TEXT AND CONTEXT IN "THIS IS THE ARMY"
Jim Kimble, Ph.D
George Mason University
This paper offers a rhetorical examination of the 1979 U.S. Army recruitment advertisement, "This is the Army." Using Bitzer's (1968) analysis of the rhetorical situation as a starting point, the paper first examines the artifact's contraints, then its message, and finally how the message works to overcome its constraints. The paper concludes by reviewing three implications of the analysis.
Text and Context in "This is the Army"
The stories that emerged from the chaos of Operation Desert Storm were not always the glorious exploits described by military lore and expected by the unknowing soldier. Often, the stories painted a different picture of combat: soldiers go hungry, grow bored, are lonely, train for violence, fear for their lives, and, sometimes, kill other humans.
However, Desert Storm's fighting men and women were not conscripted into combat--they volunteered. Indeed, since 1973 the U.S. military has been an all-volunteer force, hoping for peace but training for war.
The unlikely juxtaposition of "war" and "volunteer" should be of special interest to rhetorical critics. Rhetoric is, after all, clearly an element of what one U.S. Army recruiter calls the "selling environment" ("Tips...for increased effectiveness," 1981, p. 7). But how do young men and women become attracted to an occupation that might expose them to deadly enemy force? In this essay I attempt to provide a partial response to this question by focusing on the rhetorical strategies the U.S. Army employs in its "This is the Army" magazine advertisement, first used in 1979.
My analysis emerges from the assumption that any rhetor's text overtly reveals as much as it covertly conceals. That is, each text is a fragment arising from a milieu of ideas, beliefs, and previous messages contained within the rhetor, the audience, and the situation itself (Hart, 1990, p. 84). Although the rhetor usually intends the audience to attend only to his or her literal message, critics can and should examine any concealed messages by paying careful attention to the contextual implications of the fragment which are unavoidably left imprinted in the text (McGee, 1990, p. 284). This rhetorical analysis, then, focuses not only the literal text of "This is the Army," but also on the information supplied by the rhetorical situation in which the advertisement was located.
I hold four perspectives in analyzing the advertisement's text and context, all suggested by Hart (1990). Aside from examining a text's rhetorical situation (chap. 3), Hart suggests that one can analyze a rhetorical artifact through its ideas (chap. 4), arguments (chap. 5), and the role of the rhetor (chap. 9). Although I do not overtly address these perspectives in my analysis, they shape the format of the essay and serve as the undergirding context for my arguments. Thus, in the remainder of this essay I shall suggest answers to three questions about "This is the Army." First, what factors constrain the advertisement's rhetoric? Second, what message lies in the advertisement? Finally, how does the advertisement's message work to overcome its rhetorical constraints? I conclude by contending that while the artifact's rhetorical approach is successful, its implications deserve closer inspection by those involved in the recruiting process.
Bitzer (1968) argues that any example of rhetoric faces constraints--situational burdens which necessarily affect the content and shape of the rhetor's message (p. 8). Hart (1990) describes constraints in terms of the "persuasive field," which consists of "ghosts of other messages . . . . impinging upon an audience in a given speech situation" (pp. 80, 79). "This is the Army" faces severe rhetorical constraints, each emerging from the persuasive field and thus contextual.
Specifically, four contextual constraints limit the advertisement's rhetorical options. First, a major hurdle facing any recruitment advertisement is that it is difficult to convince the target audience that the ad is an innocuous pitch for a disposable product. Rather, prospective enlistees know that to buy the Army's product is to make a commitment to three years or more in an organization based on obedience to hierarchical, imposing structure. In short, buying the Army's product can minimally be understood by the entering recruit as a semi-permanent change of lifestyle. That constraint merges with a second, the military's image to civilians as a self-imposed institutional form of tyranny. The text itself describes possible audience impressions of military life as including "long marches," "push-ups," and Drill Sergeants. Later, the text acknowledges that "a lot of young people have the impression that an Army enlistment is three years of advanced `P.T.' [physical training]." The target audience's feelings of the military, moreover, encompass a third contextual constraint--the possibility of war. Although the training supported in the advertisement is sold for "skills," and for "gaining experience and proficiency" that the soldier can take after leaving the Army, it is in reality useful in the Army only as a means to the end of combat. After all, "an Army," states General Colin Powell, "exists fundamentally to fight" (Duke, 1990, p. A30). Finally, a related contextual constraint on "This is the Army" is less a "ghost" of past messages than a specter--the Vietnam War. Youth of recruitment age when this ad appeared remembered the war well; many had parents or siblings sent away to fight. The possibility of voluntarily joining an organization that was still suffering from public disapproval over the war likely combined with and reified the other constraints.
In sum, the advertisement's Army rhetors had to face and adapt to their target audience's perceptions of the Army as a binding commitment, as an undesirable option, and as potentially leading into combat. Further, each of these perceptions heightened in the face of fresh memories of the Vietnam War. The constraints of "This is the Army," then, seem insurmountable. At the very least, the burdens of the institutional rhetor seem to limit the message by constricting the available rhetorical choices. The question thus becomes--what message lies in the text?
