When I was growing up in London, I occasionally suffered a mild bout of cognitive
disconnect when I heard words used for purposes which went slightly beyond my
own ideas of what they referred to. For instance, when London Underground talked
about their "trains", I would do one of those internal double-takes:
trains, for me, were above ground, while the things which ran intermittently
up and down the Northern Line were tubes. I had a similar experience
when McDonald’s would talk about how many "restaurants" they had:
restaurants, for me, were places where a waiter would recite specials,
and where you ate your food with cutlery.
I got a similar feeling when US presidents would talk about the "war on
drugs" – similar, but different. In the "train" and "restaurant"
scenarios, I reckoned that basically LU and McDonald’s were perfectly right:
they did, in fact, have trains and restaurants respctively, even if they weren’t
the kind of trains and restaurants I was used to. (But I’d still look askance
at anybody who said that they took a train to a restaurant, when in fact they
took the tube to a McDonald’s.)
In the "war on drugs" scenario, I reckoned that the word "war"
was being used metaphorically, and that although it wasn’t a real war, the usage
could be understood by considering it to be political rhetoric. I was helped
along in this understanding by the fact that the leader of the war on drugs
was known as the "drugs tsar" – clearly, he wasn’t a real tsar,
which meant that everything could be best understood as being mediated by a
scrim of metaphor.
Which brings us, of course, to the "war on terror". I think that
one of the differences between conservatives and liberals is that the former
consider the war on terror to be a bit like the trains and the restaurants:
not, perhaps, the kind of war you’re used to, but a genuine war all the same.
Whereas the liberals are more likely to consider it to be a metaphor, and are
therefore much more likely to get upset when the US does something like invade
a foreign country in its name.
And in fact, I think that many of the disagreements about the Bush administration’s
foreign policy basically come down to this largely semantic question. The hawks
are saying "don’t you understand, we’re at war here", while
the doves are saying "no, the ‘war on terror’ is a rhetorical device,
not a prima facie justification for invading whomever you want".
Of course, we can all agree that the US military actions in Afghanistan and
Iraq were real wars, with real troops losing their lives in battles for the
control of foreign countries. But the decision to go to war in those countries
is maybe not as difficult to make if you consider yourself to be at war anyway.
Looked at from that point of view, Afghanistan and Iraq are important parts
of a much bigger war, rather than unprovoked and probably illegal invasions
of independent states.
As a general rule, I think it’s probably safe to say that how you read the
phrase "war on terror" is a very good predictor of how you’ll vote.
Literalists will vote to re-elect the present administration, while those who
consider the phrase to be more metaphorical are likely to vote Democratic.
This is bad news for the Democrats, I think. Whoever ends up running against
Bush is going to have a very hard time of things trying to persuade Middle America
that the war on terror is a metaphor – especially when most undecided
voters are unlikely to even know what a metaphor is. (It’s a curious characteristic
of the US electoral system that towards the end of an election campaign, the
people who still haven’t made up their minds tend not to be the sharpest knives
in the drawer. They’re perfectly happy holding two or three contradictory opinions
at once, and are as likely as not to simply vote for the candidate with the
The problem is that the Bush administration has done a very good job of selling
the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror, and therefore has a great response
to anybody trying to say that the war on terror isn’t a real war. All the Republicans
need to do is point to Iraq, and the heroic troops serving and dying there under
horrendous conditions: "you say that’s not a real war"? Anybody trying
to answer "no, you don’t understand, the war on Iraq is a real
war, but the war on terror isn’t" is going to come off as a hair-splitter
who has problems with Moral Clarity.
Maybe the Democrats should launch their own War on Obfuscatory Rhetorical Devices,
like "war on terror", "death penalty" (to mean inheritance
tax), and "healthy forests initiative" (the name of a pro-logging
bill). I fear they’d find themselves on the losing side, however.