Metaphor and War

Extracts from Metaphor And War: The Metaphor System Used To Justify War In The Gulf

George Lakoff, Linguistics Department, University of California at Berkeley

Metaphors can kill. The discourse over whether we should go to war in the Gulf is a panorama of metaphor. Secretary of State Baker sees Saddam as ‘sitting on our economic lifeline.’ President Bush sees him as having a ‘stranglehold’ on our economy. General Schwartzkopf characterizes the occupation of Kuwait as a ‘rape’ that is ongoing. The President said that the US is in the Gulf to ‘project freedom, protect our future, and protect the innocent’, and that we must ‘push Saddam Hussein back.’ Saddam is seen as Hitler. It is vital, literally vital, to understand just what role metaphorical thought is playing in bringing us to the brink of war. Metaphorical thought, in itself, is neither good nor bad; it is simply commonplace and inescapable. Abstractions and enormously complex situations are routinely understood via metaphor. Indeed, there is an extensive, and mostly unconscious system of metaphor that we use automatically and unreflectively to understand complexities and abstractions. Part of this system is devoted to understanding international relations and war. We now know enough about this system to have an idea of how it functions. The metaphorical understanding of a situation functions in two parts. First, there is a widespread, relatively fixed set of metaphors that structure how we think. For example, a decision to go to war might be seen as a form of cost-benefit analysis, where war is justified when the costs of going to war are less than the costs of not going to war. Second, there is a set of metaphorical definitions that allow one to apply such a metaphor to a particular situation. In this case, there must be a definition of ‘cost’, including a means of comparing relative ‘costs’. The use of a metaphor with a set of definitions becomes pernicious when it hides realities in a harmful way. It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real, and in a war, they could afflict tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of real human beings, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or American.

The State-As-Person System

A state is conceptualized as a person, engaging in social, relations within a world community. Its land-mass is its home. It lives in a neighbourhood, and has neighbours, friends and enemies. States are seen as having inherent dispositions: they can be peaceful or aggressive, responsible or irresponsible, industrious or lazy.

Well-being is wealth. The general well-being of a state is understood in economic terms: its economic health. A serious threat to economic health can thus be seen as a death threat. To the extent that a nation’s economy depends on foreign oil, that oil supply becomes a ‘lifeline’ (reinforced by the image of an oil pipeline).

Strength for a state is military strength. Maturity for the person-state is industrialization. Unindustrialized nations are ‘underdeveloped’, with industrialization as a natural state to be reached.

Third-world nations are thus immature children to be taught how to develop properly or disciplined if they get out of line. Nations that fail to industrialize at a rate considered normal are seen as akin to retarded children and judged as ‘backward’ nations.

The Fairy Tale of the Just War

The fairy tale has an asymmetry built into it. The hero is moral and courageous, while the villain is amoral and vicious. The hero is rational, but though the villain may be cunning and calculating, he cannot be reasoned with. Heroes thus cannot negotiate with villains; they must defeat them. The enemy-asdemon metaphor arises as a consequence of the fact that we understand what a just war is in terms of this fairy tale. The most natural way to justify a war on moral grounds is to fit this fairy tale structure to a given situation. This is done by metaphorical definition, that is, by answering the questions: Who is the victim? Who is the villain? Who is the hero? What is the crime? What counts as victory? Each set of answers provides a different filled-out scenario. As the Gulf crisis developed, President Bush tried to justify going to war by the use of such a scenario. At first, he couldn’t get his story straight. What happened was that he was using two different sets of metaphorical definitions, which resulted in two different scenarios: the Rescue Scenario: Iraq is villain, the US is hero, Kuwait is victim, the crime is kidnap and rape. The Self-Defense Scenario: Iraq is villain, the US is hero, the US and other industrialized nations are victims, the crime is a death threat, that is, a threat to economic wealth. The American people could not accept the second scenario, since it amounted to trading lives for oil. The administration has settled on the first, and that seems to have been accepted by the public, the media, and Congress as providing moral justification for going to war.

