The Kairos of Wartime Rhetoric as a Modifier

Chris Amaral

Keynotes: Kairos, Politics, War, Persuasion, Argument

It is often the case that the amplifying factors of rhetoric are not actively employed by the rhetorician within their speeches or arguments, oftentimes the context of the speech is just as important as the verbal aspects. Factors such as credibility, choice of dress, location, and others can have a huge impact on rhetoric, however few factors have an impact as significant as timing. Appeals to timing (i.e. the present, the timing and context in which the speech occurs), termed as kairos, are absolutely critical in determining whether a speech is necessary and effective. There are few points in time that require strong, powerful rhetoric than in times leading up to or during military conflict. The needs to unify, defend, and survive are paramount during these periods, and rhetoricians in places of power need to be able to create an atmosphere that promotes these things, primarily as a way to survive and to withstand the opponent. For this reason, every individual paragraph, sentence, and word has extra weight, all due to the kairos of the moment in question. The kairos of wartime rhetoric acts as a modifier for other rhetorical appeals, causing them to be more impactful, as I examine using examples of past wartime rhetoric.

Kairos is an important topic to research for the key reason that the context of a situation can also be manufactured by a rhetorician, i.e. kairos can be something that a speaker creates in a speech rather than something surrounding it, and this is something that people need to be aware of. As a somewhat informed and politically active citizen, I have seen these appeals by political leaders and talking heads be used for purposes I would say are nefarious, and, as a result, I find it necessary to explain how to identify these appeals and how necessary it is to discern if they are warranted. The kairos of war, which I would define as the most urgent kairotic appeal, one based on the belief that you are in imminent danger at the hands of another group or military, is something that rhetoricians have attempted to manufacture and one that they continue to manufacture as a way to artificially enhance their rhetoric (see the United States’ conservative right’s framing of a “War on Christmas” during the early and mid 2010s as companies encouraged their employees to say “Happy Holidays” to customers instead of “Merry Christmas”). As a result, it is necessary to understand how wartime conditions affect argument, and whether a rhetorical situation takes place under these conditions, specifically to be able to defend oneself against those who could be attempting to utilize this appeal for their own purposes, as they have been in the fictional world of the film Patton to ready soldiers for war and by a German professor to drive the urgency to fight the Nazis.

First, it is necessary to define kairos. James Kinneavy defines kairos as an Aristotelian concept meaning the point in time where an argument occurs, essentially the situational context in which an argument takes place (Kinneavy and Eskin 433). This is certainly the case, but for the purposes of this paper, the definition of kairos is broader, as another key aspect in kairos is the opportune place in which rhetoric happens. Christopher Tindale extends the definition of kairos to include place, finding that opportune and inopportune places for a speech act as modifiers for rhetoric as well, speaking about place in a symbolic way (i.e. a place that may hold additional meaning due to what has happened there or what is happening there) (Tindale 5–10). The reason to include place in this discussion of kairos is that these arguments happen at an opportune time in the place where it is most opportune to make these arguments. A powerful example of the importance of place in addition to time is that of Paul Tillich’s speeches. Tillich was a professor at the University of Frankfurt in the years just before the Second World War, and argued from a distinctly Christian perspective against the rise of Nazism, characterizing that moment in time, which was the period between the two world wars and the beginning of Germany’s fall to fascism, he implored his audience, both theologians and common people, to fight against the demonic Nazi forces that faced them (Earle 30–32). His arguments were laid on the foundation of kairos, as he stressed a level of urgency that only wartime kairos can create, relying both on the conditions of the German state and appealing to some of the populace’s key, uncompromisable values. He hosted illegal radio broadcasts in Germany urging people to stand up against the Nazi state, as it was necessary to prevent the spread of their demonic will in that moment (Earle 24-25), but he also stressed that time, ultimately, was irrelevant from his perspective, and that the mission of people in life is to fulfill their obligations, that is to fight the demonic, and spend their future in heaven for eternity (Earle 32-33).

Tillich’s emphasis on kairos, and his assertion that action at that time was critical to finding oneself in heaven, are examples of appeals to the time aspect of kairos, emphasizing the urgency of the moment. The connection to heaven implied a closeness to doom, because of the mounting tension between Germany and other countries at this time. His speeches were also running counter to the Nazi propaganda of the time, which also drove home the need to fight away threats to their power and their version of the demonic, Jewish people in the country, who were viewed as the reason for the country’s fall from grace. The place of both Tillich’s and the Nazi’s arguments were also key components of the context surrounding his message. They took place in a German nation that was reeling from World War I, suffering through economic downturn, and seeing the rise of a violent fascist party. The arguments of Tillich are so much more impactful, as the citizens of a country in a crisis face the immediate problem of a demonic enemy, and a problem that without intervention, according to Tillich, will ruin any future they may have. With his emphasis on the urgency of the moment, how fighting the Nazis may be a key to salvation, Tillich strongly bolsters his appeals to Christian ethics and makes his argument one of incredible gravity.

