Too many wars. An exhausted metaphor

We have declared too many wars. Against terror, drugs, poverty, cancer, climate change. Now on COVID. Too many fronts, and we are not doing well in any of them. Stuart Whatley and Nicholas Agar wonder whether it’s time to drop this overused metaphor. Once you declare (or are forced into) a war you have to win, but what’s the point of assuming a war footing in addressing big societal problems for which we cannot even define the terms of victory?

when a nation declares war, even a metaphorical one, its citizens are given to understand that they bear a commitment to a common cause, and that they may be called upon to make sacrifices on its behalf. In the face of a deadly contagious pathogen or catastrophic climate scenarios, this sense of solidarity and vigilance is urgently needed. On the other hand, our endless wars against terror, drugs, poverty, and cancer point to the pitfalls of assuming a war footing without first defining the terms of victory.

The trouble with our metaphorical wars, they argue, is that they seek definitive solutions to “fluid” problems. I think that with Bauman’s “metaphor” they are pointing to our insistence in addresing complex problems with simple recipes, or as the Spanish saying goes, matar moscas a cañonazos (usually traslated to English as “using sledgehammer to crack nuts”, but literally “killing flies with gunshots”).

With her usual sharpness, Ursula K. Leguin saw it clearly:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to “a war against” whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the “right” side and therefore will win. Right makes might.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

Metaphors are a powerful weapon, but some are exhausted. We are not going to move to the next stage only with metaphors.


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