The Ruler-For-State Metonymy

There is a metonymy that goes hand-in-hand with the State-as-Person metaphor: The Ruler Stands for the State. Thus, we can refer to Iraq by referring to Saddam Hussein and so have a single person, not just art amorphous state to play the villain in the just war scenario. It is this metonymy that is invoked when the President says ‘We have to get Saddam out of Kuwait.’ Incidentally, the metonymy only applies to those leaders perceived as rulers. Thus, it would be strange for us, but not for the Iraqis, to describe an American invasion of Kuwait by saying, ‘George Bush marched into Kuwait’.

War as Violent Crime

To bear in mind what is hidden by Clausewitz’s metaphor, we should consider an alternative metaphor that is not used by professional strategists nor by the general public to understand war as we engage in it. War is violent crime: murder, assault, kidnapping, arson, rape, and theft. Here, war is understood only in terms of its moral dimension, and not, say, its political or economic dimension. The metaphor highlights those aspects of war that would otherwise be seen as major crimes. There is an Us-Them asymmetry between the public use of Clausewitz’s metaphor and the War-as-Crime metaphor. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is reported on in terms of murder, theft and rape. The planned American invasion is never discussed in terms of murder, assault, and arson. Moreover, the US plans for war are seen, in Clausewitzian terms, as rational calculation. But the Iraqi invasion is discussed not as a rational move by Saddam, but as the work of a madman. We see the US as rational, moral and courageous and Them as criminal and insane.

War as a Competitive Game

It has long been noted that we understand war as a competitive game like chess, or as a sport, like football or boxing. It is a metaphor in which there is a clear winner and loser, and a clear end to the game. The metaphor highlights strategic thinking, team work, preparedness, the spectators in the world arena, the glory of winning and the shame of defeat. This metaphor is taken very seriously. There is a long tradition in the West of training military officers in team sports and chess. The military is trained to win. This can lead to a metaphor conflict, as it did in Vietnam, since Clausewitz’s metaphor seeks to maximize geopolitical gains, which may or may not be consistent with absolute military victory. The situation at present is that the public has accepted the rescue scenario of the just war fairy tale as providing moral justification. The president, for internal political reasons, has accepted the competitive game metaphor as taking precedence over Clausewitz’s metaphor: If he must choose, he will go for the military win over maximizing geopolitical gains. The testimony of the experts before Congress falls largely within Clausewitz’s metaphor. Much of it is testimony about what will maximize gains and minimize losses. For all that has been questioned in the Congressional hearings, these metaphors have not. It is important to see what they hide.

What is Victory?

In a fairy tale or a game, victory is well-defined. Once it is achieved, the story or game is over. Neither is the case in the Gulf crisis. History continues, and ‘victory’ makes sense only in terms of continuing history. The president’s stated objectives are total Iraqi withdrawl and restoration of the Kuwaiti monarchy. But no one believes the matter will end there, since Saddam would still be in power with all of his forces intact. General Powell said in his Senate testimony that if Saddam withdrew, the US would have to ‘strengthen the indigenous countries of the region’ to achieve a balance of power. Presumably that means arming Assad, who is every bit as dangerous as Saddam. Would arming another villain count as victory? If we go to war, what will constitute ‘victory’? Suppose we conquer Iraq, wiping out its military capability. How would Iraq be governed? No puppet government that we set up could govern effectively since it would be hated by the entire populace. Since Saddam has wiped out all opposition, the only remaining effective government for the country would be his Ba’ath party. Would it count as a victory if Saddam’s friends wound up in power? If not, what other choice is there? And if Iraq has no remaining military force, how could it defend itself against Syria and Iran? It would certainly not be a ‘victory’ for us if either of them took over Iraq. If Syria did, then Assad’s Arab nationalism would become a threat. If Iran did, then Islamic fundamentalism would become even more powerful and theatening. It would seem that the closest thing to a ‘victory’ for the US in case of war would be to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait; destroy just enough of Iraq’s military to leave it capable of defending itself against Syria and Iran; somehow get Saddam out of power, but let his Ba’ath party remain in control of a country just strong enough to defend itself, but not strong enough to be a threat; and keep the price of oil at a reasonably low level. The problems: it is not obvious that we could get Saddam out of power without wiping out most of Iraq’s military capability. We would have invaded an Arab country, which would create vast hatred for us throughout the Arab world, and would no doubt result in decades of increased terrorism and lack of cooperation by Arab states. We would, by defeating an Arab nationalist state, strengthen Islamic fundamentalism. Iraq would remain a cruel dictatorship run by cronies of Saddam. By reinstating the government of Kuwait, we would inflame the hatred of the poor toward the rich throughout the Arab world, and thus increase instability. And the price of oil would go through the roof. Even the closest thing to a victory doesn’t look very victorious. In the debate over whether to go to war, very little time has been spent clarifying what a victory would be. And if ‘victory’ cannot be defined, neither can ‘worthwhile sacrifice.’

