A Communication Perspective on the Military

Interactions, Messages, and Discourses

by Erin Sahlstein Parcell (Volume editor) Lynne M. Webb (Volume editor)
©2015 Monographs XVI, 448 Pages


A Communication Perspective on the Military brings into focus the challenge of sense-making in the war state. How do military family members talk to one another about the stress of deployment on their lives? How do media – old and new – render the costs of war meaningful? How is the narrative of war rhetorically constructed?
The dynamics of military family transactions, media-military relations, and war rhetoric reveal, reinforce, and may even disrupt U.S. war culture. Offering close analysis and thoughtful critique, this book reflects upon the ways the meaning of war is communicated in private lives, social relations, and public affairs. The collection highlights three broad areas of concern: communication in the military family; the military in the media; and rhetoric surrounding the military. Katheryn Maguire, Roger Stahl, and Gordon Mitchell introduce each section with overarching and integrative literature reviews that offer directions for the field. Each section includes six chapters reporting the latest research and offering suggestions for practical applications. The book is a must-have reference for military and communication scholars and an ideal text for graduate seminars and upper division undergraduate courses focusing on communication and the military.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword: Telling the Stories of the War State
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Research at the Intersections of the Military and Communication: A Preview and Review
  • Section One: Military Families
  • 2. Military Family Communication: A Review and Synthesis of the Research Related to Wartime Deployment
  • 3. Communication of Military Couples During Deployment: Topic Avoidance and Relational Uncertainty
  • 4. Enacting Resistance: Military Parents’ Reports of Successful Communication With Children During Deployment
  • 5. Spirituality, Social Support, and the Communicative Role of the Chaplain in Veteran Populations
  • 6. Military Families Online: Seeking and Providing Support Through Internet Discussion Boards
  • 7. Work-family Predicaments of Air Force Wives: A Sensemaking Perspective
  • 8. Communicating Identity: The Impact of Veterans’ Identity Negotiation on Family Communication
  • Section Two: Media and the Military
  • 9. Media and the Military: The Full Spectrum?
  • 10. The “Experiment” of the Tuskegee Airmen as Reported in Two Competing African-American Newspapers, 1940–1944
  • 11. Reluctant Conquests: Media Events and the End of the Iraq War
  • 12. Nationalism and Soldiers’ Health: Media Framing of Soldiers’ Returns From Deployments
  • 13. Honoring the Dead, Supporting the War: Media Eulogies and the Possibilities of Patriotic Discourse
  • 14. Examining the Content of Milblogs and Their Influence on Public Support for War
  • 15. Always on Duty: Managing U.S. Marines on Social Media
  • Section Three: Rhetoric Surrounding the Military
  • 16. Necessity and Possibility in Military Rhetoric
  • 17. Riding an American Nightmare: Generals Moseley and MacArthur, Men on Horseback
  • 18. Freedom From Fat Is Freedom to Fight: A Foucauldian Reading of Mission: Readiness’ Rhetoric
  • 19. The War of Words Commemorating Canada’s War Dead: Rhetoric and the “Highway of Heroes”
  • 20. Cinematic Simulacra and the Prospect for Public Agency: Constructing the Citizen-Soldier in Post-9/11 War Films
  • 21. Forgetting Histories of Toxic Military Violence: The Case of the Kelly Air Force Base
  • 22. The Myth of the Warrior: Rhetorics of Masculinity and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
  • Author Biographies
  • Index


Foreword: Telling the Stories of the War State


A Communication Perspective on the Military brings into focus the challenge of sense making in the war state. How do military family members talk to one another about the stress of deployment on their lives? How do media − old and new − render the costs of war meaningful? How is the narrative of war rhetorically constructed? The dynamics of military family transactions, media-military relations, and war rhetoric reveal, reinforce, and may even disrupt U.S. war culture. They require close analysis and thoughtful critique. Thus, the present volume reflects upon the ways the meaning of war is communicated in private lives, social relations, and public affairs.

To reflect on the war state as a cultural phenomenon with tangible consequences we must take communication practices into account. Communication and culture are dynamic, not static. Communication constitutes culture by symbolic action, which sustains and transforms the norms and ways of life. War culture, on which the war state depends for its existence, is no exception. The tension between cultural continuity and change is negotiated at the level of communication where meaning is transacted.

