Battle Exhortation: The Rhetoric of Combat Leadership

Battle Exhortation: The Rhetoric of Combat Leadership

Battle Exhortation: The Rhetoric of Combat Leadership

Battle Exhortation: The Rhetoric of Combat Leadership

Synopsis

This work provides a study of the motivational speech of military leaders across the centuries. The author offers an examination of the symbolic strategies used in preparing troops for imminent combat in this interdisciplinary look at a mode of discourse that has played a prominent role in military history.

Excerpt

In Battle Exhortation: The Rhetoric of Combat Leadership, Keith Yellin considers the history and the generic features of speech addressed by commanders to troops about to go into battle. Yellin, a former United States Marine Corps captain with a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Iowa, brings together an unusual range of learning and experience, which he puts to excellent use in this analysis of a mode of address that has gone largely without notice in rhetorical histories or officer training but is nearly universal in military campaigns, often with decisive effects.

Yellin’s account considers the battle exhortation over the course of two millennia in Western experience. He takes us to historical accounts of actual battles as well as to literary and cinematic representations that, he argues, have shaped the genre and our expectations. He has a keen eye for the enduring topics of battle exhortation, for their development over time, and for the actual circumstances of battle experiences that shape exhortation and response. Yellin’s account is rich in extended case studies, in which detailed military history at the tactical level is combined with astute and nuanced critical analysis of the texts, sights, and sounds of the discourse of military leaders at every rank.

Yellin’s re-creation of how Spartan rhetoric made sense to fifth-century B.C.E. foot soldiers calling to each other as they marched into battle to the sound of flutes is vivid, immediate, and convincing. The Spartan case is accompanied by similarly detailed accounts of exhortations from the Bible, the Iliad, Shakespeare’s Henry V, George C. Scott portraying General George S. Patton, Tim O’Brien in Vietnam, Julius Caesar at the head of Roman legions, Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at Fort Wagner, Dwight D. Eisenhower on D-Day, and many others. In all these cases, Yellin is alert to the symbolic structures that contribute to military outcomes, to the intense skepticism of men and women about to risk their lives toward anything that smacks of empty verbal display, to the tensions that must be held in balance when violence becomes an arm of policy, and to the cultural and tactical differences that require leaders to adapt to circumstances while . . .

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