What is Hidden by Seeing the State as a Person?

The State-as-Person metaphor highlights the ways in which states act as units, and hides the internal structure of the state. Class structure is hidden by this metaphor, as is ethnic composition, religious rivalry, political parties, the ecology, the influence of the military and of corporations (especially multinational corporations). Consider ‘national interest’. It is in a person’s interest to be healthy and strong. The State-as-Person metaphor translates this into a ‘national interest’ of economic health and military strength. But what is in the ‘national interest’ may or may not be in the interest of many ordinary citizens, groups, or institutions, who may become poorer as the GNP rises and weaker as the military gets stronger. The ‘national interest’ is a metaphorical concept, and it is defined in America by politicians and policy makers. For the most part, they are influenced more by the rich than by the poor, more by large corporations than by small business, and more by developers than ecological activists, When President Bush argues that going to war would ‘serve our vital national interests’, he is using a metaphor that hides exactly whose interests would be served and whose would not. For example, poor people, especially blacks and Hispanics, are represented in the military in disproportionately large numbers, and in a war the lower classes and those ethnic groups will suffer proportionally more casualties. Thus the war is less in the interest of ethnic minorities and the lower classes than the white upper classes. Also hidden are the interests of the military itself, which are served when war is justified. Hopes that after the cold war the military might play a smaller role had been dashed by the president’s decision to prepare for war. He was advised, as he should be, by the national security council, which consists primarily of military men. War is so awful a prospect that one would not like to think that military self-interest itself could help tilt the balance to a decision for war. But in a democratic society, the question must be asked, since the justifications for war also justify continued military funding and an undiminished national political role for the military.

America as Hero

The classic fairy tale defines what consitutes a hero: it is a person who rescues an innocent victim and who defeats and punishes a guilty and inherently evil villain, and who does so for moral rather than venal reasons. If America starts a war, will it be functioning as a hero? It will certainly not fit the profile very well. First, one of its main goals will be to reinstate ‘the legitimate government of Kuwait’. That means reinstating an absolute monarchy, where women are not accorded anything resembling reasonable rights, and where 80% of the people living in the country are foreign workers who do the dirtiest jobs and are not accorded the opportunity to become citizens. This is not an innocent victim whose rescue makes us heroic. Second, the actual human beings who will suffer from an all-out attack will, for the most part, be innocent people who did not take part in the atrocities in Kuwait. Killing and maiming a lot of innocent bystanders in the process of nabbing a much smaller number of villains does not make one much of a hero. Third, in the self-defence scenario, where oil is at issue, America is acting in its self-interest. But, in order to qualify as a legitimate hero in the rescue scenario, it must be acting selflessly. Thus, there is a contradiction between the self-interested hero of the self-defence scenario and the purely selfless hero of the rescue scenario. Fourth, America may be a hero to the royal families of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but it will not be a hero to most Arabs. Most Arabs do not think in terms of our metaphors. A great many Arabs will see us as a kind of colonial power using illegitimate force against an Arab brother. To them, we will be villains, not heroes. America appears as a classic hero only if you don’t look carefully at how the metaphor is applied to the situation. It is here that the State-as-Person metaphor functions in a way that hides vital truths. The State-as-Person metaphor hides the internal structure of states and allows us to think of Kuwait as a unitary entity, the defenseless maiden to be rescued in the fairy tale. The metaphor hides the monarchical character of Kuwait, and the way Kuwaitis treat women and the vast majority of the people who live in their country. The State-as-Person metaphor also hides the internal structures of Iraq, and thus hides the actual people who will mostly be killed, maimed, or otherwise harmed in a war. The same metaphor also hides the internal structure of the U.S., and therefore hides the fact that it is the poor and minorities who will make the most sacrifices while not getting any significant benefit. And it hides the main ideas that drive Middle Eastern politics.

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