Week 4 Readings: American War Ideologies

This week’s readings were all about ideologies—how they are formed, enacted, and challenged—in relation to the United States’ engagement in various wars and conflicts. From these readings, it is clear that war powers in the United States draw much of their strength from the manipulation and propagation of specific dominant ideologies that hinder a more democratic approach to engaging in conflicts.


To understand the term “ideology” and how it factors into American conflicts, we must first examine the basic philosophy of the term that Althusser identifies. Central to Althusser’s argument is the notion that ideologies have “a material existence,” and that they “always exist in an apparatus” that is constitutive of the subjects who follow it (318-319). According to Althusser, an ideology is dependent upon the notion that a subject or follower can freely choose to subscribe to this ideology, and, to show that they do so, they perform in ways that reflect this ideology. Here is an additional explanation of how such an apparatus maintains the status quo in a society that enacts it. After working through Althusser before proceeding with the other readings, I found that Althusser’s theoretical stance provided an extra foundational layer of analysis for the rest of the weeks readings. In particular, I found it helpful to keep Althusser’s attention to material action in the “apparatus” in mind.


This theoretical background supplemented my understanding of Ivie’s chapter, which addresses the possibility of regaining American conscience and consciousness in wartime. The Atlantic has an interesting article by Dominic Tierny, which addresses American ideologies (it also propagates one: liberalism). This liberalism that Tierny extols, however, could be labeled as one of the “hardened public pieties etched deeply into sacred patriotic stone” that Ivie lists (204).


Biesecker’s article on the WWII Memorial on the National Mall broadens this week’s attention to American ideologies and conflicts by addressing the public and popular memory involved in commemorating wars, as well as how this memory can be manipulated to shape national ideologies. She discusses how the monument, as well as other commemorative and rhetorical texts like Saving Private Ryan, serve to “position” its American audience in an indentificatory way, one which serves to “cultivate a sense of oneness” (399). To Biesecker, popular and public texts like serve as “pedagogy for citizenship” that provide “conventional wisdom” (401, 403). I find it interesting that Biesecker brings the concept of the “Good War” into her analysis through addressing elements of World War II in popular and public culture; however, I also found her choice to discuss Saving Private Ryan to challenge some of the “Clean War” tactics that we have learned about in class. For example, she briefly describes some of the carnage that is recreated in the first few minutes of the film. How does deliberately showing this violence create identification among audience members, when in “clean war” violence creates distance and disgust?


Chris Hayes and Mike Dawson also address this era of World War II ideological memorabilia by explaining how the 90s—a relatively prosperous period in which the US faced few external threats after the fall of the Soviet Union—created and drew attention to a “vacuum” of heroism and epic patriotism, one which people in the U.S. became desperate to fill. Out of such imagery rose the “cult of the soldier,” which conservative media propagated. This ideology and the premises that comprised it (“if you’re not with me, then you’re against the troops) necessitated the kind of material action that Althusser describes.


Through these readings, we have a greater understanding of how the ideological “apparatus” of the War on Terror has acted on American society. How is the “cult of the solider” challenged, supported, or questioned in our news or popular media? What are the responses to this? What other sites/texts can you identify that serve as a “pedagogy for citizenship,” and what is their ideological apparatus?





8 thoughts on “Week 4 Readings: American War Ideologies

  • February 11, 2018 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks for your comments on this week’s readings. Though I don’t think I’ve completely wrapped my head around Althusser’s notion of ideology and the state apparatuses, I do think that Althusser’s claim that ideologies have a “material existence” can be seen in the concepts of patriotism and militarism (thinking specifically to displays of our flag or slogans about supporting or standing with the military). Althusser’s suggestion that ideology is performative reminds me of our discussion about the acts of displaying bumper stickers that read “support the troops”, having military personnel present at sporting events, or watching and sharing videos of surprise military homecomings. These acts are performative and reflect the ideology that part of being patriotic is supporting and making connections with the military. This connects well with your comment about the “cult of the soldier,” which conveyed the message and ideology of “if you’e not with me, then you’re against the troops” and demonstrates how an apparatus maintains a status quo. By having the present ideology that to be patriotic is to support and align one’s self with the military, it seems un-patriotic and un-American to display one’s patriotism in other ways. Thinking back to Hamilton’s article about how patriotism has been conflated with the ideology of militarism and solely “love of country”, it is interesting to think about how Althusser’s work might further explain why it does seem as obvious or easy to describe patriotism in the sense of “love of principle”.

    • February 13, 2018 at 9:45 pm

      I think it is interesting that you bring Althusser’s reading back to Hamilton’s points. It seems that “love of country” is an easy ideology to perform, at least from a dominant cultural and political perspective (bumper stickers, other rhetorical acts of support for the military), but a greater “love of principal” might be harder to perform. I feel like this is because American “principles” are so contested, especially in a divided era, whereas support for the military and the “cult of the solider” seems to be more widely accepted.

