Confusing a Metaphor with the Real Thing

“We’re at war.” “During this time of war…” “While this country is at war…”

I’m tired of hearing such statements while referring to the “War on Terror”. Because they indicate a fundamental confusion between a metaphor and a real war. And on this President’s Day, I can’t help but think about how this confusion has helped to dramatically increase the presidential power wielded by the current tenant of the White House.

The “Global War on Terror” (GWoT) is not a true war, according to any reasonable definition. A true war has a specific enemy. The GWoT is a struggle against an idea, a technique, a concept, but not against a specific government or people. A true war has a specific, attainable goal, such as the defeat of an army or a change of government. The GWoT does not have any such realistically conceivable ending. A true war can be won or lost. But there will never come a day when we will be able to declare that we have definitively “won” or “lost” the GWoT.

The US has fought real wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. The ongoing battle against the insurgency in Iraq may even be called a war. But the “War on Terror” is something different.

The US is engaged in a serious, long-term struggle against the deadly phenomenon of terrorism. The struggle will take tremendous resources, and will last for decades. But that is different from being at war. The GWoT is a war only in the same way that the US fought with the Soviet Union for 40 years during the “Cold War”. The GWoT is a struggle of huge proportions, and with deadly possible consequences, but is a “war” only in the same way that the US fought a “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, or a “War on Drugs” in the 1980s.

You may disagree with my equating the GWoT with these clearly metaphorical wars, but if so, I would ask you to identify exactly why. In each case millions of lives were at stake, and thousands lost; the military was generally involved to a great degree, but so were other branches of government; and the resources expended in their name were enormous.

Yet in each of these cases, the term “war” was not meant in a literal sense. No one thought that the US was literally at war during the peak of the “Cold War” or “War on Drugs”. Rather, the term “war” was conjured up as a metaphor for the great marshalling of attention and resources that these struggles required. As a result, during none of those other momentous struggles did politicians evoke the idea that they should be treated as though they have wartime powers, because no one for a moment confused those metaphorical wars with the real thing.

Yet that is precisely what President Bush has repeatedly asked the Congress, the courts, and the American people to do, regarding the suspension of certain civil liberties, the permission to torture and detain people indefinitely without trial, and the ability to ignore Congressional statute.

The US is not in a literal war against terrorism, and it’s time to stop behaving as though it is.