Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.11.32

Keith Yellin, Battle Exhortation: The Rhetoric of Combat Leadership. Studies in Rhetoric/Communication.   Columbia, S.C.:  University of South Carolina Press, 2008.  Pp. x, 191.  ISBN 9781570037351.  $34.95.  

Reviewed by Gregory S. Aldrete, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (
Word count: 2476 words

This installment in the Studies in Rhetoric/Communication series by the University of South Carolina Press is a study of the speeches that commanders have given to their troops on the eve of battle. In what is a very short book, Keith Yellin ambitiously attempts to analyze pre-battle orations across a vast span of time, cultures, and contexts, ranging from 5th century B.C. Greek hoplites to near-contemporary examples of American officers in Iraq. The source materials that he draws upon are similarly diverse, and include firmly historically documented exhortations such as the printed D-Day message distributed by Eisenhower to the invasion troops, fictional speeches in works of literature such as Henry V's speeches in Shakespeare, and even satiric ones such as that delivered by Bill Murray to a group of recruits in the comedic film Stripes. Yellin's book is a welcome addition to the fields of military history and rhetoric in that it laudably calls attention to a potentially rich subject that, as Yellin notes, has been underexplored by scholars in these fields. The book makes some useful observations, but the generally uncritical nature of Yellin's use of the primary sources at times undercuts the reliability of his conclusions. Coupled with the sometimes superficial level of analysis (dictated by the wide-ranging scope of his inquiry combined with the brevity of the book), this results in a work that is predominantly more of a suggestion of directions for future inquiry than a definitive study of the topic.

The book is organized into four chapters, the first three of which examine general aspects of pre-battle oration while the fourth focuses more narrowly on American military exhortations over the last half-decade.

Chapter One, "Bracing for Combat," asserts that the habit of commanders attempting to inspire their troops prior to combat is a universal and timeless phenomenon. This argument is made by citing scattered examples of such orations, including, from the pre-modern period, Moses to the Hebrews in the Old Testament, Agamemnon to the Greeks in the Iliad, Caesar to his legionaries in de Bello Gallico, Cortes to the conquistadors in Bernal Diaz de Castillo's account, and Elizabeth I's Tilbury speech before the Spanish Armada. While the basic point that officers often address the troops before battle is likely true, it might have been more compelling if so many of the examples employed had not been fictitious or of dubious accuracy. This chapter next very briefly surveys the treatment of this topic by rhetoricians and military theorists from Quintilian and Vegetius to the present, and emphasizes that while the subject of morale has drawn considerable attention, this specific context has been relatively neglected. Yellin cites a useful typology of rhetorical appeals identified by the 17th century military theorist Raimondo Montecuccoli ranging from "Our cause is just" to "Death ends all suffering."

The chapter ends with a case study of a "defining exemplar" which illustrates various types of battle exhortation, the battle of Mantinea as described by Thucydides. Not content with Thucydides, however, Yellin includes a lengthy imaginative reconstruction of what a hypothetical "Spartan regimental commander" might have said and done to rally his troops at various points as the battle unfolded. This example is used to illustrate that there are various types of exhortation that may occur before and during a battle, including not just verbal encouragement from the top down, but horizontally among the men themselves. While the individual points derived from this case study may be valid, a methodology which relies on an imaginative recreation and a historical account of questionable accuracy is problematic. Yellin does admit that there are serious questions about the historical reliability of the pre-battle speeches described by ancient authors such as Thucydides, but asserts that the accuracy of any given speech is irrelevant because the generals would have been familiar with a standard set of rhetorical tropes for battle orations from their own study of earlier authors and so would have crafted their own actual pre-battle speeches to resemble the (probably) fictitious ones that they had read. While it is certainly true that there were most likely similarities among and repeated imagery in ancient battle speeches, this circular argument is not very reassuring if one desires to know what a particular general said on a specific occasion. After a brief discussion of this issue, Yellin rather cavalierly dismisses any doubts about the reliability of these accounts with the assertion "because historical narratives have often proven trustworthy, we should be slow to dismiss historical speeches out of hand." (p.22) Even in rhetorical terms, this is a rather weak argument, but it is all we get in the way of source criticism.

