What's in a Number?: The Rhetoric of Numbers During Wartime

Open Access
Stec, Frank Joseph
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 16, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Jeremy Engels, Dissertation Advisor
  • James Hogan, Committee Member
  • Stephen Howard Browne, Committee Member
  • Matt Jordan, Committee Member
  • rhetoric
  • war rhetoric
  • biopower
  • counting
  • numbers
This dissertation investigates the rhetorical use of numbers in the public discourse of war. Following the history of American wars beginning with the Civil War and proceeding through the current War on Terror, numbers are used but rarely investigated for their rhetorical potential. As an inventional resource, rhetors can use numbers to limit deliberation or discussion of an issue, or rhetors can use numbers in order to open a space for greater democratic deliberation. The rhetorical use of numbers in pro- and antiwar rhetorics is worth examining in depth and it is important to put these divergent uses of numbers to support or challenge war in conversation because by doing so, we see a contrast in motives. This dissertation accounts for three different motives associated with the use of numbers in war rhetoric: commemoration, control, and deliberation. The three motives operate simultaneously and are not taken to be mutually exclusive. To uncover these motives, I first offer a genealogy of numbers in war rhetoric, beginning with the Civil War and moving through the 20th century. Next, I explore how numbers are marshaled in contemporary anti- and pro-war rhetorics in the War on Terror. Within the War on Terror discussion, I offer an apparatus for judging the use of numbers in war rhetoric, focusing on three criteria: accuracy, transparency, and magnitude. With the criteria in mind, it is easier for the public to broach discussion, and create a space to challenge the rhetorical use of numbers and engage in a discussion of the ethical and financial costs of war.