Posts Tagged ‘language of war’

War as Solution and as Metaphor

In PeaceAble on November 25, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Let’s face an uncomfortable truth about ourselves: war is the default, go-to solution for our problems. From the War on Poverty to the War on Terrorism, we turn to war as both metaphor and action as we seek to address our issues. And both ends and the middle of the political spectrum are all complicit in this. The right has the War on Christmas; the left has the War on Women. And war as a metaphor is a powerful way of addressing problems. It heightens awareness and commitment; it brings people together in common cause; it employs powerful language that stirs powerful emotions; when we go to war things get done. But what gets done in war may not be what we really want to get done. There are times when rational people might argue reasonably that war is the best possible solution to some critical problem, but there are important reasons why we ought to stop turning everything into a war.
War requires us to de-humanize the other, and in the process dehumanize ourselves. In order to go to war, we need an enemy; or more to the point, we need “THE enemy.” And the enemy needs to be as simply and graphically defined as possible. Any weakness in our definition of the enemy makes it that much harder to fight them. But the world is never that simple. Human beings are complex creatures, neither all good nor all bad as a rule; but in order to go to war we need to create stark contrasts between ourselves and the “other.” This does neither of us any good. It’s easy to see how this happens in extreme situations. The atrocities being committed by the forces of ISIS, or ISIL, in Iraq and Syria make it easy to condemn the whole force as purely evil. We don’t want to hear about our own complicity in the creation of the Islamic State; we don’t want to really know what motivates them to act so abominably; because to understand them in human terms makes it harder to say “kill them all.” And since they call themselves Islamic, it is easy to extend that to all Islam and all Muslims and all those who might look Muslim and to all those who come from places with beliefs and customs and ways of being that are different from our own. Tragic and horrific events have this effect, and while that does not justify the dehumanization, it at least makes it understandable.
But even in instances of great trauma, dehumanizing the other has the effect of dehumanizing ourselves as well, in at least two ways. First, dehumanizing the other gives me the cover I need to dig into the darkest parts of myself, to howl and snarl and hunt and kill, and employ instincts necessary to the task. I begin to throw rhetorical magnets in the way of my moral compass so that it will point me the way I already want to go. Even when the task itself, such as stopping a great evil, seems necessary, even noble, the dehumanization goes both ways. And that leads to the second self-dehumanization. When we define the enemy, we define ourselves as their enemy, and we invite them to do to us what we are doing to them. It is not possible to say to ourselves, “because the enemy has done these terrible things, then we must do these same or similar or even worse terrible things to them,’ without becoming, in at least some small way, like them. If we see them as less than human because they see us as less than human, how have we improved things, and what are we becoming? Are we not all becoming dehumanized along the way?
Now see what happens when everything becomes a war. Declare that there is a “War on Christmas” and who is your enemy? Suddenly everyone who chooses to wish people a happy holiday becomes the enemy and is dehumanized. And they in turn lump all those who feel even the least bit of a loss of some specialness, some sense of tradition and continuity, who miss what was, into one monolithic hate group and thus dehumanize them as well. Declare that there is a “War on Women” and it is easy to see men as the enemy, or at least for men to believe that that is your intent, and this lumping together of men as the enemy is dehumanizing; so you get the rise of #notallmen, which seeks to turn those with a genuine concern for the really serious issues of violence and inequity and dehumanization women face every day in a male-normative culture into further dehumanized “man-haters.” And there’s no excuse to be found in trying to decide who started it. The question is who’s going to stop it?
Also, war is a violent metaphor that encourages violent behavior. This should, of course, be obvious. Real war is violence. But even using war as a metaphor implies violent behavior, which in turn justifies violent responses. The violence begins rhetorically. Our language escalates first, and the escalation of language leads to escalation of action. And the drumbeat of war drowns out the discussion of alternative solutions, especially those that require compromise and cooperation. Albert Einstein once wrote that “One cannot simultaneously prepare for war and plan for peace.” The military routinely sends “surplus” equipment, the tools of war, to police departments. When police departments begin to treat the business of keeping the peace as a military operation, then they become encouraged to treat the citizenry as the enemy, to dehumanize them, and to act violently in dealing with them. Historically, this has disproportionately affected minorities and the poor, the disenfranchised, because these groups are already dehumanized by our cultural language. If you own a tank, you feel the need to use that tank; and whom will you use it against unless there is an enemy; and who is the enemy? And if you have a tank and are prepared to use it, then drawing a gun and firing it seems almost insignificant by comparison. And if you are a citizen facing that kind of militarized firepower, is it unreasonable to think that you might have to arm yourself, too?
War prepares us to accept things like “collateral damage,” “acceptable losses,” and “the ultimate sacrifice” without measuring the real cost of those things. Every death in war, every person who suffers injuries of any kind is dehumanized by our investment in war as our primary response to conflict. Soldiers who die are turned into heroes for the rest of us, becoming symbols rather than flesh and blood beings. They are held up as support for the heroism and nobility of war. We honor those whose children die fighting wars, “Gold Star Mothers” for example, as though their grief should be tempered by that heroism and nobility; as though we might choose to have a son or daughter die in war. The children of the other, the enemy, however, are not celebrated as heroes. We find ways to mock the enemy dead, even to blame them for their own deaths. Non-combatants who die are simply numbers. In the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, more than 3000 people died. They were overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, Americans. This event was used, is still used, to convince the American people that we are at war. That war led us into Afghanistan and Iraq, and those two wars have caused the deaths, injuries and destruction of lives for tens of thousands of Americans, mostly but not entirely military; and the deaths, injuries and destruction of the lives of more than half a million non-Americans, mostly civilian. When we count the cost of war we often forget the cost of rebuilding communities, nations, and individual lives. And we don’t want to know. We elect to Congress people who want to spend more money on weapons and war, but less on treating the injuries, both physical and psychological, of veterans.
