance embodies the potentially positive future of the anti-war movement.

War is not the same as it once was, and the anti-war movement as it existed historically no longer applies. Through close examination of the narrative rhetoric of cultural artifacts and the Marxist ideological criticisms of influential political figures, the dichotomy between the modern incarnation of the anti-war movement and its far more active ancestor during the Vietnam War, I find that this movement is no longer relevant in its intended form. We cannot afford to have a movement that forces followers to adhere to perceived binaries when our international and diplomatic landscapes are so much more complex. The future of the anti-war movement, if it is going to continue existing, is going to have to revolve around critical thinking and common sense. Positive change does not come about when advocates ardently and fervently support one side, but rather challenge themselves to adopt new perspectives and embrace empathy.


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