  • February 11, 2018 at 11:21 pm


    I enjoyed your overview of this week’s readings. First, I also believe that war powers in the U.S. gain strength through the manipulation of dominant ideologies that consequently hinders democracy. I believe presidential rhetoric is constructed to play into Americas dominant nationalistic ideology that consequently promotes war and pride. Second, I do have to agree with Katie, that Althusser’s essay was something that took me longer to get a hold of. From what I gathered through the reading, Althusser constructs is theory of ideology as contingent upon the individuals who believe in that practice, perform actions that reflect their practice, and conglomerate based on their practice. I found that the video you posted gave extra clarification to Althusser ‘s philosophy that I was unable to grasp from just reading the article.
    The “If you’re not with me, you’re against the troops” article you posted reminds me of the material existence of American nationalism that calls for subjects to perform in such ways that tap into the heroism and “epic patriotism” expressed by Hayes and Dawson. We talked about nationalism, in class, as an identity, a supreme form of superiority that asks us to think about our identity as a member of a country. In the article you posted, President Bush transcends domestic nationality and calls upon other nations to adopt this nationalistic ideology to support the U.S. and protect themselves. I found this to be an interesting use of an ideological apparatus because it goes beyond identification with one nation and turns into a separate and different ideology.

  • February 12, 2018 at 8:14 pm

    Thanks for your summary of this week’s readings. I think you raise some really interesting points to consider. I wanted to focus on Ivie’s chapter, Making War Difficult, for my response because I found many of the ideas discussed in this chapter relate directly to many of the conversations we’ve been having in class the last two weeks. Ivie talks about the habitual aspect of war, how various propaganda techniques have made war “easy,” and how citizens have a role in being active to accept or dispute war. Towards the end of the chapter, Ivie says, “Even if the US were to declare victory in Iraq and call an end to the war on terror… the dehumanizing mentality of militarism must also change in order to transcend the ‘standing state of war’ that ‘encourages fear’ and a tendency to ‘overreact.’” I think this quote is particularly interesting because it refers to the mindset of American people that we have regularly addressed, that is rooted in a sense of fear towards terrorism and war. Ivie suggests here that even if the war on terror were to end, there would still be this looming sense of fear and uncertainty due to the mentality of militarism that exists today. I personally don’t think that mentality will change, and even if the war on terror where to end, I would imagine other extremist groups to emerge in the future preying on that same mindset. Back to Vishy’s point from my blog post last week, this war is one that may never end, mainly due to this concept of fear.

  • February 13, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Emily, I appreciate your breakdown of the theoretical underpinnings of the reading and then your concise application of that theory to the other articles. I definitely agree with you and Alex that these dominant ideologies are designed to hinder democratic opinion and garner support for future conflict. I think it is interesting that in the modern era we praise the clean war ideology but simultaneously glorify the hand to hand dirty conflicts of WWII. I suppose that the clean war ideology can operate with dirty means if the cause (killing the nazis) is good enough to justify it. The most recent Call of Duty WWII game is a great example of American fascination with the dirty war of the past. I see these games serving a serious role in the normalization of war, and as Ivie stated a “lubrication of the machinery of war”. Grenades and bayonets are frequently used to kill other players and I have yet to see a game where drone strikes are the primary method of killing. I think one of the greatest problems we as rhetorical scholars and theorists face is finding ways to reduce this normalization of, and fascination with, war. The problem with this effort, unfortunately, is that the dominant ideologies are the most attractive. The “cult of the soldier” is inherently more appealing and marketable than the “cult of the intellectual” or the “cult of the pacifist” will ever be. Until we can find ways to rhetorically alter this reality, these dominant ideologies will likely go unchallenged in a meaningful way.

  • February 13, 2018 at 5:08 pm

    Well done, Emily. Your summaries really get at the main points of these articles, and I particularly appreciate your focus on Althusser’s theory of Ideology. Reading Althusser’s notes reminded me of how complex his theories really are, especially in the specifics of how dominant Ideologies interpellate individuals as subjects. The video that you included does a good job of explaining the difference between Althusser’s conceptions of Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses. The latter seems to be the more important for our discussion, as the characteristics of an Ideological State Apparatus seem to primarily take the form of the news and media outlets like the ones described in the Biesecker and Hayes readings. The Hayes piece stood out to me specifically, as the authors do a good job of describing the ways in which popular culture in the late 90s set the stage for another overarching military conflict such as the War on Terror. Hayes’ description of ‘the Good War’ seems spot on in its depiction of how the dominant ideology in the U.S. is oriented towards wholeheartedly supporting a unified war effort and repressing dissent.

  • February 13, 2018 at 9:30 pm

    Emily, I think you did a great job of bringing out the major points of the readings and I find it especially interesting that this week expands our perspective to the American view of war as a whole. Bringing it back to the topic of our class, through the Saving Private Ryan example, I find an interesting comparison between the view of WWII, Vietnam, and the modern War on Terror. While right-wing rhetoric seems to make an attempt to paint the War on Terror as a clear-cut battle of good vs. evil similar to WWII, many aspects of it, such as our presence and continued involvement in many of the Middle Eastern nations, draw similarities to the questions that surrounded the Vietnam War.

    On another train of thought, I find this notion of the “cult of the soldier” very interesting as it appeals to much of society. Collin mentioned the concept of the “cult of the pacifist” that would never be able to successfully rival the cult of soldier which made me think of the movie Hacksaw Ridge. Centered in WWII, the movie tells the true story of a pacifist who enlisted and refused to carry a weapon due to religious reasons, but nonetheless won the Medal of Honor for his heroic acts a battlefield medic. It is interesting to me how this movie was so successful and popular while embracing the two opposing ideologies of pacifism and the glorification of war.

    • February 15, 2018 at 11:41 am

      Thank you for pointing out several important things here Brendan. In class Wednesday we talked about the possibility of challenging and changing dominant ideologies like the “cult of the solider.” It seems that your mention of Hacksaw Ridge, which you say “embraces the two opposing ideologies of pacifism and the glorification of war,” could be a small way to challenge prevailing war ideologies.

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