“War”: What is it good for?

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

best hair.)

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.

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1 Response to “War”: What is it good for?

  1. rachel says:

    iam doing a debate and the topic iam diong is that ‘is war worth it’ but only to find that this website has got nothing about it!!! iam seriously piced because this debate is on tommorow and i dont know what to say about this topic!!! can you help me by sending me something that will help me talk about this topic anyway i will check my messages in 5 minutes to see if you have returned back my message.. iam counting on you now … from Rachel in Australia

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