Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been fighting a “war on terror.” Real soldiers have been deployed to distant lands; real cluster bombs and white phosphorus have been used; real cruise missiles have been launched; the first MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal, has been dropped; and real cities have been reduced to rubble. In revenge for the deaths of 2,977 civilians that day, real people—in the millions —have died and millions more have become refugees. But is the war on terror actually a war at all—or is it only a metaphor?
In a real war, nations or organized non-state actors square off against each other. A metaphorical war is like a real war—after all, that’s what a metaphor is, a way of saying that one thing is like something else—but the enemy isn’t a country or even a single group of Islamic jihadists. It’s some other kind of threat: a disease, a social problem, or, in the case of the war on terror, an emotion.
In truth, it may not matter if the war on terror is a real one, since metaphorical wars have a striking way of killing real people in real numbers, too. Take the US War on Drugs, for example. In Mexico, that war, fueled by US weapons, using US drones, and conducted with the assistance of the Pentagon and the CIA, has already led to the deaths of many thousands of people. A 2015 US Congressional Research Service report estimates that organized crime caused 80,000 deaths in Mexico between 2007 and 2015. Most of the guns used in what has essentially been a mass-murder spree came from this country, which is also the main market for the marijuana, cocaine, and heroin that are the identified enemy in this war of ours. As with our more literal wars of recent years, the War on Drugs shows no sign of ending (nor does the US hunger for drugs show any sign of abating). If anyone is winning this particular war, it’s the drugs—and, of course, the criminal cartels that move them across the continent.
American metaphorical wars fought in my own lifetime began with President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” first announced in 1964 when I was 12 years old. Indeed, my mother “served” in that war. We lived in Washington, DC, at the time and she worked for the United Planning Organization, a community-based group funded under Johnson’s Model Cities program. It fought poverty in the slums of my hometown, just a few blocks from the White House. As with other similar groups around the country, its personnel tested new “weapons” in the war on poverty—job-training programs, citizen-advice bureaus, and community-organizing efforts of various sorts. I was proud that my mother was a “soldier” in that war, which for a few brief years it even looked like we might be winning.
And there were victories. After all, the legacy of Johnson’s Great Society and the war that went with it included Medicare for older people—I’ll be starting on it next month myself—and Medicaid for people of any age living in poverty. The struggles, sacrifices, and deaths of civil-rights activists together with Johnson’s political mastery gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Of course the Trump Justice Department is doing its best to roll back both of these victories.) Then, as now, poverty touched the lives of many white people, but it flourished most abundantly in black and brown communities and so these new rights for people of color, some of us believed, signaled a light at the end of the tunnel when it came to the genuine abatement of poverty.
By 1968, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were addressing poverty across racial divides, organizing a Poor People’s Campaign. It was to include a march on Washington and culminate in the building on the Capitol Mall of a “Resurrection City,” which was to serve as a model—a metaphor—for a United States risen from the cross of poverty. King was, however, murdered that April and so didn’t live to see that city. It turned out, in any case, to be a plywood encampment that would be drowned in mud from days of torrential rain. In the minds of those who still remember it, Resurrection City became a sad metaphor for Lyndon Johnson’s war. “The war on poverty,” as the saying went, “is over. Poverty won.”
Meanwhile, much of the country was distracted from that metaphorical war by an actual war in Vietnam, where the only metaphor around was the insistence of commander of US forces Gen. William Westmoreland that there was “light at the end of the tunnel” when it came to that disastrous conflict.
What’s in a Metaphor?
The war on poverty was hardly this country’s first metaphorical war. In the 1930s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched a “war on crime,” anticipating by some 40 years Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, which itself has lasted another 40 years with no end in sight. Nixon also gave us the “war on cancer”—still ongoing—even as he continued to pursue the actual war in Vietnam, a rare American conflict in the second half of the 20th century, metaphorical or otherwise, that came to a definitive end (even if in defeat).