This dehumanization of all involved in war also celebrates and honors warriors, and disparages peacemakers; thus celebrating and honoring war while disparaging peace and those who work for it without war. We have dozens of national, state and local holidays and observances that honor the military, from Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to days honoring Robert E. Lee or Confederate veterans, to VE Day, D-Day, and Soldiers’ Day. The only national holiday honoring someone who worked for peaceful solutions is Martin Luther King Day, which is still a controversial holiday. In a few places, a day is set aside to honor people like Rosa Parks, also. This is, by the way, not accidental. We begin calling people heroes as soon as they put on a uniform, pledge our nearly unconditional support for them and whatever they do, and give them benefits unavailable to others. We do this because we need to convince them and ourselves that what we are asking them to do, to risk, is always a good thing. When something turns out badly we either don’t talk about it or treat it as an aberration, something that “happens in wars,” but not actually caused by war itself; as in My Lai or Abu Ghraib. Or we blame it on the dehumanized other, the “enemy,” as when students are killed at Kent State or civilians die in raids against the Taliban or Al Qaeda; or when an unarmed person is killed by a policeman. War itself makes these excuses and evasions necessary, because if war were not a good thing, a thing for heroes and people of noble character, then all our soldiers would be simply mercenaries, willing to kill or be killed if the pay is good and the benefits substantial. We need people who are genuinely interested in doing the right thing, in helping; we need people who will commit to the cause and the solution for honest, good reasons. The other side of that is that we consider diplomats and peacemakers as weak, or duplicitous, because we don’t see them at work, because the results of their efforts are less immediate, less dangerous, and less visible than the work of war.
War never leads to peace, nor to lasting solutions. War encourages us to deal with problems in terms of bi-polar, simplistic, winner and loser results that do not address the real issues. If diplomacy takes more than a few months we are quick to call it a waste of time; but a war that drags on for years becomes its own justification. We can’t stop now, before the enemy is defeated completely, before we can declare victory. Compromise is, of course, impossible in war; we either win or lose. If we begin to call it a “War on Christmas” because people want to say “Happy Holidays” or include the recognition of other celebrations during the season, then we won’t be satisfied with anything less than complete surrender. A “War on Coal” precludes a serious attempt to transform our fossil fuel industries, to address climate change. And the constant refrain of war leads us to fight undeclared wars whenever a new problem arises. We get enraged that stores might stay open on Thanksgiving, but offer no long term, reasonable solutions to the needs of those who don’t get paid if they don’t get to work, the more substantial issues of the simultaneous mythologizing and commercialization of our holidays, the wastefulness and inequity evident in our feel-good drives to make sure that people who starve all year round have an enormous Thanksgiving dinner rather than solving the problems of food insecurity. The truth is that reason is the enemy of war. War is always a desperate solution, not a reasonable one.
The culture of war reinforces and recreates itself through our children. We have created a culture of constant war, of crisis. We see enemies everywhere, even among ourselves. Whatever our position on an issue it is the only correct one, the only patriotic or Christian or liberal or conservative one. Our enemies aren’t “real” Americans or Christians or patriots; but they simultaneously represent all that is evil about the groups they belong to. They are Muslims or socialists or fascists or atheists, and they are all thugs or terrorists or criminals. They are gun nuts or ammosexuals or libtards or repugs or feminazis. We are given stark warnings of the disasters that will befall us if “they” aren’t stopped. And this constant cultural reference to “the War on” virtually everything becomes part of the early vocabulary of our children, whom we require to declare their loyalty and allegiance daily and to learn the virtues of neither questioning nor resisting authority, to follow orders. We teach them to beware the others whoever they are, to distrust science, to treat the myths of history as sacred fact and the facts of history as distractions from the unquestioning loyalty that is necessary for the inevitable war. Our culture tells us that we and our enemies are biologically and psychologically predisposed to war, so war is the only possible choice. If we try to teach our children about peaceableness, about learning to live in peace, through acceptance and compromise and reason, we are defeated at every turn by the overwhelming cultural onslaught of the language of war. And the saddest thing is that we are well aware that children left on their own will trust the other, embrace the other, and accept the other as simply human and worthy of their unconditional love. And while it is true that there is risk in that, that there are dangers in the world, the dangers are never as common or abundant as the good. When every risk is a crisis, when every response to controversy is a war, when even the pacifist finds himself using the language of war to describe the struggle, then it is way past time to step back, take a deep breath, and develop a more discerning perspective, a more nuanced and balanced approach.
We cannot change the culture until we change the dominant language, the common and normative images and references at tell us who we are and what we are like. It is time for us to put aside the language and imagery of war as normal and find new, more peaceable ways to talk to ourselves and about ourselves. One good start would be to refuse to cooperate when someone declares a war on something. Let’s, instead, take the time to say what the issues or problems really are. This is especially important for those of us who claim to be progressive and pacifist. We cannot claim to abhor and oppose war if we use the language of war. It won’t be easy, but it is honest; and it is necessary.

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