The Asymmetrical Rhetoric of War and Peace

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is the technique of verbal persuasion. Those of us who favor limited
civil government and extensive self-government like to think that
logic is on our side. The problem is, rhetoric isn’t.

1947, novelist and advertising copy writer Dorothy Sayers wrote
an essay that has become a classic: “The Lost Tools of Learning.”
I first read it as an insert that was stapled inside an issue of
National Review in 1961. In 1977, I reprinted it in an issue
devoted to education when I was editor of R. J. Rushdoony’s Journal
of Christian Reconstruction. From there, the article spread
into the home school movement.

thesis was this: the medieval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric
is essential for understanding education. Young children learn grammar
rapidly and well, beginning around age two. Sometime around age
10, they begin to master the art of logic. Finally, when they reach
puberty, they begin learning rhetoric. They want to persuade their
parents, and they find that logic is not sufficient.

did not mention two other facts. First, the schools of biblical
interpretation have always been divided into three main camps: the
grammatico-historical school, the school of theology, and the school
of symbolism, which is better known as the allegorical school. Each
of these factors is present in all schools of biblical interpretation,
but one of them always predominates in a particular biblical interpreter.

the same three factors are present in advertising, especially direct-response
advertising: grammar (the offer), logic (proof), and emotion. What
those of us who write direct-response copy know from years of measurable
responses to our ads is that emotion sells. Logic is there to justify
the emotional commitment that the copywriter’s copy produces in
the reader.

mobilizes emotion. Its primary goal is to produce an emotional response
that in turn produces a specific action.

is the problem facing those who favor limited civil government and
extensive self-government: personal responsibility is a difficult
sell. From the day that Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the
serpent, mankind has been in a fruitless quest to shift blame and
avoid personal responsibility for failure. “Success has a hundred
fathers, while failure is an orphan.”


problem we face is this: the rhetoric of limited government rarely
matches the appeal of pro-state rhetoric, which invokes something
perceived as more grand than individual liberty. This is especially
true during wartime. Great wartime speeches tend to survive in the
textbooks. Great peacetime speeches do not. During war, there are
no great anti-war speeches. They cannot persuade people of the futility
of war, so no one in authority delivers them. Private citizens who
do go to jail or lose their jobs. This is why H. L. Mencken ceased
his anti-war tirades after the United States entered the European
war in 1917. He deliberately avoided writing about the war altogether.

peacetime, there are so many pro-war speeches that a few become
classics. In contrast, great anti-war peacetime speeches are always
the subject of retroactive ridicule, once the shooting starts. Neville
Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time” may be the most ridiculed four-word
political phrase in modern history. In this sense, pro-war and pro-peace
rhetoric are inherently asymmetric. War wins in the textbooks and
the polling booths.

are always looking for documents that illustrate the mood of an
era, or at least the historian’s version of that mood. There is
nothing like a short political speech by a major politician to make
this point for the author. In wartime, a speech by a general is
also useful. It is no accident that the movie Patton begins
with a cleaned-up version of one of his famous speeches to the troops.
He was a master of rhetoric in a military environment. So was McArthur,
who extended this mastery to politics.

two great masters of political rhetoric in the English-speaking
world were Lincoln and Churchill. The power of their rhetoric carries
into their speeches’ written texts. Huey Long’s rhetoric doesn’t,
for his was the rhetoric of the stump speech. Most political rhetoric
is. Rhetoric for the ages is usually not sufficiently time-sensitive
to be motivational.

I were teaching a course on rhetoric, I would use Lincoln’s two
inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Address
is perhaps the greatest single speech in American history. My generation
was forced to memorize it. It is short enough to memorize.

“Cross of Gold” speech, which got him the Democratic Party’s nomination
for President in 1896, had greater influence than any other political
speech in American history. Bryan self-consciously and systematically
destroyed the old limited-government tradition of the Democratic
Party. Yet reading that speech today, one is hard-pressed to understand
why it stole the hearts of the attendees in 1896. It is not difficult
to see why the Gettysburg Address has exercised enormous influence
for well over a century.

at Gettysburg that day was the greatest orator of the era, Edward
Everett: a former U.S. Senator, a former governor, and a former
president of Harvard College. He spoke for two hours. No one remembers
what he said. The written copy of the speech is over 13,000 words.
Lincoln spoke after Everett. The speech received little response
from listeners. But Everett wrote to Lincoln praising the speech,
which lasted about two minutes. He said that Lincoln’s speech had
captured the meaning of the event far better than his speech had.

speech is powerful because Lincoln used the language of the sacred
to describe a battlefield graveyard. To hallow ground is to create
sacred space. In reciting the familiar King James Bible’s version
of the Lord’s Prayer, men say “hallo-wed [hallowed] be thy name.”
Lincoln said, “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we
can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave
men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far
above our poor power to add or detract.” He said this in preparation
for the most rhetorically powerful defense of war in American history:

is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished
work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining
before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion
to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion
— that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have
died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new
birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the
people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

was wrong about one thing: “The world will little note, nor long
remember what we say here. . . .”

