Hitler titled his autobiography Mein Kampf for a reason. In one word, he could crystallize his hate-filled ideological ramblings into a single, identifiable, and compelling concept: battle.
Yet phrasing a political philosophy with the rhetoric of battle is not limited to the likes of Hitler. Politicians then and now, respected and unknown, American and foreign, have described their policies and visions in the vocabulary of war. The phrase “the War on [insert noun]” has become a crutch for U.S. politicians seeking support for their policies. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. In 1970, Richard Nixon declared a War on Crime. In 1971, he called for a “full-scale attack” to “conquer” the drug problem—and the media titled it the War on Drugs. In 2001, George W. Bush launched the War on Terror. These campaigns shape the lives of American citizens and the discourse in American media. Likewise, accusations that leaders and parties wage a War on Women, or a War on Jobs, or even a War on Christmas dominate partisan back-and-forth.
Politicians rely on metaphors to describe their plans and rally support because they are effective. By creating an analogy between two concepts, metaphors provide frameworks in which issues can be viewed. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their work Metaphors We Live By, argue that “[m]etaphors may create realities for us.” A metaphor is a fundamental cognitive mechanism that sculpts our perceptions of an entity and shapes our actions towards it.
As a result, a metaphor eases comprehension for the consumer of information. It has the ability to condense a multi-faceted issue with innumerable qualifications and clauses into a single idea. It can reduce a problem with various political, social, economic and cultural roots and implications to a simplistic contest of good versus evil. A binary definition of right and wrong can appeal to the primeval part of our souls, telling us what must be done to protect our tribe against predators in the world outside. We do not require an understanding of the complexity of any issue, because a metaphor provides us a with a paint-by-numbers outline.
The war metaphor’s effectiveness stems from its nature and impact on any society that engages in it. A war’s commencement is the ultimate instigator of populist support. Consider any classic posters from the World War era: “We can do it!,” “Do your bit! Save Food,” “It’s your duty! Enlist today.” Warfare, if spun correctly, has an almost unique ability to unite a population, imbue it with patriotism, and spread a culture in which there is unquestioning acceptance of a dominant authority.
First, a war creates the perception of a common enemy that must be fought. This foe is a danger not just to one segment of society, but to its entirety. The external, evil “Other” serves as a rallying point towards which we can hurl our insults and our hate. It can be demonized, caricatured, and despised, because it is not of our ilk. Yet the creation of a “Them” necessitates the formation of an “Us.” We cannot hate the people who hate us if we have no conception of who we are as a group. In the United States, for example, the War on Terror frequently defined “Us” as Americans, fighting against the specter of radical Islam. The war mentality thereby facilitates the unification of disparate groups under one banner. In an actual war, this manifests as national unity.
Patriotism and nationalism then sustain the united identity fostered by war rhetoric. Patriotism is critical to maintaining a fighting spirit, and its growth happens naturally. U.S. imports of American flags in 2000 valued $747,800. In 2001, that number rose to $51.7 million. The emergence of a dangerous enemy after September 11 instigated a surge in national pride. This occurs because, just as people cast the threat as an evil entity, they cast themselves—and their nation, party, or race—as glorious defenders of a greater good. They clamor to do what they can to protect the continued safety of their homes, families, culture, and values. The contest becomes one to ensure their survival; the threat, of their imminent destruction.
Drunk on this patriotic spirit, citizens give their leaders their unquestioning support. George W. Bush’s famous 92 percent approval rating in the four months following September 11 is typical of this phenomenon. More perturbingly, citizens also display much more willingness to forgo rights and forgive the various sins of the government. They accept authority figures more easily and may even transfer more power to them through long-term states of emergency, which can seriously jeopardize the democratic process and allow for the jettisoning of rights. The population makes a bargain: we, the people, will give up some of our freedoms, and you, the government, will win back our security.
Too Many: “A Network of Entailments”
Yet the use of the war metaphor in descriptions of national public policy is dangerous: it commits the double sin of too many and too few implications. This is the “network of entailments” described by Lakoff and Johnson: unanticipated but unavoidable implications that a metaphor creates. These inferences shape how we interpret the past, understand present events, and formulate future policy.
With the metaphor of war, the network of entailments can include an external enemy, a threat of destruction, a group of allies, and the need for sacrifice. Whether or not they exist in reality, specific components of war become central figures in the public consciousness. Whatever the policy may actually relate to, it becomes organized under the structure of an Us, a Them, a Strategy, and a Result—preferably a victory. The problem is that, ultimately, public policy does not equate to warfare.