Chapter Two, "Indoctrination," focuses on four examples of battle exhortation: the famous admonition of a Spartan mother to her son to return "with your shield or on it" recorded by Plutarch, Henry V's Harfleur and Agincourt orations in Shakespeare, George C. Scott's rendition of Patton's address to his troops in the movie Patton, and Bill Murray's speech to a group of unpromising recruits in Stripes. Yellin argues that these examples both further illustrate the standard tropes of battle oration and demonstrate that the audience for such speeches includes not only soldiers but society in general. He asserts that battle speeches are such a widely-known phenomenon that the general public has been socialized to immediately recognize this form of discourse and to be familiar with its conventions. At least for modern American society, this conclusion seems sound if unremarkable. As the author himself briefly notes, however, the form and substance of these sorts of rhetorical appeals are probably most familiar to a modern American audience from the context of competitive team sports, where the coach's pre-game speech and the rituals of team bonding are widely known both from personal experience and innumerable depictions in the media.

Chapter Three, "Tensions," which investigates a set of factors that must be successfully mediated in order to produce the most effective battlefield exhortation, contains some of the more subtle and interesting ideas of the book. For instance, Yellin considers how an officer must walk a fine line between appearing too aloof from the troops he commands and being overly familiar with them. Using a variety of historical examples, Yellin illustrates how where an officer falls on this spectrum can greatly affect the manner in which the soldiers respond to his rhetorical appeals and whether these exhortations succeed or fail. Similarly, using Julius Caesar as an exemplar, he analyzes the tension that commanders must negotiate between driving the troops hard and judiciously indulging them, and how this relationship influences when inspirational appeals are made and what form they take. Other tensions examined include mediating the level of violence of soldiers and appeals which manipulate the concept of one's reputation. Overall this is one of the best parts of the book, largely because it focuses on a few specific topics and explores them thoroughly.

The final chapter, "Evolutions," somewhat misleadingly promises to analyze the effects of "environment and audience" on battle exhortation. By "environment," however, Yellin does not mean the physical setting, but rather the psychological situation. Similarly by "audience," he is referring more to the mental state and attitudes of the soldiers than to truly disparate groups of people. In this chapter, he limits his examples to the United States military from W.W. II to the present. As a study of changes within the American armed forces over the last several decades and how these have affected the sort of appeals that officers can make of their men, this is an effective and interesting chapter. By restricting his focus to a specific military over a short time period, Yellin achieves a depth of analysis and degree of conviction in this chapter that are lacking in some of the earlier ones. Yellin is himself a former U.S. Marine Corps captain and is clearly on his home ground in this chapter. Unlike in the first two chapters, Yellin here also makes use of examples of failed as well as successful battle exhortations, and, as is often the case, the negative examples are more revealing than the positive ones. This chapter does the best job of flipping around the discourse and examining the reception of battle oration among those whom are its target. Such an analysis is no doubt easier to provide in this section because its contemporary focus means that the soldiers' reactions can be more readily obtained, but at least some attention given to the reception that the speeches cited in the first two chapters received among their audiences would have been welcome.

One major issue that is almost entirely ignored but that would have been fundamental to the effectiveness of battle exhortation is how physical, environmental factors would have played a significant role in dictating how, or even if, a commander could indulge in the sort of battle exhortation that this book studies. For a great many of the examples given, there are serious practical questions as to how many of the troops at any given oration could actually have heard the general's inspiring words. Over the last few decades, John Keegan's "face of battle" concept has enjoyed considerable popularity among military historians, with its call for an emphasis on the experience of the average soldier and on how physical, environmental, and psychological factors affect the outcomes of battles. Yellin makes a single stray reference to Keegan concerning his comments on commanders' speeches, but the book would benefit from applying a Keeganesque analysis to pre-battle orations.

