The Iraq war has killed or wounded tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, killed more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians, and cost the United States billions of dollars. When pondering this foreign policy debacle, it is hard to fathom why so many Americans supported the war for so long. One answer, however, might be found in how President George W. Bush frequently countered opposition to the war through ceremonial speaking, a type of rhetoric that accompanies ceremonies in which the speaker praises values the audience holds dear and/or blames values that the audience rejects.
In August 2005, Bush gave an address at the Naval Air Station near San Diego to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Japan, but his speech also demonstrated the way in which he routinely wove ceremonial appeals with memories of World War II in order to promote the Iraq war and deflect criticism of his policies there.
First, the ceremonial setting of his speech discouraged dissent. As the President spoke, he was surrounded by a sea of sailors in their dress whites and, near the stage, World War II veterans, many wearing caps and shirts that identified their regiments. This setting, along with audience enthusiasm over hearing a president of the United States speak, virtually ensured a positive reception. Even if immediate listeners did not agree with everything Bush said, they were unlikely to interrupt him with questions or to voice disapproval. Such behavior during a ceremony would have seemed disrespectful not only to the speaker, but also to the veterans whom he honored. Military personnel in the audience were even more unlikely to express any public signs of disagreement with their commander-in-chief.
Second, President Bush praised U.S. veterans of World War II and U.S. troops in Iraq such that the two were linked, thereby encouraging audience support for the war in Iraq and his leadership. For example, Bush told how the grandson of two World War II veterans “is a Marine officer now serving in Iraq. He knows that he and his generation are doing the same vital work in this war on terror that his grandparents did in World War II.” Through lines such as these, the President equated the heroism of World War II veterans with the heroism of soldiers in Iraq. His words often prompted applause for the individuals whom he praised, which simultaneously allowed Bush to bask in the reflected glow and served to endorse the two wars themselves.
His ceremonial speaking also encouraged American unity by arguing the enemies faced in World War II were the same as those faced in the war on terror, including Iraq. Sometimes the President made such links overtly, as when he compared the “surprise attack” of Pearl Harbor with that of 9/11. Other times, he made the comparisons subtly. Bush spoke of World War II’s “kamikaze pilots on suicidal missions,” for instance, which directed his audience to think of terrorists on suicide missions. He also moved freely between descriptions of efforts in Afghanistan and in Iraq, which associated both with the war on terror, even though the administration’s rationale for Iraq had already been largely discredited by the time of his speech. For example, Bush praised military personnel for their “critical” contributions to the war on terror: “You’re serving on special operations teams that are hunting the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan. And our Marine units are bringing the terrorists to justice in Iraq.” He also declared that freedom was “once again opposed by fanatical adherence of a murderous ideology,” which depicted the enemy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and World War II as the same. Just as Americans supported the U.S. effort in World War II, even when the war was not going well, Bush urged them to “stay on the offensive” and “stand with the people of Iraq” now.
Finally, the President’s speech discouraged dissent by depicting military service and sacrifice as the ultimate acts of citizenship to be honored. If the ideal citizen is one who follows orders, even if it means the loss of life or limb, then questioning those orders places war dissenters in a position of insubordination that appears to give aid to the enemy. Bush also insisted that Americans must be willing to endure continued bloodshed to honor soldiers who had died both in the war on terror and in World War II. He said that “some of our best citizens have made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq” and that “we will honor their sacrifice by completing the mission and laying the foundation for peace.” Immediately after this statement, the President noted that American soldiers “made the same type of sacrifice” in World War II in order to build an enduring peace. He emphasized, “And we will never let the new enemies of a new century destroy with cowardice what these Americans built with courage.” By paying tribute to such sacrifices, Bush deterred war critics by making it appear that anyone who attacked his war policy was not supporting the troops of the present or the past.
Presidents often rely on ceremonial speaking in times of war, particularly when strong public opposition arises, because of its strategic advantages, but Bush’s speech also points to vulnerabilities that war dissenters might exploit. First, opponents might argue that the president’s leadership fails to uphold the principles that he praises. War opponents asked, for example, why Bush praised the sacrifice of soldiers but took a month-long vacation in the midst of the war. The President also opened himself to criticism in his comments prior to and in the introduction of the speech by pairing words of assurance about the administration’s preparation for ongoing Hurricane Katrina with words of praise for progress in Iraq or for service personnel. When the White House’s inept flood control and recovery efforts became clear, critics like Frank Rich and Louis Farrakhan pointed to the impact of the war on domestic policy.
Another potential strategy to counter wartime ceremonial rhetoric is to discount how the president has applied an historic analogy, but in a way that does not question collective memories of an event. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean did this, for instance, when he praised Roosevelt and Truman for laying out clear plans to victory in World War II, but claimed President Bush had failed to make such a plan in Iraq.
War dissenters also might use a competing but equally compelling historic analogy to counter a president’s ceremonial claims. Although not intended as a criticism of Bush’s policies, Republican Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour used World War II imagery to declare that parts of his state looked like “Hiroshima” in the aftermath of Katrina. One can imagine war critics making use of such an analogy to criticize the shifting of resources from domestic needs to warfare.
Although ceremonial speaking can ennoble war, justify continued violence, and discourage dissent, this form of rhetoric is not inherently bad. Presidents have employed ceremonial speaking to help Americans make sense of tragedy, as in the case of the Arizona shootings, and to bring citizens together to mark important events, such as the peaceful transition to a new administration. Nonetheless, the case of Bush and Iraq underscores the need to pay close attention to this type of speaking, especially when it advocates for war.