Sunday, July 27, 2008

The War on Military Metaphors (by Phila)

Patricia H. Kushlis and Robert M. Jeffers are both getting a wee bit tired of our militarized discourse. Here's PHK:
Painting the world in “us-versus-them” shoot-em-up vocabulary precludes dialog. It precludes mutual understanding. It also intimately relates to an exorbitantly expensive and unnecessary militarization of US foreign policy and foreign policy institutions that is at least partially responsible for precipitating the serious economic problems we currently face.
And here's RMJ:
The soldier we are being asked to lionize now is a mercenary who fights so we don't have to: so we can sit around airports chatting amiably and maybe buy a beer and be glad somebody is off fighting foreigners so we don't have to think of them as anything but the enemy we can get somebody to keep at bay.
These are both reasonable points, and they got me thinking about my own reasons for disliking this language (I mean, apart from the fact that its central post-9/11 purpose is to make specific legal arguments for specific extralegal goals).

The main thing that bothers me is that these words are portals to a sort of mythic time in which all "just wars" seem to take place in an emotional present tense, so that the grubby ambitions of the Bush Administration become just another verse in the Song of Freedom (cf. Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture).

It's also a time in which leaders shouldn't be questioned, and good citizens know what to do, either because they listen to orders, or have internalized them to the extent that they obey without being ordered and without having to think. As such, it's a dumbed-down, popularized version of military discipline that applies more to opinion than action, and risks nothing, and thus can cheerfully ignore realities that actual soldiers usually can't. In other words, it's a tool for "mobilizing" public opinion (which is itself a military metaphor, of course, and a telling one); those whose opinions can't or won't be mobilized are, in essence, deserters.

Last, I object to it because it puts a veneer of seriousness on endeavors that are usually anything but. When we speak officially of launching a "war" on something, it generally means that lots of money will be spent on exacerbating a problem whose causes have been oversimplified to the point of inanity, and for which the wrong people are sure to be held responsible and made to suffer.

I'm not sure whether I agree with PHK that this language "precludes mutual understanding" internationally; I tend to assume that world leaders, at least, understand each other's basic concerns pretty well. But it certainly does try to preclude domestic dissent.

Still, these complaints are somewhat abstract, compared to the legal and political utility of being a "wartime president," or of calling the occupation of Iraq a war. PHK hopes that the next administration will be willing to drop the “War on Terror” metaphor from its vocabulary. I suppose that depends on whether it'll be willing to forfeit the power and judicial deference that go along with it.