Nor is the United States alone in fighting “wars” against nonhuman enemies. The World Bank, for example, ran a seven-year “total war” on AIDS in Kenya. The project ended in 2014, by which time 1.6 million people, or 6 percent of the population, were infected with HIV. Perhaps the bank was smarter than the United States in choosing to declare victory and go home, as at one point Vermont Governor George Aiken famously suggested we should do in relation to Vietnam.
What, you might wonder, is the problem in using the metaphor of war to represent a collective effort to battle and overcome some social evil? Certainly, fighting a war often requires from whole populations a special kind of heroic focus, a willingness to mobilize and sacrifice, a commitment to community or country, and for those in uniform, loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers. It also requires people to relinquish their own petty interests in the service of a greater whole. Correspondent Chris Hedges caught this aspect of war in the title of his powerful book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Aren’t such qualities useful ones to bring to the struggle to solve urgent, life-destroying problems like disease, poverty, or addiction? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if human beings could confront those horrors with the same kind of passion, intensity, and funding we bring to actual wars?
Yes and no. A metaphor is, of course, an implied comparison in which two things share enough qualities in common that calling one by the other’s name will be illuminating. If, for instance, you said, “Donald Trump is a giant Cheeto,” you wouldn’t be suggesting that the president is actually a large, puffy piece of junk food. You would be highlighting the way he shares with that particular delicacy a certain orange coloration, as well as an airy structure that crumbles when you try to get your teeth into it—as so many of Trump’s statements crumble in the jaws of truth.
Metaphors work only when the similarity between two things is striking enough that you learn something about one by comparing it to the other. Those two things must also, however, be different in crucial ways, or what you have isn’t a metaphor but an equation. For instance, Trump as a Cheeto works exactly because you and I are unlikely to transfer to Donald J. Trump the feelings and attitudes we have toward Cheetos. We know enough about the nature of both to never want to eat the president, however much we may love the salty crunch of that snack food. When, however, you know less about at least one of the terms of comparison—or less than you think you do—then a powerful metaphor can be a deceiver, making us think we understand a phenomenon that actually goes over our heads (another metaphor). A bad metaphor can affect how we act individually and as a society and in some grim cases even whether we, or others, live or die.
And the use of war as a metaphor—the treating of every human ill as if it were an enemy that could be defeated by a battle plan—works just that way. When we declare war on phenomena like crime, drugs, or terror, instantly militarizing such problems, we severely limit our means for understanding and dealing with them.
The Power of Metaphor
What happens, for example, when we transform the problem of human addiction into a war on drugs? For one thing, fighting a war requires an enemy, at least one group that, given the logic of war, we can imagine as not quite human as well as an existential danger to the rest of us. It’s easy to forget that the ultimate aim of the war on drugs is not, or at least should not be, to destroy drug users but to release them from the prison of addiction (to mix metaphors dangerously). Instead, not just drugs but drug users often become the enemy.
One consequence of militarizing the problem of drugs—a lesson from the war on terror, too—is that our survival comes to seem dependent on ensuring that captured enemies be detained until the end of hostilities. And since such hostilities never seem to end, that means essentially forever. In other words, as soon as you make war on drugs (and so on those who use them), the urge to end the real human suffering that drug addiction causes quickly devolves into, in Trumpian terms, “winning.” That, in turn, means ensuring vastly more suffering through actual violence and the endless incarceration of millions of people, a startling number of them for drug offenses, or what might be thought of as the Guantànamo-ization of America.
Can a metaphor really do all that? It can indeed when it so limits our vision that any other approach becomes unthinkable, unimaginable. In the war on drugs, as in all wars, there must be good guys and bad guys, good citizens who are to be mobilized (at least in their sympathies) against not-quite-human drug users. Similarly, when we declare war on a disease, like cancer, we risk limiting understanding of the disease process to models like invasion, or territorial aggression, and so limit imaginable treatments to therapies that eradicate the invaders with poison or radiation. In effect, we accept that in the case of cancer, as in the case of the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre, it may be necessary to destroy the patient in order to save her. (This is not to say that chemotherapy and radiation don’t save lives; they do. Rather, it suggests that a military approach to disease can cause doctors to think of patients as battlefields, rather than as people.)