Another example of a speech that appeals to the kairos of wartime, but in a slightly different manner, comes from the film Patton, and the titular character, General George S. Patton, played by George C. Scott. In this speech, Patton is addressing a room full of soldiers destined for combat in Western Europe as the U.S. enters the Second World War. By emphasizing timing, not only the urgency of the moment at hand, but the very importance of what the soldiers know that they are about to do, Patton allays the concerns of the soldiers. The character Patton does this by telling them that the circumstances of the war in front of them will allow them to act in the way that they need to and stating how he feels so strongly that the United States military will charge into Europe and defeat the German forces handily (Patton). One specific argument he makes that is clearly a kairos appeal, and one that is similar to Tillich’s arguments, is his statement that, in the future, when they speak to their grandchildren, they will be able to say they rose to the moment and fought for their country, instead of “shoveling shit” back home (Patton). Also similar to Tillich’s argument is the use of urgency as a rhetorical device, but in a slightly different way, as Scott as Patton says that when the soldiers stick their hand into a pile of goo that was once their friend, they will know what to do (Patton). This is a slightly different use of urgency as a device, however, as rather than using urgency as a way to drum up action, Patton emphasizes that the urgency of the moment will make it so the soldiers know exactly how to act, thereby allaying more of their concerns about being potentially gun-shy. These appeals combine and strongly boost Patton’s other rhetorical appeals, particularly pathos appeals to commonplaces, like national pride, and, with the significant help of the moment at hand, which the soldiers recognize as a matter of life and death, and also of the freedom of the world, he is able to make a speech that prepares the group for war.

The place of Patton’s speech in the film is also an opportune one, as it is a room that is essentially a terminal for young men who are about to be soldiers, many of whom have not been to war and will not come back, as was mirrored by the real-life conditions of the film’s audience: the ongoing Vietnam War. In these circumstances, Patton’s appeals to American values are not only effective in the context of the film, but also serve to motivate young Americans going to war in the real world, with these appeals boosted by this sense of place. In the film, this room holds that importance as the between stage for this audience, the vessel that carries them from life as a civilian to war. His speech emphasizing the importance of what they are about to do and allaying their concerns in this space is so important and effective, as it is a perfect space for the speech to be given and at a perfect time, with his appeals to pathos being amplified by the situation. He is in a room full of young people with likely no experience in war who are desperate for assurance in this intense situation, but are also surrounded by symbols that represent highly important values in American society: the flag and the military uniform, both symbols of national pride and courage.

As I previously mentioned, the kairos of this speech also extends into the real world, as this film was released during the Vietnam War, when many were unsure as to why the United States was sending soldiers to this Asian nation, and many more young people were going to Vietnam with no experience in war and unsure of whether they would return. The rhetoric of Patton extends to the Vietnam War in a metaphorical sense as well in this way, as the circumstances were viewed as similar by large segments of the U.S. public, as communism was viewed as a worldwide threat not dissimilar to the Nazis. As a result, the character in Patton’s speech still has an effect in the real world. Emboldening people with an emphatic speech, backed by old glory behind him, in theaters full of similarly unsure and fearful of the violence ahead, these soldiers would be able to tell their grandchildren that they fought for world freedom instead of shoveling shit. In a more subtle way, this speech encourages these soldiers to rise to their urgent moment, facing what they view as a worldwide threat, and this moment.

One of the problems with the kairos appeal of wartime rhetoric is that rhetoricians can try to manufacture wartime situations that play into their rhetorical appeals that call for action. This has happened in the United States more in several instances, including the War on Drugs, the Iraq War, and, the most general and dangerous example, the War on Terror. After 9/11, the United States has transformed into what Roger Stahl terms a “garrison state” dictated by fear, with a reverence for the military that leads to violent actions on the part of the fighting force (Stahl 75). This coupled with the rhetoric surrounding the idea of a war on terror, which is to say its characterization as an interminable war against a constantly changing enemy in countries that need to receive American “democracy” (Stahl 83), creates a constant ability to appeal to kairos as a justification for violent action. For this reason, it is necessary to understand that while appeals of the urgency of wartime kairos can make a speaker resonate more with an audience, the audience must not take the rhetoric at face value, especially from those who are political and society leaders. These leaders get a good grasp of what the true context of the situation is, and not allow themselves to be drummed up into a panic due to a manufactured urgency that cultural leaders may create.

To conclude, appeals to kairos during wartime have a significant impact on other rhetorical appeals, particularly pathos, boosting them to the audience based on the heightened importance of the moment and place in time in which the speech takes place, with both rhetors, fictional and real, using these appeals to emphasize urgency and create an atmosphere that drives their audience to act. However, an audience, and rhetoricians as well, should show discretion in their use or acceptance of appeals to wartime kairos, as wartime scenarios can be manufactured in rhetoric. Kairos is an effective appeal, and one that can also be abused by those with significant political and social power to their own ends.

Works Cited

Earle, Elizabeth R. “The Rhetoric of Kairos: Paul Tillich’s Reinterpretation.” Journal of Communication & Religion, vol. 40, no. 4, Religious Communication Association, Winter 2017, pp. 24–36.

Kinneavy, James L., and Catherine R. Eskin. “Kairos in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” Written Communication, vol. 17, no. 3, SAGE Publications Inc, July 2000, pp. 432–44. SAGE Journals,

Patton. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffler, performances by George C. Scott and Karl Malden, 20th Century Fox, 1970.

Stahl, Roger. “A Clockwork War: Rhetorics of Time in a Time of Terror.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 94, no. 1, Routledge, Feb. 2008, pp. 73–99. Taylor and Francis+NEJM,

Tindale, Christopher W. “Introduction: Of Place and Time.” Argumentation, vol. 34, no. 1, Springer Nature, Mar. 2020, pp. 1–11. EBSCOhost,


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Chris Amaral is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book