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.