The Rhetoric of War in The 100
“War is here,” sputters a barely alive Octavia to Clarke toward the beginning of Season Four’s fifth episode “The Tinder Box.” Unfazed (just another day on the ground), Clarke begins ordering people around like the seasoned general she’s become – focused, slightly emotionally detached, and always pragmatic (what I define as Clarkian) – as she prepares for war.
Through almost three and a half seasons, we’ve seen Clarke possess an uncanny ability to handle whatever is put in front of her – acid fog, grounders, mountain men, a really big gorilla, her boyfriend dying, a psychotic artificial intelligence, her girlfriend dying, and the current impending nuclear meltdown. Prepare for war? When is she not prepared for war? She walks through Arkadia’s corridors (after making time to suture Octavia’s stab wound) vaguely annoyed, as if war is more of a distraction than a disaster.
Of course, it is a distraction. A battle against King Roan (who marched on Arkadia to seize it) is nothing compared to the global nuclear meltdown spreading across the planet (that will reach them in about two months) and she handles it with efficient ease. She knows the best thing to do is find a way to talk to Roan and reason with him to remind him that they need each other. Yet, she’s also prepared to kill every one of his men if she has to. As she tells Roan, “I have more bullets than you have men.” She’ll win and Roan knows it – he’s got nothing to lose because he’s already lost.
As Sun Tzu might observe, every battle Clarke’s won was won before it was fought. Or, as Patton advised, she makes her plans to fit the circumstance, taking calculated risks that usually pay off. Her advantage has always been a mixture of technology and resolve – she’s had access to superior weapons (and Raven’s ingenuity) and she’s never been afraid to use them. Yet, she’s not bloodthirsty, she’s only merciless when she has to be and she’s learned when not to kill. Certainly, as Sun Tzu noted, it’s always better to capture an army than to slaughter them (Pike and Bellamy should’ve followed this advice in the third season) and Clarke, who really is trying to save the whole world, would rather make friends than kill enemies because a good general doesn’t win battles, she prevents them. Clarke, like Sun Tzu, understands that war doesn’t make us safe, it creates more war. So, yeah, she’ll find a way to save everyone’s lives if she can. This isn’t just good strategy, it’s good politics.
As Carl von Clausewitz famously observed, war is “a continuation of political activity by other means.” If the reverse is true, then politics is a continuation of war by rhetorical means. A quick glance at our American political theater (where a constant volley of epithets, sound bites, and talking points function as abridged arguments designed to denigrate and demoralize the opposition while simultaneously rallying the base) easily reveals how war and politics are indeed two halves of the same bullet. It also suggests we’re always at war, wielding weapons or words against one another in continuous conflict.
It shouldn’t be lost on us – given the post-9/11 world we’ve constructed, in which war is a constant global presence throughout every facet of society – that shows like The 100 (and Game of Thrones or films like The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game) depict children and teens as being not just warriors but clever battle commanders. Clarke, Bellamy, and Raven (as well as Robb Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys, Katniss, and Ender) are all teens capable of leading an army into battle as effectively as Alexander the Great or Patton. Makes sense, considering a generation of our children have seen nothing but war in their lifetime and peace seems more like an illusion than a possible reality. In fact, the Class of ’19 (just two years away) will be the first class to have spent their entire lives in a post-9/11 world.
While The 100 hasn’t been as political as Game of Thrones or House of Cards (or any number of other shows), it has always illustrated the power of a good speech. In fact, it’s hard to find an episode where rhetoric doesn’t play as integral a part in surviving as swords or guns, especially for Clarke – she had to negotiate with Anya in the first season, with President Dante and with Lexa in the second season, and with Roan in the third season and now again in the fourth.
It’s worth noting that no negotiated agreement has lasted on The 100 – but what’s key is that the failure has never been rhetorical. Accords are reached, people are convinced, persuasion works. It’s just typically (sometimes instantly) destroyed by the rogue decisions of others, usually for selfish and often vengeful reasons. That’s what happens in “The Tinder Box.”
Clarke and Roan agree to share Arkadia – they even cut their hands with a big knife and clasp them in a bloody handshake to seal the deal. This is immediately threatened by Riley, who had been enslaved by Grounders and wanted to assassinate Roan in revenge. But Bellamy (who rescued Riley a few episodes ago) uses his considerable rhetorical skills to talk Riley out of it.
Of course, this is The 100 and something else always happens. Ilian, also out for revenge (against technology), blows up Arkadia (because it had a lot of computers) despite Octavia’s protests (to be fair, she’s better with a sword and if she’d had one at that moment she’d have likely just killed Ilian instead of talk to him). Everyone is left speechless, staring in awe as they watch the only home (and safety) they’ve ever known collapse and burn.
What’s significant is that Clarke’s expression to Ilian seems mixed, as if she’s saying “what the hell?” and “thank you!” at the same time. While Ilian’s actions destroyed the peace agreement, it also strangely solidified it. Now, there’s nothing to be conquered except survival. No one gets an advantage and no one gets left behind. Like Cortez sinking his ships, what could be more unifying? (If it were Game of Thrones, Clarke and Roan would marry).
It’s easy to imagine a 9/11-like scene in the next episode where Clarke or Bellamy, standing on the still-smoldering, cindered rubble, gives a stirring speech, uniting everyone toward a common purpose – because this is what Clarke and Bellamy do (ever since the first episode). Perhaps we could take a lesson from the kids on The 100, who speak as eloquently as they fight. Our real-world politics, rooted in defeating an opponent through rhetorical means, achieves nothing. The quest for power drives our political economy and the result is that we’ve become so conditioned to rhetorical warfare that most of us could easily join the verbal fray – certainly, the many protests that have accompanied the current presidential administration since Jan 20th indicate an adroitness on the part of everyday citizens to engage in rhetorical skirmishes against political professionals. But is this what rhetoric is for? Is this what Aristotle meant when he defined rhetoric as “finding the available means to persuade?”
On The 100, no one is really concerned with being in power, not in the same way Republicans and Democrats crave it. On The 100, politics as we know it (running for office, campaign promises and slogans) doesn’t exist. The 100 has leaders, but they don’t rise to power by holding fundraisers and rallies (or engage in opposition research and smear campaigns), they offer solutions for survival (even Diana and Pike were, in their own unique ways, focused on survival). It’s not about finding the means to persuade in Arkadia, it’s about finding the means to survive – or, in the narrative’s more reflective moments, finding the means to be worthy of survival. This is the benefit The 100 shows us when it comes to rhetorical skill, an ability we seem to have lost (did we ever have it?). In our world, we use rhetoric to obtain power. In The 100, they use it to sustain life.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Aristotle. On Rhetoric, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Patton, George S. War As I Knew It. Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
“The Tinder Box.” The 100, Season 4, Episode 5.
Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2008.
Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Wilder Publications, 2008.