The War Writing Rhetorical Triangle

The concept of a “rhetorical triangle” is well-known to graduate students of composition, rhetoric, and communications. A way of imagining any particular act of communication, but especially that of public speakers and authors in the act of argument and persuasion, the rhetorical triangle attempts to depict the relationship between speakers and authors, their subjects, and their audiences. Graduate students ground their academic interest in the rhetorical triangle in Aristotelian definitions of ethos, pathos, and logos, each linked to a specific corner of the triangle, and put their understanding to practical use in undergraduate composition classes. There, the rhetorical triangle helps students understand the importance of author and speaker subject positions and the notion of intended audiences. Often, the rhetorical triangle is embellished in textbooks and slide presentations with the addition of circle that envelops the triangle, meant to represent “context”—why a particular subject is under discussion at all, what outside pressures bear on it, what underlying assumptions impact the effort being made at communication, etc. Figures A and B below depict the rhetorical triangle and the rhetorical triangle + contextual circle as they typically are represented.



All good, but I’ve long thought that the typical rhetorical triangle, as it exists as a visual metaphor, was a little too rigid, unsubtle, and unimaginative to portray the complexity of any “communicative situation,” to borrow another phrase from the rhetoric-and-composition world. My misgivings crystallized as I began thinking about how the rhetorical triangle might apply to war writing, by which I mostly mean fiction and poetry about war authored by veterans of war, though not without application to memoir, non-fiction, and veterans-in-the-classroom scenarios, as well as works written by journalists, historians, and civilian authors of imaginative literature who have studied war closely. Still, if we retain the basic equilateral triangle and round circle shapes of the standard rhetorical triangle + contextual circle, we might enhance it as follows in Figure C to portray what traditionally might be said to be the relationship of veteran-writers, war, and civilian readers who have not been to war:


As my thinking about this pictorial representation of war writing dynamics proliferated, or perhaps festered, I began to question whether the circle representing context adequately conveyed what is most salient about the attempt to render the experience of war to readers who had not seen combat. Rather than a benign circle hovering on the outskirts of the acts of writing and reading, I thought that a grid imposed over the top of the triangle might better depict how war writing as a genre is forcibly shaped by an array of recurring events, attitudes, themes, tropes, scenes, and expectations, as well as reliance on a short list of time-honored antecedents as literary models, that together harmfully solidified the relationships of writer, subject, and reader into hardened positions, perilously close to cliché, stereotype, “confirmation biased” patterns of cause-and-effect, and self-prophecizing conclusions. Figure D shows my effort to portray context as an imposed grid:

Slide4What might be a work of literature, or a movie, that could be given as an example of war writing that conforms to the Figure D model? There’s no perfect example—the diagram is a cartoon, after all—but let’s for the sake of argument posit works such as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as the ur-novels of modern warfare: stories that concern themselves not just with describing the “horrors of combat” and the possibility of transcending them, but the psychological effect of witnessing and enduring the horrors. Yes, I know Crane was not a veteran, but he ventriloquized one admirably, and like I said, the examples are not perfect. What’s important is that many many works of fiction, as well as memoirs and movies, have repeated, with various amounts of skill, motifs and manners-of-treatment originating or advanced in exemplary fashion by Crane and Remarque.

But as war writing evolved and permutated over the course of the 20th century, differences in style, perspective, and approaches also emerged. A very common refrain found in Vietnam War writing is the idea that “the truth of war cannot be conveyed,” sometimes expressed as “you had to be there to understand it,” notions that would seem to undermine the whole effort of writing about war. They didn’t, however, and in practice the sentiment seems to operate more as a marker of authenticity than a confession of ineptitude. The arch-expression of the idea is Tim O’Brien’s well-known “How to Tell a True War Story,” which compellingly dramatizes a veteran-author’s difficulty in conveying to civilians the essence of what fighting in Vietnam was all about. O’Brien’s famous last line, “It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen,” drives home the point that in the narrator’s mind at least one corner of the rhetorical triangle, that of the audience, is drastically estranged from both the veteran-author and whatever might be said to be the truth and reality of war.