If communication consists of messages that construct perspectives and convey meaning in various contexts through multiple channels, culture is the sum of patterns of meaning and ways of thinking and acting that mark the identity of a people and permeate the life of a society − its customs, ideals, attitudes, beliefs, values, institutions, and politics. By extension, war culture is a system of meaning that predisposes the nation to militarism. It celebrates military values and supports a military establishment as the defining ideal of the state.

The war state is a condition of naturalized militarism. Living in a war state is a numbing experience, a condition of collective insensibility to war ← xi | xii → as the defining feature of the larger culture. War delineates the arc of U.S. history. Public memorials of sacrifice are commonplace. Military symbols and values permeate sports, popular film, and everyday politics. Hundreds of U.S. military bases are spread around the globe. The annual military budget is astronomical almost beyond notice or comment. Militarism has become as unexceptional and unremarkable as the air we breathe. It is a totalizing worldview.

Yet, communication is the dynamic on which culture depends for its continuity and transformation. Communication is more than a mere conduit of information and messages. It is a transaction that shapes meaning and delineates perspective. Each transaction is a selective enactment of culture, thus adding to the cultural sum of sense making, patterns of interpretation, and ways of acting.

The significance of viewing the war state through the lens of communication is that it reveals how cultural tensions are negotiated for better or worse. We see in the present volume, for example, people trying to make sense of a domestic life disrupted by deployment to a foreign combat zone. The stress undermines family functioning and requires coping mechanisms (such as topic avoidance, strategies of reassurance and consolation, participating in support groups, and questioning culturally inscribed gender roles) to promote resilience. We see how media efforts to honor fallen soldiers can both support the war narrative and provide material for a counter-narrative. We see how the hyper-masculine identity of the mythic warrior-hero confronts the realities of contemporary warfare, which increasingly demand intellect and cultural understanding. Despite discursive strategies to manipulate nationalism, shape public memory, or glorify warfare, the sense-making mechanisms of the war culture and military life require constant maintenance via communication, which subjects them to reformulation.

A communication perspective complicates the conception of war as a weltanschauung or totalizing view of the world from a single standpoint. While the communication practices of the war state incline toward naturalizing militarism, they also generate resistance when they overreach their substantial, but limited capacity for making sense of the human condition. The experiences of soldiers and their families and the concerns of the citizenry at large simply do not reduce to a war story or military metaphor. As Tim O’Brien observes, generalizing about war makes almost everything true, but “in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true” (2009, p. 78). True war stories do not bog down in abstractions. Contradictions and anomalies are closer to gut realities. “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from ← xii | xiii → doing the things men have always done” (p. 65). And a true war story never ends.

The military presence in our lives is an important story to tell, but − as a communication perspective underscores − it is dynamic and complex in the telling. No smooth narrative will do. The tensions especially are noteworthy for how they remain unresolved and keep the storytelling ongoing.


O’Brien, T. (2009/1990). The things they carried. Boston, MA: Mariner Books. ← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | xv →



This volume is the collective product of many, many individuals. We gratefully acknowledge their contributions to this work.

Erin Sahlstein Parcell
Lynne M. Webb
← xvi | 1 →


1.   Research at the Intersections of the Military and Communication: A Preview and Review


What is a communication perspective on the military? Does it mean looking at interpersonal exchanges between members of military families? Is it a way to examine how the military is presented on television, perhaps during nightly news programming? Or is it an analysis of discourses circulating in the public sphere about what it means to be a hero? All three of these are answers to the initial question, but they do not exhaust the possibilities nor represent the variety of research approaches taken by communication scholars in their examination of the military.

A Communication Perspective on the Military: Interactions, Messages, and Discourses was designed to showcase the communication research on the military by providing a diverse and broad collection of essays united by a consistent focus on the communication process. Indeed, we assembled a collection of research reports focused on the military but representative of the many diverse approaches communication scholars take in examining this compelling object of study. To ensure that the breadth of communication research on the military would be represented in the book, we solicited in-depth research from three primary areas of the discipline—family communication, media studies, and rhetorical studies. Almost three years ago, my co-editor and I identified the need for this book given (a) the increasing number of communication scholars studying intersections of military and communication coupled with (b) a lack of published collections on the topic, broadly defined, and in particular, (c) the potential for uniting research across the communication discipline into one volume. We wanted to produce an intellectual artifact representing the multiple bodies of military scholarship within communication. ← 1 | 2 → We saw the collection’s primary purpose as presenting a range of thinking in the field of communication about the military.