Certainly movies set in the ancient, medieval, and pre-modern worlds have accustomed us to the scene of a heroic commander firing up the assembled troops with a rousing oration, and on the surface, many primary source accounts appear to support this impression. There is no doubt that it is an appealing image, but it may well represent more of an idealized fantasy than a practical reality. Consider an ancient army of 20,000 or more soldiers gathered together to hear their general's speech. Assuming that the men were not muttering among themselves, could even the most quietly attentive hoplite or legionary situated somewhere in the middle of these massed ranks have really heard anything but intermittent snatches of his general's words over the incessant background noise of the clinking and jangling of the men's armor and weapons as they shifted uncomfortably in their full battle equipment, the stamping and snorting of hundreds or thousands of nervous horses, the flapping and cracking of banners and flags overhead, and any ambient sounds produced by the environment or the weather such as wind, rain, rustling leaves, running water, waves breaking, and so on? Finally, how many of his men could the general reach with his unamplified voice? The usual limit on projecting coherent complex speech with the human voice is around 100 yards in the direction in which a speaker is facing. Even in an ideal situation with no wind, what percentage of the notional 20,000 soldiers could have been within the range of their general's voice? Of course the general might have delivered multiple versions of his speech to different segments of his army and summaries of his words might have been passed from man to man or throughout the army by the officers, but the popular image of the ancient general exciting his troops with his words just before yelling "charge" and rushing forward is simply not practicable. Although Yellin several times mentions environmental constraints on battle orations, he never properly discusses them, and throughout the book seems to assume that the soldiers in the pre-modern examples that he discusses all really heard their commander's carefully composed words.

Another criticism, which is really an issue of semantics, is that while the book claims to be a study of a universal phenomenon and includes a great many generalizing statements about soldiers, commanders, and their attitudes toward combat, the book in reality more narrowly focuses on the western military tradition and a set of attitudes and assumptions shared by civilizations within the western cultural tradition. Other than a brief reference to Zulus dancing and chanting and one quotation from a native American serving with Custer's scouts, the examples are all drawn from armies and situations within the history of western civilization. As a study of battle oration specifically within the western tradition, the book is fine, but if the book intends to make a more universal argument (as it seems to claim), Yellin needs to draw upon a broader range of texts and examples including non-western militaries and battles. Such an analysis incorporating, for example, speeches given to Japanese samurai drawing upon the Bushido code, or the words of Native American military leaders might provide interesting contrasts with and/or supplements to the list of possible motivational appeals that Yellin discusses.

I am reviewing this book for an audience of classicists, and there are a few issues that are probably of more concern to this group than for other readers at whom this book is targeted. The fairly uncritical use of ancient primary sources and the casual acceptance of ancient pre-battle speeches as being representative of what was actually said on those occasions have already been mentioned. Admittedly there is no way around this gap in the sources, but there should be more recognition that an exhortation that Julius Caesar gave to his legionaries before a battle would not have been the same as the version of that speech which he wrote down much later for dissemination to a completely different audience for totally distinct rhetorical purposes. Also, in a few instances, the translations from ancient texts contain some unfortunate word choices. For example, there are repeated mentions of ancient Greek "knights," which surely conjures up misleading mental images of heavily armored medieval horsemen to a general audience unfamiliar with ancient Greek warfare. Similarly, there are numerous references to Spartan hoplites finding inspiration by hearing, above the roar of battle, the distant, reassuring sound of "the pipes." This inevitably evokes images of bagpipes rather than flutes, an impression which is not helped by immediately following this passage with an account of a W.W. I Scots Fusilier whose disintegrating unit rallied when they likewise heard the sound of "the pipes."

Yellin's book offers the generalization that in many cultures across a long span of time verbal exhortation has been a standard aspect of preparing soldiers for battle, and for encouraging them once engaged in combat. While the book emphasizes such broad similarities, conversely, its most enlightening insights are often made when it observes specific differences in rhetorical discourse that take place within a narrower context, as in the last chapter. Its most important contribution is to draw deserved attention to battle exhortation as a historically and culturally significant form of communication that has been relatively neglected by military historians and that has often been marginalized within the study of rhetoric.

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