his career, Lincoln appropriated the language of the King James
Bible to create biblical-sounding phrases. He personally was not
a believer in the authority of the Bible, but he was a masterful
appropriator of its rhetorical power. This was a major factor in
the power of his rhetoric.

was a wartime leader who had the great good fortune that Hitler
declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. This was
the most short-sighted single political decision of the twentieth
century. Nothing else comes close. The Axis pact did not compel
him to do this, for it was a defensive pact, and Japan had started
the war. America’s entry into the war bailed out Churchill. His
speeches became rhetorical classics because his side won the war.

was a master of rhetoric. He was the probably the greatest master
of large-crowd rhetoric in history, for he understood the psychology
of large crowds. He planned every detail of those mass meetings.
To this was added the loudspeaker.

am not impressed with what I see and hear because the film clips
always show him shouting. Rhetoric is not all shouting. Printed
texts have no shouting. At most, they have underlines. In any case,
he lost. Had he won, his wartime speeches would today be classics
of German rhetoric. There were no wartime German anti-war speeches.

winners write the history textbooks. They use wartime rhetoric to
spice up their textbooks, which need spicing up.


people most of the time are self-interested. This perception was
Adam Smith’s great legacy to the modern world. Or, rather, it was
Bernard Mandevelle’s legacy by way of Smith, who officially opposed
Mandeville’s Fable
of the Bees

peacetime, men pursue their self-interest. There are few joint endeavors
that command both loyalty and self-sacrifice. Husbands and wives
are tied to a treaty of mutual support. But the concentric circles
of jointly bound people become progressively less influential the
further out from the family they are.

contrast, most people in time of war become group-oriented. Soldiers
march into battle as a team. To keep them from running away, every
link in the military chain of command focuses on elevating courage
over self-interest, which is identified as cowardice. This same
commitment to a larger cause dominates the civilian labor force.
Tax-resistance becomes for the civilian what running away is for
the soldier: an act of betrayal.

is why war is the health of the state. This is why leviathan and
Mars are always linked by a treaty of mutual understanding.

A. Hayek once noted that the experience of participating in wartime
economic planning agencies persuaded British and American business
leaders of the benefits of central planning. He made this observation
at a conference whose proceedings were later published as a book:
Controls, and Inflation
(1952). Businessmen came out of
World War II as Keynesians or worse.

takes long chains of reasoning to defend the free market as a means
of coordination. Most people cannot follow these long chains of
reasoning. Adam Smith invoked the rhetorical image of the invisible
hand. That was an effective tactic. It worked because Western intellectuals
in the mid-eighteenth century associated this image with providence.
Of course, this image would not work well in tribal animist societies.
They would conclude that free trade is good because, if you don’t
adopt it, the Hand will get you.

problem was that Smith’s image failed to persuade intellectual socialists,
who appeared soon after The
Wealth of Nations
appeared. They had abandoned the idea
of providence. Smith’s image failed to persuade them. They looked
instead for an institutional replacement for the non-existent Deist
god of the Scottish Enlightenment. They found it in the state: the
visible hand.

took two centuries for the popularity of the image of the visible
hand to fade. It took the visible failure of the Soviet Union, 1989—91,
to convince most Western intellectuals that the visible hand of
central planning could not be relied on to deliver the goods. The
Soviet Union’s visible hand had come down with a bad case of arthritis.
It always had been arthritic, but the USSR projected military power
and imposed systematic domestic violence. Most Western intellectuals
respect visible power above everything else.

are still unable to follow long chains of economic reasoning, but
they have looked at what China has done under the free markets and
what socialism did for Russia, and they finally have concluded that
the free market does work like an invisible hand.

logic of the free market has not persuaded them. The visible results
have persuaded them. This is better than nothing, but only for as
long as the present capitalist order, at whose center is state-created
central banking, continues to deliver the goods.

people who cannot follow detailed chains of economic logic, the
visible hand is more believable than the invisible hand.


case for peace is mostly logical. The case for war is mostly rhetorical.
So, men keep going to war.

has a more ready market than righteousness. “From whence come wars
and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts
that war in your members? (James 4:1).

power has a more ready market among political leaders than individual
self-restraint. Mises understood this when he gave a one-word answer
to the question, “What would you do if you were given complete power
over the U.S. economy.” His answer: “Resign.”

rhetoric of war has a more ready market than the rhetoric of peace.

what offers hope? Reality. The visible hand of war, like the visible
hand of central planning, eventually produces widespread losses.
Eventually, someone says, “Let them eat rhetoric.” The caloric content
of rhetoric is nil.

the rhetoric of the sacred no longer extends to military funerals,
the visible hand of war is getting close to the end of its popularity.
When a military graveyard is no longer believed by the public to
be hallowed by the latest conflict, the case for war has weakened.
Swords are not yet being converted into ploughshares, but the politicians
who favored war with their rhetoric are beginning to resemble Damocles.
Meanwhile, our President is not a rhetorical Lincoln. He is more
of a rhetorical Hudson.

11, 2005

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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