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Joining Forces; or, The Softer Side of War

April 13, 2011
Military strikes against el-Qaddafi and Donald Trump’s bid for presidency aren’t the only things getting launched (however tentatively) these days. Lately, everyone at the White House has been on a military roll, from the President’s ongoing speeches about Libya (March 18, March 19, and March 28) to Mrs. Obama’s remarks at the Military Child of the Year Award last Thursday. 

Yesterday Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched Joining Forces, a new initiative to “support and honor America’s service members and their families.” So what’s the rhetorical impact of all these warm fuzzies for the military when we’ve just gone into Libya and might be heading into Syria, per White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s recent goof? Do they negate the continuing criticisms of Obama for signing the US of A up for some air strikes over Libya?

Whether it’s on a yellow, camo, or red-white-and-blue ribbon or on a bumper sticker with the punchline “End the War,” the basic sentiment of “Support the Troops” has been the one thing that American politicians have agreed on since 2001. By making a new initiative out of a well-established sentiment, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden are making a very safe acknowledgement of the United States’s ongoing military interventions around the globe without addressing whether or not those interventions are necessary, smart, or Any Kind of a Good Thing. They’re also giving Mrs. Obama’s husband a chance for some positive military-related press, which has been rather hard to come by. In other words, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden are showcasing the softer side of war.

In the three-minute video on the Joining Forces initiative’s home page, Mrs. Obama says to a group of service members and their family members:

Your families represent the best of this country. We say that all the time, in all our speeches, because as we’ve met you, met your kids, your extended families, you guys are, you know, doing what every American should do. And if we could spread a little bit of that to the rest of us, we’d be into something here.

Elsewhere in the video, various service members and their family members talk about the sacrifices that come with deployments, but the upbeat soundtrack playing in the background slightly obscures this point.

So the First and Second Ladies’ call for support for military families ignores the reason that support is needed (Mr. Obama or el-Qaddafi, depending on who you consider the root cause). The only problem that the home page video addresses is getting every American actively involved in supporting military families and, by extension, members of the military.

Mrs. Obama: We know that the country cares, but we need to make the connection between those feelings and connect them to the families so they feel that support.

Dr. Biden: So it’s not just a conversation, it’s a call to action, to say hey, support a military family, and I think that’s what Joining Forces is all about.

And really, this makes sense, because those serving in the military don’t make the decisions to go into Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya. Heck, even the current President didn’t make the decision on the first two. Technically, the UN made the decision on the last one.

But this reminds me of Lloyd Bitzer’s point in his essay “The Rhetorical Situation” (1968) that “rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action.” Redefining the problem—as the First and Second Ladies do here in emphasizing the needs of service members and their families instead of the military conflicts requiring service members—certainly qualifies as altering reality. Although a family-friendly initiative may seem like a quintessentially First Lady type of project, President Obama spoke at the initiative’s launch and reaps a halo effect in the process. This isn’t “ObamaCare.” It’s “Obama cares! A lot! About the military and their families!”

Military families deserve their fellow Americans’ gratitude and support, and you should check out the initiative’s Get Involved page. But the launch of Joining Forces can be both a good idea and good-PR-by-association for the President. These are warm fuzzies we can believe in because we already believe in them. Mrs. Obama may call Joining Forces a “unique platform,” but its uniqueness lies in taking action, not in having the idea. Let’s hope that we do support the troops and don’t forget the harder side of war. That goes for the President as well as those of us on the homefront.

If you want to know more:

  • You can watch the video for all of the epideictic rhetoric on the Joining Forces launch at the White House: Shirley Brooks, founder of Delaware Boots on the Ground; Joe Biden, Vice President; Jill Biden, Second Lady; Michelle Obama, First Lady; and Barack Obama, President.
  • Wondering if your invitation to the Joining Forces program at the White House got lost in the mail? Check the expected attendees list.
  • I’d like to thank Sears for inspiring the title of this blog post. For full legal disclaimer, I received no financial gain for riffing on their commercials from the mid-1990s… but I did get the commercial jingle stuck in my head for a while.

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