There’s another problem with declaring “wars” on threats to human well-being: a tendency to conflate the threat and the victim of the threat. A war on AIDS becomes a campaign to protect “society” from “AIDS carriers,” as happened in 1986 when California voters were asked to approve Proposition 64, which would have made it possible to quarantine everyone in the state with HIV. Proposition 64 was soundly defeated, but by then almost 30 percent of that state’s voters had been convinced that the enemy they confronted wasn’t AIDS, but people living with AIDS.
Suppose we were to think about the struggle to deal with drug abuse not as a metaphorical war, but as a real public-health problem (as seems to be happening in the case of the opioid crisis that presently affects mainly white people). What might change? For one thing, we might be able to separate the concepts of drug use and criminality in our minds. Not automatically identifying drug use with crime might make it possible to imagine adopting a program similar to Portugal’s decriminalization of drug possession. In 2001, that country stopped prosecuting simple possession of all illegal drugs and made government-run drug treatment easily available. Unlike the rest of Europe, let alone the United States, Portugal’s addiction rates have plummeted since decriminalization took effect and that country began putting funds that would previously have gone into incarceration into treatment instead. With Americans stuck on the idea of fighting a drug war, however, the Portuguese example remains beyond imagining here. It would be the moral equivalent of surrender.
Another problem with war as a metaphor for social ills is that warring and caring call upon very different moral qualities. While both share characteristics like courage, persistence, and often the need to endure real hardship, the prosecution of war also requires other qualities: obedience, indifference to the suffering of oneself and others, and the necessity of viewing the world in black and white. War requires that we recognize in ourselves only virtue and, in our foe, only inhuman evil. We should not be surprised when President Trump informs us that, in his wars on crime and drugs, the human enemies—gang members, and by extension immigrants in general—are not people but “animals.” And to be good soldiers, the rest of us are expected to practice dehumanizing the enemy, too.
When, in the 20th century, the United States began fighting metaphorical wars against social ills, most Americans understood actual war as something with a beginning (requiring a congressional declaration) and an end (the surrender of one side, with a peace treaty to follow). However, the American wars of the second half of that century turned out to lack such clear demarcations. With the exception of outright defeat in Vietnam, starting with the Korean War, our military conflicts have lacked endings. We now have a generation of young people who have never known a time when the United States was not involved in war, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, or Yemen.
In a 2001 essay, “The War Metaphor in Public Policy: Some Moral Reflections,” the philosopher James Childress argued that, like real wars, metaphorical wars against social evils ought to be just wars. In the tradition of what ethicists call “just war theory,” legitimate wars begin for just reasons (primarily defense against direct aggression), are necessary and proportionate (military action taken is in proportion to the aggression suffered), and have a reasonable expectation of success.
Most crucially, just-war theory imagines wars with beginnings and ends. But in the 21st century, Washington’s wars have essentially become endless, or as the Pentagon has taken to saying, “generational.” Former CIA head Michael Hayden is typical these days in predicting that the fight against ISIS alone will last 30 years. And the country’s metaphorical wars have followed an eerily similar pattern.
War metaphors mainly have the effect of distorting legitimate efforts to resolve real social problems, while at the same time cheapening our understanding of actual war. We misunderstand the complexities of a problem like poverty when we approach it as if it were an enemy to be defeated. We also fail to appreciate the horrors of actual war when we equate the destruction of entire nations with attempts to end the suffering of impoverished people. A bad metaphor obscures at least as much as it illumines. Unlike attempts to improve people’s lives by eradicating poverty or curing disease, actual war involves the imposition of the will of one group on another, through acts causing injury, pain, destruction, and death.
Of course, as we’ve seen with recent Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare, policy proposals can kill, too, but they are not wars. It’s important to maintain that distinction.