Although edited volumes about military and war have appeared previously within our field (e.g., Jeffords & Rabinovitz, 1994; a collection of media studies scholarship focused on the Gulf War), ours is the first collection to include military research from across the discipline. Our collection also is unique in that the research included does not focus on a particular war or military branch. This volume—diverse in theoretical perspective and methodological endeavors—stands united in its critical focus on language in use, for and about the military, from the perspective that only communication scholars employ—the notion that communication is the most fundamentally human of all endeavors, that people employ talk and engage discourses to shape social realities, to motivate human behavior, and to interpret and construct meaning in their daily lives. Given that the military is an enduring human endeavor, it seemed appropriate to examine the communication surrounding it and to query what insights might emerge from a broad view of the scholarship on communication and the military.

Our field has a long history of military-related scholarship, most notably within rhetorical studies (see Mitchell’s discussion of Isocretes, Chapter 16, this volume), but communication also has a breadth of research on this topic making it one of the larger areas of research within our discipline. I make this claim by casting a wide conceptual net that includes inquiry examining topics such as relevant presidential rhetoric (Turner, 1985), propaganda research (Ghilani, 2012), and militainment (Stahl, 2010) as well as persuasive health messages (Clark-Hitt, Smith, & Broderick, 2012), military spouse communication (Sahlstein, Maguire, & Timmerman, 2009), and reintegration program evaluation (Wilson, Wilkum, Chernichky, MacDermid Wadsworth, & Broniarczyk, 2011). Although scholars have primarily studied communication topics in relation to specific military engagements (e.g., World War II) and the “Cold War” (Medhurst, Ivie, Wander, & Scott, 1997), relatively recent communication scholarship examines amorphous wars, such as the “War on Terror” (Stahl, 2006), as well as “peacekeeping missions” (Edwards, Valenzano, & Stevenson, 2011). Also, “wars” with militaristic tones have been the subject of inquiry (e.g., the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Drugs”). The communication scholarship related to the military grows larger if it includes the historical period when speech therapy was within its disciplinary boundaries (e.g., see Mallory’s 1943 discussion of speech training for military officers published in Quarterly Journal of Speech) or the commentaries on our discipline’s contributions to the nation in a time of war (Hansen, 1942). It is clear that the body of military-related research within the communication ← 2 | 3 → discipline has both depth and breath—it is large and long-standing. Thus, a collection such as A Communication Perspective on the Military: Interactions, Messages, and Discourses is appropriate and perhaps long overdue.

This opening chapter to the collection previews the book’s organization and content as well as offers a conceptual framework for thinking about the substance and form of the research that is at the intersection of military and communication. First, I detail the development of the collection from conceptualization to contributions. Then, I discuss how to think holistically about this area of communication research. Finally, I conclude by providing suggestions to scholars and instructors for how to use the volume.

The Collection: Conceptualization to Contributions

Lynne and I initially discussed our ideas for this collection during the 2011 National Communication Association convention in New Orleans. Soon after we conceptualized its form and purpose, we made our initial invitations for the opening chapters to the book’s three sections. After those distinguished scholars (Katheryn C. Maguire, Roger Stahl, and Gordon R. Mitchell) signed on to the project, we submitted our proposal to Peter Lang Publishing. Once we signed our contract, we posted a call to CRTNET and other relevant outlets inviting proposals for the empirical chapters. We found the response gratifying and further evidence of the timeliness of the volume. We accepted 18 chapters from the 54 submitted proposals. We based our choices on quality almost exclusively but also a desire to fairly represent the diversity of scholarship on the topic. The resulting collection reflects a wide diversity of content and an array of authors from across the discipline. We also had the good fortune of securing Bob Ivie as the author for the collection’s forward, which sets a thoughtful and heuristic tone for the reader. In the end, the volume showcases the work of scholars from 29 universities and all ranks from doctoral candidates through emeritus professors.

A Communication Perspective on the Military: Interactions, Messages, and Discourses is organized into three parts that represent major topical areas in the discipline:

There are certainly other ways we could have categorized the work (e.g., by research method), but we chose these three sections because they represent ← 3 | 4 → the majority of military research in communication discipline, both past and present.

Each section begins with an invited state-of-the-art review of the relevant research in the specific area. The introductory chapter is followed by competitively selected, original research reports. Authors of the opening chapters in each section offer the reader a broad sense of these areas of communication research; the empirical chapters provide specific examples of current lines of inquiry as well as suggest take-away points from the work (i.e., “best practices”). Including both review chapters and reports of original research in each section makes this collection unique as it allows the reader to gain a meta-perspective of each area and to access examples of cutting edge studies about the military completed from a communication perspective.

