September 5, 2001

War on X When the Metaphor Becomes Too Real

Beyond the day-to-day news out of Palestine or Macedonia, Sudan or Indonesia, a question keeps nagging at some of us. Why is it that politicians, and particularly American politicians, seem so compliant and lackadaisical about the ramifications of endorsing war as a means of doing business? Never mind whether sending somebody else's children to be in harm's way and to do harm to others is ever justified. The question is why it always seems like the first option instead of the last?

Some politicians will tell you that conflict, military action or coercive activities are reserved for those times when repeated efforts to use peaceful methods have failed and the problem persists. Most of the time this is poppycock. Not all politicians or commentators spend a lot of time actively seeking an enemy with which to do battle, as neocons and a few others are currently doing with China. But given a ticklish problem somewhere in the world – Macedonia, Indonesia, wherever – most American observers will allow maybe five minutes for peaceful methods to work, and then will be ready to endorse sending in the Marines.


One can understand some of the reasons. As Randolph Bourne, one of the few American radical or liberal intellectuals to remain opposed to war even after World War I had been declared and most intellectuals were either co-opted or signed up for the crusade against Kaiser Bill, famously observed, "War is the health of the State." The state is defined by political scientists as the repository or organization of the legitimate means of coercion in society; coercion is government's essence.

War is the most extreme manifestation of the state's essence, the use of extreme violence to impose the will of leaders on another people. So it should not be shocking that people devoted to building and preserving the state will be amenable to the idea of a cozy little war every so often.

Von Clausewitz, the 19th-century theorist of war, strategy and tactics, said that war is simply politics by other means. He meant the comment in part as an admonition to statesmen – to remember that war is simply a way of getting what you want out of a situation, not an end in itself to be indulged in for trivial reasons. But he was on to something important. Those who believe strongly in using politics to control others and in building an ever stronger state structure are likely to see war as simply one of many legitimate methods for those who rule to get more of what they want.


In the United States, in the latter half of the 20th century, politicians became increasingly casual – or were they purposeful? – about applying the metaphor of war to an increasing number of essentially domestic political issues. Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 1941 had to deplore war publicly even as he was preparing for it and angling for it. But in the 1960s Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty." In the early 1970s Richard Nixon, having inherited a foreign war, thought it was useful to declare a "war on drugs," a commitment Ronald Reagan took up and intensified in the early 1980s.

Jimmy Carter saw the energy crisis and the need to conserve and pull together (under his wise leadership, of course) as the "moral equivalent of war" – and didn't see that as deplorable but as commendable. Various politicians have declared "war" on all kinds of enemies most people would consider unlikely after a moment or two of thought – from drunk driving to deadbeat daddery to blight to urban sprawl to greenhouse gases to gay marriage to illiteracy.

The metaphor seems to work for all too many Americans who don't take that moment or two to wonder whether this particular social ill is really likely to yield to a military-style action, or whether an assault is really the way to handle a delicate social situation.


The phenomenon is compounded by the apparent envy all too many Baby Boomers feel for Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, which had World War II, the war you could believe in, the war that defeated Nazism and brought our people together in a common, shared crusade and made Rosie a riveter. If I see Tom Hanks whine once more that the veterans of the Good War don't have a monument in the Imperial City, or have to watch one more preview for the latest Spielberg opus about how joining together to kill foreigners at the behest of politicians makes people into a band of brothers, I might have to puke.

All the boomers who feel lingering guilt at having opted out of the Vietnam War and want to compensate by glorifying the World War II generation should have to read Studs Terkel's The Good War, based on interviews with people who actually served during World War II. Studs did talk to some people who felt that "band of brothers" thing or who viewed the war as the highlight of their lives. But he also interviewed plenty of people who were still horrified, years later, by the gruesome killing and dying, the irrationality of military policy as applied at the level of the ordinary grunt soldier.

You can even find a few people who wonder whether a war that did end up destroying Nazism while establishing communism as a world power and enhancing the power of the state in all aspects of our lives long after the war was ostensibly over – the draft, for just one small example – was worth the cost in money, human blood and heritages destroyed.


The most egregious current policy to demonstrate that using war as a metaphor leads to something resembling a scorched-earth approach to citizens who resist being told what to do is the War on Drugs.

One can argue whether the phenomenon of people using drugs should be viewed as a medical problem or a criminal-justice or police problem, and relatively honest people can differ honestly about the question. But applying the metaphor of war takes the matter well beyond the realm of criminal-justice or police activity.

The goal of a law enforcement agency is to try to prevent lawbreaking or to apprehend and punish the lawbreakers that can't be deterred – consistent with the customs, mores and constitutional strictures of a given society. The goal of a soldier in a war is to inflict maximum damage and death on a designated enemy – consistent with strategies and orders from superiors.


Those are very different goals, and an institution skilled in one kind of activity is not likely to be skilled at the other. Soldiers are not trained to investigate and make arrests while respecting constitutional rights and other protections ordered by various courts. They are trained to follow orders and kill enemies.

In time, of course, employing war as a metaphor leads law enforcement – or social workers or progressives who believe they know what is best for the rest of us – to justify and even to welcome the means of war in essentially domestic problems. So we have no-knock warrants, "dynamic entry" arrests, SWAT teams used for a wider array of situations including enforcement of environmental laws, the military giving direct advice to police forces on an array of subjects and loaning the cops military weapons. We have the federalization and militarization of local and state law enforcement.

Eventually we have a few people willing to say, as former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates said to a congressional committee in the late 1980s, that casual marijuana smokers ought to be lined up and shot. A lot of people professed to be shocked at the comment at the time – and some of them actually were – but the flurry died down.

Actually, however, the sentiment Chief Gates expressed was simply the logical culmination of trying to control drug use through the initially metaphorical use of the term "war." If you have declared war, then the purpose of the war is to kill the enemy, and casual pot smokers – not only because they violate the law but because they are probably the most numerous of drug users and their habits financially support the intricate web of growers, traffickers and street dealers – are the enemy any serious war should target.

A lot more people than would be likely to admit it publicly probably agreed quietly with Gates. If the government has declared war on a certain class of people, why should anybody be shocked that enthusiastic warriors want to kill them?


Whether war is ever appropriate or not – I'm inclined to think justifiable wars are extremely uncommon and unlikely – it is essentially one of the dozens of ways nation-states or other political entities can deal with one another. It might be necessary as a defense against an attack by another country or justifiable as a way to stop a potential aggressor or tyrant. But it is an extreme form of violent coercion whose costs and benefits should be weighed carefully – although they seldom are.

If war is one way, even the last-ditch, only-when-alternatives-have-been-exhausted way, to handle disputes among nations, countries or political entities, however, it is unlikely to be the best way to deal with a complex and stubborn social phenomenon like the persistence of poverty or the tendency of some people to want to use dangerous drugs. This becomes apparent to more people when the metaphor becomes the reality – when a verbal war on poverty or drugs begins to look more like a military operation than a campaign for social justice – but the use of the metaphor persists.

Those of us who would like to see war used less often to settle disputes among governments and nations, however, should be aware that one of our problems is the apparent addiction to initially metaphorical wars on social problems. When the metaphorical use of the term is common and seldom challenged, resistance to actual war becomes more difficult and uncommon.

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Wednesday on

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