A post-9/11 war reiteration of the fractured war-writing rhetorical triangle appears in Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngblood. In the Prologue, the narrator-veteran describes several instances of difficulty connecting with civilians who ask him what Iraq was like. He ends by stating,

What was it like? Hell if I know. But next time someone asks, I won’t answer straight and clean. I’ll answer crooked, and I’ll answer long. And when they get confused or angry, I’ll smile. Finally, I’ll think. Someone who understands.

Here, Gallagher’s narrator’s hoped-for “communicative situation” is marked by frustration and distortion, which, if only those miserable qualities could be attained, would stand as a great improvement on the incomprehension and indifference that have so far governed his attempt to describe war.

The contemporary emphasis on “failure to communicate” might be reflected in the following variation on the war-writing rhetorical triangle (Figure E):


Features of the contemporary model include:

  1. The veteran-author’s personal relationship to his or her subject of war is intense and intimate, as represented by a thickened, shortened line, but the connection is obfuscated by that very closeness, as well as the more general difficulty of apprehending the truth or reality of combat described as “the fog of war.”
  2. The civilian reader’s relationship to the veteran-writer, and vice-versa, is distant and beset by communication difficulties, as portrayed by the long, broken line.
  3. The civilian reader’s understanding of war is also remote, indistinct, and untrustworthy, as depicted by the thin, wavering line.

In Figure F below, I have added in a contextual circle that names what I think are the most important contemporary social, political, cultural, and technological influences on war, the men and women who go to war and then write about it, and the nation-at-large. I’ve also noted some changes in the composition of the corners of the triangle to reflect modern trends.


I won’t take time here to explain these factors or how they put pressure on the legs and corners of my war writing rhetorical triangle. Many are obvious or self-explanatory, and none are beyond the ken of readers who have made it this far and who now choose to roll them around in their minds to consider their relevance. I might well have portrayed them as a grid, as in Figure D above, but for the sake of clarity, mostly, I haven’t. Taken together, the diagram suggests a contemporary war writing field characterized by multiple variables, full of complexity, ambiguity, perspectival variations, and tenuous, arguable intersections joining war, writing about war, and readers.

Might the broken-and-distorted contemporary war writing rhetorical triangle be as much a trope, or even a cliché, as anything that’s come before? Some very good veteran-authors have taken up the question. Benjamin Busch, in “To the Veteran,” his introduction to the veteran writing anthology Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, states, “We often feel there is a certain authenticity lost somewhere, that language cannot completely express our experience to those who do not share it,” but ultimately he concludes that the stories in Standing Down “prove that transference of experience is possible with language.” Similarly, Phil Klay in a New York Times essay titled “After War, A Failure of Imagination,” writes, “Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain.” Busch and Klay are formidable writers, but I’m not sure everyone, including many veterans, agrees that veterans can express the reality of war in a way that is perceived as meaningful and reasonably fulsome by civilians. The fact that Busch and Klay have to assert their case proves the sentiment they hope to rectify is both real and a problem. Whether their perception is an enduring and truly true structural feature of war writing or merely a passing truism-of-the-day remains to be seen.

Many thanks to the organizers and participants of the 2016 Veterans in Society seminar at Virginia Tech, where I first presented on the “War Writing Rhetorical Triangle.”

4 thoughts on “The War Writing Rhetorical Triangle”

  1. Peter:

    Pardon the length of this note (not to mention the effusive praise), but I really found your analysis stunning. I wish I would’ve been able to witness the presentation; I’m sure it was fascinating in and of itself. I totally concur with your underlying premise(s) – i.e., that there are always at least two audiences for works written by veterans, and both writer and reader approach the works differently depending on, first, which audience the veteran envisions at any particular point, and naturally, second, which of the two is doing the reading. I also understand that your envisioning the rhetorical situation in this manner leaves you somewhat vulnerable to charges of credentialism, but when isn’t this the case if one ventures into a tricky territory of identity politics?

    I’m not just interested as a veteran, and as a reader of virtually any war literature that passes through my hands, but also as a former academic writer (I shy away from word “scholar”) who wrote extensively on subjects related to the very situation you describe. Let me say right away that I believe you have come up with a more sophisticated theory than the ones I arrived at twenty or twenty-five years ago, mainly because you ground yours in a long-accepted theoretical model and expand from there. I also recognize that what you have presented is really a baseline for analytical use for years to come.

    My own work began with a dissertation on literature of the Vietnam War and its subsequent publication in the form of several articles, plus expansions upon the original ideas for analyses that followed. These came out from the mid-90s through the mid-oughts. I was fortunate to undertake the process after (or at least during the publication) the majority of novels, poems, plays, and memoirs by veterans had been written, so I was able to cover the field pretty well. In fact, enough time had passed that I was even able to secure reissues of two memoirs by African American veterans that had long since gone out of print.

    My premise, which came out of some odd-seeming places (e.g., Lawrence L Langer’s Holocaust Testimonies and Kali Tal’s Worlds of Hurt, both of which explored trauma testimony, as well as Jonathan Shay’s first book, which did deal directly with Vietnam veterans), was an attempt to explain why works written by these veterans seemed to gravitate toward specific motifs having to do with the general concept of both loss of identity and inability to express or explain their experiences to nonparticipants. In effect, I theorize that these writers feel compelled to adopt a specialized language – not jargon, but something like what you describe, which is a need to explain/confess at the same time they narrate (assuming it’s prose) – in a struggle to bridge the gap between experience and non-experience. In some cases, the alienation is even greater because the writer feels a greater sense of difference – e.g., women, though there were relatively few in Vietnam compared to males; and African Americans, of which there were many participants but few who wrote about the experience; nevertheless, I dedicated chapters to analyzing their situations as well.

    The articles appeared in journals such as American Studies; War, Literature, and the Arts (though I think these were more personal in nature); and African American Review; plus a number of collections. If you want to look at one of these in its entirety, from American Studies in 1996, it can be found at Unfortunately, the article has all of the worst trappings of academic writing, including a de rigueur undressing of previous critical works, but I think you’ll get the point in the first several paragraphs, where my thesis (finally) appears.

    At any rate, the real point of my note is that I’m extremely happy to see someone going down this avenue in an attempt to help clarify and legitimize war writing by explaining what nonparticipants will probably see in embarking on reading it. Thanks again for the splendid work.

    Jeff Loeb

  2. Jeff, thank you for your words of praise and very interesting and important contribution to the conversation. Your work sounds fascinating and I look forward to exploring it more. I like especially the idea that war writing gravitates inevitably to the mode of confession–that feels very true and essential to me. I’d also like to read the memoirs by African-American veterans that you helped get back into print (by name, James Daly’s Black Prisoner of War: A Conscientious Objector’s Vietnam Memoir and Terry Whitmore’s Memphis Nam Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter)–though we have many examples of a war literature of outrage to point to, we have few models of a war literature of dissent. More thoughts to follow as they occur to me, and definitely after I read your article. -Peter

  3. A very good article as far as it goes. The author does an excellent job in identifying factors that impede the author to subject and author to reader communication. I’m not a writer but my question is, “How does the author overcome these external factors to clearly communicate their relationship with war to the reader?” Study of relevant history, other authors accounts, mastery of writing skills, rhetorical devices, and plot development (see Steven Pressfield’s ongoing series on writing skills) all help the writer identify what they want to communicate and the best ways in which to communicate his ideas to the selected audience. I’d be interested to hear others who do write professionally on how they move from the Rhetorical Triangle III to a finished work that resonates with their readers.

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