Section 1: Military Families

In her opening chapter, Maguire begins Section 1 with an excellent discussion of the military family communication scholarship with a specific focus on the important variables influencing communication before, during and after a deployment. Many scholars employ this developmental approach to deployment, a stressful period for military families (Maguire, 2012). Given that the majority of the military family research within communication is relatively recent, Maguire also references work outside the discipline that examines communicative concepts and processes. Most of the studies across disciplinary lines are intended to identify and promote resiliency in military families; therefore, Maguire begins with an overview of the characteristics and stressors found within the wartime deployment context, and then she discusses the concepts of coping and maintenance, two important communicative processes across deployment cycles. Maguire also summarizes the research regarding resources and communication interventions, concluding with recommendations for future research within the field.

Following Maguire’s review are six empirical chapters. All of the chapters in this section look at communication within and/or about military family’s experiences at an interpersonal level. The first two reports within the military family section ask questions about family communication patterns (content and modes of interaction) during deployment. Knobloch, Theiss, and Wehrman report the results of their two-part study, which examined what military family members talk about and avoid in their conversations while one member is deployed. Berck and Webb present the findings from their interview study concerning how deployed parents are strategic (“communicate rhetorically”) when talking to their children. Their results reflect ← 4 | 5 → how deployed parents make choices about how to communicate based on their interaction goals.

The authors of the next two chapters examine potential sites of support for military family members. Cramer, Tenzek, and Allen address the supportive role of chaplains’ interactions with military service members, veterans, and their families. High, Jennings-Kelsall, Solomon, and Marshall provide an intriguing qualitative analysis of “support” interactions via online discussion boards. Specifically, Cramer et al. interviewed chaplains to identify the unique challenges facing veterans that chaplains address and the forms of support they offer these men and women (i.e., action-facilitating support and nurturing support). High et al. focus on another site of support for military family members, online support groups, and the types of support provided via these venues (e.g., informational). These latter chapters add new lines of inquiry to the military family research using an established area of study—supportive communication—but examining the communication surrounding support in the unique content of the military family.

In the last two chapters of this section, the authors ask questions about identity management processes for military service members. Mehta and Jorgenson explore how their participants’ military and family lives (i.e., women in the Air Force who are also wives and/or mothers) intersect in challenging ways. Specifically, they discuss how their participants drew upon traditional gendered discourses for men and women when reflecting on the challenges of their lives. In the last chapter of the section LeBlanc and Olson use the Communication Theory of Identity (CTI) to ask how veterans (re)negotiate their identities within the family when returning from deployment.

Section 2: Media and the Military

The second section of the collection focuses on media and the military. Stahl introduces this work with an assessment of the communication scholarship that falls at the “military-media nexus.” His nuanced read of the scholarship begins with the dominant/traditional thread of propaganda research. Next, he reviews two emerging bodies of work: the military in entertainment media (e.g., videogames) and “new” media and the military (e.g., YouTube).

The empirical chapters in this second section reflect themes identified by Stahl; each examines military-related content disseminated in mass media venues. While the other five empirical chapters focus on post-9/11 media, Sexton compares two African-American print newspapers and their coverage of the 99th Fighter Squadron’s (i.e., the Tuskegee Airmen) during World War II. ← 5 | 6 → Stahl situates Sexton’s work within the propaganda approach to media and military where the media under examination (e.g., print newspapers) reflect multiple interests and do not provide merely objective knowledge. While Sexton’s research analyzes pre-9/11 texts, his work is in line with the other chapters because of his examination of media coverage about military-related content. Furthermore, the analysis demonstrates that the propaganda approach has a long history; the concerns Sexton raises are timeless and echoed in the next chapter examining more contemporary media artifacts. Here Achter provides an in-depth analysis of the television news coverage regarding the “end” of the Iraq War. Achter seeks to understand the coverage using the concept of the “media event” and displays how specific interests were served by the reporting of the pullout.

