Power in Numbers: The Semiotic Meaning of the Pentagon

Flying out of Reagan National Airport over spring break for Austin, TX, my plane flew over the Pentagon. Peering out of my window from above, I looked down at a building that embodies power and military might. I began to immediately think of my research with CCT student Katerina Matsa and CCT professor Mima Dedaic. We have been looking at the semiotic significance of the Pentagon for some time, and will be presenting the first findings of our research at the Chesapeake American Studies Association conference at Georgetown in several weeks. However, my birds-eye-view of the building presents an opportunity to look at some of my preliminary observations and findings regarding the significance of the number “5” as it relates to the Pentagon.

Math warning: I am briefly breaking into geometry. A pentagon has five sides, whose internal angles total 540 degrees. Phew. Ok, math lesson over. The number five plays a significant role in the semiotic meaning of the Pentagon, creating metaphors associated with power and activism.

A common metaphor for understanding a country is THE NATION AS A PERSON. A nation is perceived as living, breathing, and bounded – meaning it has its specific space and sphere of influence. The nation as a person has specific parts dedicated to certain actions. In American democracy, an executive acts in tandem with a legislature that makes the laws. Much like the brain sends signals to the rest of the body, the legislature makes the laws that allow the national body to function. The executive, much like the heart, carries out vital functions of protection and preservation of the internal order of the nation. What about external defense? Where does one protect themselves from external attack?

Imagine someone attacking you. What is your first line of defense? Your hands and fists of fury of course. They are dexterous, active, and nimble when quickly responding or preventing an attack. One’s hand has five fingers, or extremities. It can be made into a fist. Our hands similarly are used for touch, allowing humans to explore unknown situations and familiarize ourselves with the environment at large.

How does this relate to the Pentagon? The Pentagon is the nation’s hand. It has five sides, is dexterous, active, and nimble when responding in military situations. The Pentagon, and the military it embodies, protects the nation from external attack. It is the nation’s first line of external defense. When called upon, the national hand becomes a fist used for attack and preservation. The Pentagon embodies the metaphoric power and activism associated with a hand.

The Pentagon, not only as the national hand, is the architectural embodiment of the military. Five branches of the U.S. military (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corp, Coast Guard) are represented in the physical structure of the building. As an enclosed structure where visitors seldom go, it is the physical and numerical representation of military might. It is a container, in that walls keep unauthorized personnel out and allow those with access in. In many ways, it is a mediated monument where the population at large experiences its meanings by secondary channels associated with distance. I experienced the Pentagon from the seat of my airplane. Many Washingtonians experience the Pentagon from I-395. Citizens experience the Pentagon through books, movies, or television shows.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Pentagon was described as the center of American military might, a justification for its targeting by al Qaeda. The hijacked airliner penetrated three of the five rings of the Pentagon’s structure, projecting a gaping hole to the world. A little focused on building that has become a metonymic function for the Department of Defense and U.S. military was suddenly transformed into the structural, numerical, and physical embodiment of American military might (or weakness depending on one’s view) overnight. American vulnerability was exposed. Much like when one receives a cut or bruise on their hand, which can temporarily impair the movement and dexterity of its functions, the national hand was viewed as more vulnerable than it originally appeared.

This is just a beginning of some of my key findings associated with the Pentagon and the significance of power in the number “5.” Katerina Matsa is concurrently analyzing the architectural semiotics of the Pentagon and Mima Dedaic is studying the pragmatic meanings of the word. Our research is centering on the idea that there are non-visual ways by which the Pentagon and the Department of Defense project power. Whether numerically, architecturally, or linguistically, the underlying power dynamics create an interesting semiotic landscape.