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,
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
THE HEALTH OF THE
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
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.
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.
MAKING WAR ON EVERYTHING
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.
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
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
WAR ON COMMON SENSE?
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?
CONQUERING THE METAPHOR
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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