The next two chapters describe mediated portrayals of military service members to provide a form of politicized entertainment. Howard and Prividera present their examination and critique of the nationalistic themes and partial perspectives reflected in the “coming home” narratives presented in televised news reports. They argue these narratives are partial, privileging certain feelings (e.g., pride) and hiding others (e.g., regret), resulting in the promotion of idealistic views of nation and soldiering, thus constraining the lived experiences of service members and their families. Coe, also focusing on TV news, analyzes media tributes presented by the CBS Evening News via their nightly segment called Fallen Heroes. He finds, similar to Howard and Prividera, that these TV segments served to promote support for the wars; however, Fallen Heroes also offered an opening for resisting the dominant narrative through the inclusion of soldiers’ unfulfilled ambitions, thus complicating views of U.S. military engagements.

The last two chapters in the media section present research on new media, which arguably cannot be disentangled from new military strategy (Stahl, this volume), given the way citizens relate to and gain information about the war in our technologically saturated culture. Haigh and Pfau report their two-part study of milblogs (military web blogs); they identify content themes in these blogs as well as test their influence on support for war. Not surprisingly, their results reflect milblogs’ positive depictions of the U.S. military. However, the milblogs were perceived to have similar levels of credibility when compared to other online news sources about the war, which supports and extends previous research findings regarding political blogs. Silvestri rounds out the section with her careful analysis and questioning of how the U.S. Marines’ regulate service members’ use of social media (e.g., Facebook). Bringing together an analysis of in-depth interviews with service members and the Marine Corp’s Social Media Guidance document, Silvestri demonstrates the complicated ← 6 | 7 → “collision of cultures” between military personnel’s interpersonal lives and the military’s chain of command.

Section 3: Rhetoric Surrounding the Military

The third section of the collection reflects work conducted in the rhetorical studies area of the communication discipline. In the opening chapter, Mitchell provides a survey of rhetorical histories, rhetorical critiques, and controversial studies of military. His thoughtful review offers a sense of the vast rhetorical literature in the communication discipline that relates to military, war, and politics. Six reports of original research follow.

Quigley Holden offers her close reading of the rhetoric of two military leaders, General George Van Horn Moseley and General Douglas MacArthur. This chapter provides an example of rhetorical history research; she analyzes the generals’ quests for power through their speeches; she then uses her findings as a foundation for commentary on contemporary rhetorical strategies. Like Sexton in the previous section, Quigley Holden analyzed texts from a previous historical period. Her work, however, is in line with the other chapters, because she closely examined public discourse directly related to the military (i.e., two military generals’ speeches).

In the next four chapters, scholars present rhetorical critiques of contemporary military artifacts. Gerbensky-Kerber and Bates take a Foucauldian perspective on a non-profit organization’s framing of childhood obesity as a national security concern. Their site of analysis is particularly interesting given its location at the intersection of public health and military preparedness. Albeit a very different set of texts, Foster also examines the intersection of public territory and military interests by analyzing the debate surrounding the renaming of a Canadian highway as the “Highway of Heroes.” Although intended as a tribute to the fallen service members who traveled the road on their way home from war, the renaming sparked a complicated public discussion about the country’s construction of the notion of “hero” and relationship to the military. Klien’s work asks questions about what constitutes the heroic solider, as well, but takes the reader’s gaze to contemporary war films. He presents an in-depth analysis of post-9/11 films for how they provide the public understandings of war as well as sites for political policy debate. In the last example of what Mitchell deems rhetorical critique, Walsh explains how the military manages public memory and understandings of pivotal events through his analysis of the handling of a toxic contamination at Kelly Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas. The coverage reflects what Walsh terms the military’s “discursive containment” of such events. ← 7 | 8 →

The final chapter of the collection addresses the rhetoric found within and around the controversial policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). An example of what Mitchell categorizes as controversy studies, Young and Kaurin argue that DADT was grounded in a myth of the military warrior—a myth ever present in constructions of male service members’ identity beyond the now overturned policy.


XVI, 448
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
Narrative of war soldierfamilys homefront reception of war rhetoric Military and media
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XVI, 448 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Erin Sahlstein Parcell (Volume editor) Lynne M. Webb (Volume editor)

Erin Sahlstein Parcell (PhD., The University of Iowa) is Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She is the author of over thirty chapters and articles. Her work has appeared in journals such as Communication Monographs, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Western Journal of Communication, and Journal of Health Communication. Lynne M. Webb (PhD, University of Oregon) is Professor of Communication at Florida International University. She is the author of over seventy essays and two previously published edited volumes. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Communication Education, Health Communication, and the Journal of Family Communication. She is a past president of the Southern States Communication Association.


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