Formulating the Message
To formulate the message of "This is the Army," I first focus on what the message is not. Initially, it seems clear that the advertisement is not a call for commitment on the part of the recruit. The only mention of commitment ("your three years") is marginalized in a sentence describing "skill, gaining experience and proficiency" and an emphasis on using these skills after leaving the Army. Neither does the advertisement make the easier pitch for buying the Army as a product. "If you enlist" appears twice, both times conditionally and in sentences emphasizing positive aspects of the Army. Even the ultimate focus of the text, "Join the people who've joined the Army," hints only at becoming a member of a nice group of similar people.
But if the text does not ask for commitment or purchase, what does it do? First, it mentions a few concerns of potential enlistees. The initial section tells readers that they've "heard about the Army. The push-ups. The long marches through short summers. The cool-eyed Sergeant who never stops watching you. You've heard it--and most of it is true." Later, the text mentions the concern about three years of advanced P.T., then mimics a potential recruit: "How much of Europe can I see marching if I can't turn my head?" One focus of the text, then, is to attempt to acknowledge isolated concerns of the recruit.
The bulk of the text, however, works to address these concerns by attempting to build a better image of the Army; in the text's words, "we'd like to tell you ourselves what we're all about." The six major headings of the advertisement list the specific characteristics of the new image that the rhetors want the audience to know about: skills, travel, education, free time, pay and benefits, and people. Each subsection details its heading. Under "Free Time," for instance, the text describes "places to play some music, or ride a dirt bike." Under "Skills," the audience learns about "hundreds" of Army skills--"everything from Bridge Building to X-Ray techniques." And under "Pay and Benefits," the advertisement describes qualities in Army soldiers "that can't be measured": "Increased responsibility. Guaranteed maturity. Learning how to work with, and respond to, other people."
This emphasis on image hints that the advertisement is making a saccharine pitch. Indeed, the only call for definite action in the text is a half-hearted suggestion: "for more information, contact your local Army Representative." McGee (1990) argues that rhetorical texts appeal to us on one or more points of a progressive ladder, persuading us first of their salience, second about our attitudes, third about our beliefs, and finally about our actions (pp. 281-282). "This is the Army" progresses only to belief; it is not a call for action. Instead, I contend that the advertisement focuses on McGee's third stage of belief, becoming an exercise in image-formation, or re-formation.
The message therefore seems clear. The title itself reveals the most important clue: "This is the Army." Essentially, this text's message is one of image rebuttal, with this thesis: "Unlike what you've heard, this is the Army: a positive, beneficial, human place."
Negotiating the Constraints
With my analysis of the constraints and message of the recruitment advertisement in place, it is now appropriate to ask the most interesting question: how does the message overcome its constraints? To the extent that "This is the Army" does overcome its constraints, I suggest that it works in three ways: through omission, assertion, and apparent rebuttal.
Initially, it seems clear given the constraints above that the advertisement simply omits discussion of topics that might destroy the image it is working to create. For example, enlisting in the Army is a commitment--to time, to work, to training--and it is not always pleasant. But "your three years" is the only discussion of commitment found in the text. Thus, the ad discusses the benefits of enlistment without mentioning the costs. Similarly, combat and the possibility of war do not appear in the ad. Yet the skills in which all Army soldiers train include the use of rifles, grenades, and other weapons--in other words, every Army enlistee trains to fight in combat. The advertisement, however, fails to indicate this possibility; even the pictures surrounding the text show soldiers smiling, jogging, and talking to relatives. Finally, there is no mention of Vietnam in the text. Obviously, it would be an odd strategy for the rhetors to mention such a negative (and relatively recent) emotional issue when they are re-framing the topic, but the obvious nature of the omission makes even clearer its strategic nature.
The advertisement also uses assertion to overcome its constraints. The text contains no verifiable sources. Indeed, if the advertisement were to use the testimony of already-active soldiers, it would likely fail miserably (Shyles & Hocking, 1990). The data which supports the advertisement's claims, then, are mere assertions. The single instance of testimony, for instance (the recruit's question about turning his head in Europe), is fictional. Other means of support consist of two isolated comparisons ("an Army post is like a city" and "there's no hardware to replace the human heart, no computer to out-think the mind"), two quantifications ("up to 75% of your tuition" and "starting pay is $397.50 per month . . . with a raise to $420 in just four months"), and two serial examples ("you can do a lot with" free time because there are "recreational facilities . . . sports activities . . . teams . . . [and] places to play music, or ride a dirt bike" and the benefits "that can't be measured" series).
The rhetorical value of these assertions may lie in the consequential necessity for credibility appeals. Indeed, the ad contains heavy use of personalized credibility. The text makes use of three credibility components: trustworthiness (it addresses alternative viewpoints), good will (it dramatizes benefits to the audience), and similarity ("we are people")(components from Hart, 1990, pp. 292-293). Alternatively, because assertion eliminates the need for sources with opposing viewpoints, its rhetorical value may be similar to that of omission.
A final strategy in "This is the Army" is the apparent rebuttal. As discussed above, the text mentions isolated concerns about enlistment that recruits might have. Included are references to physical training, a restricted lifestyle, and dictatorial leadership. Most of these references are in the opening paragraph of the text. After mentioning the concerns, the article states that "most of it is true." The next two lines indicate the function of the remaining text: "but there's a lot you never hear. And since the Volunteer Army has become a new fact of American life, we'd like to tell you ourselves what we're all about." The rest of the text, then, serves as a rebuttal (positive images) to the concerns (negative images).
However, the rebuttal is only an apparent one because the negative concerns are largely straw arguments. The first concern, push-ups, is a real concern, but minor. The second concern is about "long marches through short summers." If one were to take the text literally, there is little marching actually taking place given the short marching season. The third concern is about "the cool-eyed Sergeant who never stops watching you." Again, little is said here about what the Sergeant actually does--and with cool-eyes the Sergeant will likely turn out to be another of the Army's just-like-you people. Two other concerns emerge later: "marking time" and being unable to "turn my head" [a reference to standing at attention]. Both are largely innocuous. The worries of the potential recruit, then, are indeed addressed by the advertisement. Upon closer analysis, however, it seems that the concerns are really straw arguments and are more easily disposed of by the rhetor than the more serious concerns that are omitted.
In this essay I have analyzed the constraints and message of the recruitment advertisement "This is the Army," then formulated how the advertisement's message works to overcome its constraints. From the aforementioned analysis and formulation I now conclude with three observations. First, I contend that even though the advertisement was probably ineffective for many in its audience because it failed to overcome--or even to address--most of its contextual constraints, the advertisement was successful for some audience members given its purpose. It is evident that the advertisement was not designed to cause youth to enlist. In fact, an Army advertising executive points out that "advertising can attract, but it cannot recruit" (Hagopian, 1981, p. 7). Instead, this text seems designed to reframe the image of a rebuilding Army. Thus, its purpose was to begin building a positive image in youthful minds that later appeals--perhaps visits from a recruiter to public schools--could build upon. Judging from the Army's relatively consistent maintenance of personnel supply since the early 1980s, one can judge this advertisement and its campaign cohorts to have been successful.
A second observation resulting from this analysis is that the prevalence of image over substance in "This is the Army" is not alien to modern U.S. persuasion. Neil Postman (1985) has documented the decline of oratory in this nation from the height of the Lincoln-Douglas debates to a contemporary reliance on imagery to sell products as well as politicians. The Presidential campaign of 1992 seems a clear example of this trend. A notable result of this analysis, then, is the finding that image does not sell candidates and products only; it can also sell commitment to war.
A final observation of this essay is that role constraints play a significant part in shaping military recruitment advertising. Bitzer's notion of the rhetorical situation (1968) received heavy criticism from other scholars. This analysis, however, shows the great impact of one text's persuasive field on the text itself. It seems clear that the advertisement's omission of damaging images, reliance on assertion, and use of apparent rebuttal are the results of a tightly constraining rhetorical situation. This essay, then, supports at least part of Bitzer's position by presenting a case study of his notion of rhetorical constraints.
In the end, it is important to realize that scholars can study military recruitment rhetoric for reasons that go beyond rhetorical theory. Simply understanding how the rhetoric works can be a valuable applied lesson. The most important reason, however, may lie in our recognition and consequential outrage at recruitment's covert appeal to inner-city youth. As Siegal (1991, p. A31) writes:
I was enraged watching kids [from Manhattan's Lower East Side] buy the targeted siren song of discipline, travel, skills and, of course, the inevitable `training.' Training for what, really, in the end? The recruiters didn't get around to surgical strikes and limited incursions. . . . The Army has always provided an escape for the poor--a place where they got three meals and a bed. But today, given the horrors of the inner city, racism and limited opportunities, it is especially attractive.
- Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 1, 1-14.
- Duke, L. (1990, November 28). Gen. Powell notes military enlistment remains matter of individual choice. The Washington Post, p. A30.
- Hagopian, L. T. (1981, January). How to attract more of the people we want most. All Volunteer, 34(1), pp. 6-7.
- Hart, R. P. (1990). Modern rhetorical criticism. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman/Little.
- McGee, M. C. (1990). Text, context, and the fragmentation of contemporary culture. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 54, 274-289.
- Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Viking Penguin.
- Shyles, L., & Hocking, J. E. (1990). The Army's "Be All You Can Be" campaign. Armed Forces & Society, 16, 369-383.
- Siegel, J. (1991, January 18). What Army ads don't say. The Washington Post, p. A31.
- Tips...for increased effectiveness. (1981, August). All Volunteer, 34(8), p. 7.
Text in Word
George Mason University
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