Although war may be a useful metaphor, it is not a particularly apt one. Consider the War on Crime, declared by Richard Nixon in 1970. The campaign’s aim was—and is—to reduce criminality and make American society safer. Yet thinking of crime in terms of a war creates a fundamentally different response from thinking of crime in terms of a social problem that must be overcome. A 2011 Stanford University study showed that people support greater law enforcement if crime is describe as a “beast” preying upon a community, but more social reforms if crime is portrayed as a “virus” infecting a city. The change in metaphor can provoke a change in Strategy.
The creation of an Us and a Them in the War on Crime has more serious consequences, as well. In theory, the lines should be drawn purely based on one’s adherence to the law: the Them should be any criminal, and the Us should be any law-abiding citizen. However, in reality, those in power undertake the declaration of war. The Us, therefore, represents the social group that holds influence in a society and that controls public discourse: usually, politicians and the media. In American society, most of these politicians and media leaders are rich, white, and educated. Even in the comparatively diverse 113th Congress, 94 percent of the Senate is white, the median net worth of a congressperson is a staggering $1,008,767, and 93 percent of House members have a bachelor’s degree. African Americans own almost no full-power television stations. Therefore it becomes easy to view the Them—the criminals—as people of color, immigrants, the poor, and the uneducated.
The difference in metaphor also frames the question of desired Result: eliminate, or rescue? We embark upon war with the joint aims of victory for our own side and the extermination of our enemy. A social reform, on the other hand, aims to address a problem’s root cause and solve it. When we treat crime as a war that must be fought, criminals become an external enemy to be destroyed. If crime is treated as a societal problem necessitating social reform, criminals can be perceived differently: perhaps as people who have made bad choices due to high-pressure socioeconomic situations and who can be rehabilitated as law-abiding citizens.
Peacekeeper or Soldier?
Aside from these macro components of a war, there is the prerequisite unit on the ground: the soldier. When we apply the war metaphor to public policy, who is the infantryman? In our continuing example of the War on Crime, this would be the police officer. Yet this raises the question of what a police officer’s duties are, how they should be carried out, and how thinking of them in the light of soldiery can change those answers. It places the police officer in the role of a front linesman in a struggle for a greater good against an evil opposition force.
With this mentality, what becomes a virtue? Physical strength, aggression, the ability to kill, a fierce sense of territorial defense, obedience to authority, acceptance of a preexisting organizational culture, and a belief that you must protect your brothers-in-arms at all costs. Under this mentality, what becomes a weakness? Compassion, a reluctance to harm, a propensity to question authority, and a willingness to point out the wrongs of fellow “soldiers.” The result? Unnecessary bullets, distraught mothers, rioting crowds, and one futile hashtag after another.
Sociologist Heinz Steinert outlines the three roles through which the state may exert the use of force: policing, punishment, and warfare. Policing takes place to keep the peace in the population. Warfare is for aggression or defense against an enemy. Application of force is a result of a failure in peacekeeping rather than as one of its features. Once you conflate the two roles and policing becomes warfare, you treat your population as the enemy, and you treat this perceived enemy with aggression rather than a peacekeeping attitude.
Too Few: The Moral Reality
Just as the war metaphor commits the sin of too many unnecessary implications, it also forgets a very important one. As University of Virginia ethicist James Childress writes, “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war.” This forgetfulness is cruel absentmindedness. To proclaim that a politician is waging war on whatever hot topic of the day is to forget the actual brutality of war and its moral violations. It is unfair to our soldiers and damaging to our souls to equate the dangers of war with the decision of whether to say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” in the “War on Christmas.” War is a horrendous experience, and bandying the concept around cheapens it. It is disrespectful to those who have actually suffered in wartime, whether they are combatants or civilians.
This tendency to pare down debates of policy to these inadequate and inapt generalizations is damaging to public discourse, as well. It attempts to garner popular support for government action through appealing to the basic instinct to support your own side in a contest. It thereby does not treat citizens with due respect, which would entail giving them all the accurate information in an actually applicable framework. Hence the use of war metaphors is almost contemptuous of public intelligence, and is downright careless with the experiences of soldiers.
Using a metaphor might seem inconsequential: a simple way to describe a complicated concept. It may seem that the language used to describe a policy does not really impact its content and clauses. Yet words have power, and so one’s choice of them does matter. Because a war is not simple: it is infinitely and immeasurably complicated.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Navy News Stand