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Wars and Metaphors
by James Harold


September 02, 2004

In the midst of the Republican convention, George W. Bush finds himself having to explain contradictory statements about whether or not the U.S. can win the war on terror. Bush appeared on the "Today" show on Monday and surprised many viewers by suggesting that the U.S. might never be able to win the war on terror. Then he quickly reversed himself, speaking before the American Legion, insisting that the war on terror was indeed a war that can and will be won. This week, as the Republicans seek to position Bush as a war president, and build the case for his re-election around this theme, we are again warned that changing leaders in the middle of a war is short-sighted and dangerous. So it is important for us to look at exactly in what sense the "war on terror" is a war at all, and whether and in what sense it might be won.

After September 11, the U.S. went to war twice, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. Though neither of these wars is resolved, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are wars in a fairly traditional sense: the U.S. invaded a foreign country, won fights on the battlefield, and deposed the regime in power. But the war on terror is clearly not like either of these cases. There is no enemy territory to invade, no troops to fight, not even a regime to overthrow. (Al Qaeda operates through independent cells.) The White House insists that this means that the war on terror is a "new kind" of war, but a war nonetheless. However, this is a mistake. The war on terror is not a new type of war, but a very old, familiar one. Further, it is not a literal war at all. The use of the word "war" in this context is simply a metaphor for the country's commitment to solve a problem.

America has a long-standing habit of declaring war on its problems: the war on drugs, the war on cancer, the war on poverty, and the war on AIDS are just a few examples. Hearing politicians declare war on crime or on other social problems has become so routine that the metaphorical use of the term "war" usually escapes our attention, and we come to think that a metaphorical war and a literal one are the same. In doing so, we risk confusing metaphorical wars with real ones.

It is not hard to see that taking a metaphorical war to be a literal one can be deeply dangerous. The "war on drugs" has not been advanced by the capture and killing of many of the major drug traffickers in South and Central America in the 1990's. These were significant military and police successes, to be sure, but the drug trade simply shifted into other hands. Whatever military successes are achieved by the U.S. and its allies against terrorist cells in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or anywhere else are similarly beside the point. Terrorists are not a specific group of people or a nation; we cannot defeat them in battle. In fact, there is even the danger that military success may breed more terrorism by fomenting resentment.

But the most disturbing feature of the metaphor of war is just beginning to become clear. A war has sides, and each of us has to choose which side we're on. Once we've chosen a side, we must follow our leaders, and do what we're told. George W. Bush has told the nation's voters that we are either with the terrorists or against them, and we will hear this again many times this week. This November, we're told, is a war election, and a vote against Bush threatens our chances of success. But let us not forget that the war on terror is not a war that can be won on the battlefield, or perhaps at all. The other day the president briefly acknowledged this truth. The war on terror, like the war on poverty, is ongoing struggle, and American voters must be free to decide how they want their leaders to address the problem, and who they want those leaders to be.

James Harold
South Hadley, Mass


Note: James Harold is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Mount Holyoke College



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