War metaphors have no place in political speech

Lesley Toth
At Random

We’ve been hearing about them for a long time, some for decades: The War on Poverty; The War on Drugs; The War on Terror; The War on Christmas; The War on Guns; War on Science; War on Religion; Class Warfare and now — The War on Women.

Ever since Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on a faceless, intangible enemy (in his case, poverty), it seems in vogue to assert whatever the opposition is doing is akin to a declaration of a military attack. These days we’ve stopped declaring official war on other countries (the last time being the second world war), but instead we paint any philosophical or political chasm as an unabashed provocation of battle.

As a WWII veteran, it seems strange to me that Johnson would have used such a metaphor, especially having experienced one of the bloodiest wars in world history. Another veteran, Richard Nixon, used the same terminology when he declared war on drugs. Looking at the number of casualties due to gang violence and the incarceration rates of inmates serving sentences stemming from drug charges, Nixon’s declaration of war may not be too far removed from reality. However, I don’t think anyone is advocating we rename those inmates POWs.

Recently, the metaphor has been used so loosely, it can be found in even the most non-combative situations. One headline read: “Why Apple escalated its war on Samsung.” I’m sure the teams of attorneys were returning fire across the court room, armed with weapons of mass communication, but I’ve yet to hear of an iPad destroying a Galaxy tablet with touch-screen piercing ammunition.

As a woman, the onslaught of ridiculous statements regarding reproductive issues emanating from our elected leaders is an embarrassment and an outrage. But are they acts of war? Hardly.

These references to war have seeped so far into our collective vernacular, that we rarely bat an eye at their use anymore. The term “battle ground states” is now used more than “swing states.” Party challengers are no longer the opposition — they are the “target.” Lawmakers are no longer stubborn or principled, they are “entrenched.” And my personal favorite and longest standing political war metaphor — the “campaign.”

Hearing this language, one would think politicians are engaged in perpetual armed combat, diving from fox hole to bunker in their never-ending quest to vanquish “the enemy.” Considering only 18 percent of representatives, 28 percent of senators and zero percent of presidential candidates are actually veterans of war, it’s a mental image that falls flat.

These war metaphors are not being used just to spice up political speech. They are deliberate framing of the argument that forces us to declare allegiance, assert our loyalty and take up arms in the fight against _____ (fill in the blank).  To many, war is cut and dry, good versus evil, right versus wrong, us versus them. Unlike politics, which live permanently in the gray, war is black and white — soldiers following orders. Nuance cannot exist in war. War does not foster discourse nor does it require that we understand the opposition.

According to my husband, war sounds a lot different than policy disputes.

“It’s the constant smell of burning garbage,” Joe’s told me on numerous occasions. “It’s digging a hole in the middle of the night to light your cigarette so the insurgents don’t see the flame. It’s walking down the street one day when the building your buddies are in is blasted by mortar shells. It’s forever knowing the humvee you were supposed to be in was destroyed by an IED. It’s waking up every day and for the first five seconds you forget that you are in hell, only to be reminded by the next barrage of incoming fire.”

During a time when thousands of men and women like my husband are serving in and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, I think it’s time we disarm the national political conversation. We have enough real wars being waged. Leave the war stories to the war veterans.