War As Metaphor

The use of “war” as a metaphor is a common trope. Politicians often establish their commitment to conquering a given societal problem by “going to war” with it, as if the problem were a tangible enemy to be defeated with soldiers. Declaring war on an abstract concept (such as terror, drugs or poverty), rather than a specific country or organization, allows for constant redefinition of the enemy, a convenient yet potentially dangerous strategy.

Despite the many controversies regarding terminology, these metaphorical wars have important political realities. The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson was as much defined by his War on Poverty as it was by the Vietnam War, and there were significant battles fought in each. The ongoing War on Terror is as much an ideological war as it is a literal one; while the term applies to the concept of “terror,” rather than a specific terrorist organization, it is a war of real soldiers with an ever-rising death toll. American diplomat Richard Haass argued that, in regards to the War on Terror, a more accurate metaphor than fighting a war might be treating a disease. “It’s a scourge,” said Haass in an interview with NPR in 2006. “It’s part of modern life… [There are] things you can do to reduce it. [There are] things you can do to protect yourself from it. But it’s something that you can’t eliminate.” When it comes to major issues like drugs or poverty, which are more a social problem than a tangible enemy, they are far more difficult to destroy than an army or a leader. Though “declaring war” can be an effective tool in rallying support, it proposes unrealistic expectations for the war’s outcome.

Haass’ argument represents one of the main controversies about the war metaphor: the term implies an endgame of victory or defeat. Therefore, a War on Poverty can last for as long as there is one person whose quality of life is substandard, and a War on Terror can last as long as people live in fear of attack. The War on Drugs will never end while drugs can still be produced, The question remains as to whether these are attainable goals or not.

Examples of War as Metaphor: