The Problems with War Talk
By George Cheney and Sally Planalp
Note from the authors: This commentary is based on an essay published in a monthly column by The Moab (Utah) Times-Independent, a weekly online and print newspaper. The column, titled “Another Perspective,” is designed to be non-partisan and to urge readers to consider familiar topics from unaccustomed angles. Also, the editorials in this series are intended to stimulate individual reflection and community dialogue. This adaptation of “The Problems with War Talk” was initially published on July 27, 2017, and is used with the permission of the Times-Independent editor, Greg Knight. We offer the piece as an example of public “translation” of some communication-related ideas on topics of contemporary relevance. This editorial, even with the addition of references, should not be considered an in-depth, scholarly article. We hope you find it useful as you consider ways to engage wider audiences and put communication to work in the public sphere.
“War” isn’t just something fought on the battlefield, or even a matter of winning hearts and minds during conflicts. It’s also a metaphor we seem to rush to—in all sorts of contexts. But, is war as a word really that harmless? Even when repeating the word doesn’t lead to actual combat, talk about “war” can raise tensions and demonize others as “the enemy.”
Many times, the use of the war metaphor is well-intentioned. In the United States over the past 50 years, we have seen the War on Crime, the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and the War on Cancer. These terms can help mobilize action to address real issues. Used in this way, “war” can involve a range of tactics and can suggest an all-out effort against a long-standing problem. However, at least in the case of the War on Drugs, the metaphor also can be employed to justify actions that are sometimes more hurtful than helpful. Observers from across the political spectrum now agree that this “war” has been mislabeled and, in important ways, misguided (see, e.g., Fields, 2009). For example, many people from across the political spectrum would agree that there has at times been excessive criminalization of drug users. If drug users become “the enemy,” we are less likely to think about support and treatment rather than punishment. Indeed, our prisons are full of people who have not harmed others, yet have been victims of this war.
Immediately following September 11, 2011, there was momentary consideration of “police actions” against terrorists and their supporters. There was a brief pause, a moment of reflection, when different options and actions were still conceivable. Instead, “The War on Terror” was launched abruptly in October of that year, and only in 2013 did the United States officially announce that it was pursuing specific targets and objectives rather than continuing to wage some broad, undefined war with no end (Wikipedia, 2017). It’s telling in this regard that on many U.S. war memorials where the words “War on Terror” are included, there is only a starting date and no end date. Many—perhaps most—Americans would now admit that it was wrong-headed to declare a blanket war against all forms of and groups involved in “terror.”
Within our society, there is periodic talk about “Culture Wars.” The term is meant to highlight differences between groups on issues that matter in people’s lives, including control over narratives of U.S. history in public school systems, in addition to an array of social issues. But, how helpful is the label when it can be used to justify almost any action against the “other side”? Can use of the word “war” really improve matters, when we already know there are sharp differences of opinion among well-meaning people? Talking about war in this way can prevent us from ever seeing bridges between different opinions and groups, or even simply agreeing to disagree. The possibility for creative solutions can vanish in a fog of blame and demonization, as is unfortunately happening in all kinds of meetings and forums around the country. “Culture wars” energize large groups of people and engage their very identities; such conflicts can distract all of us from common concerns (such as community and economy) and can be strikingly difficult to transcend emotionally (Snyder, 2015).
Not only do real wars usually begin with wars of words, but also the overuse of the war metaphor can worsen rather than solve problems. Announcing “this means war” in a relationship or in a public meeting can be a precursor to tossing rules out the window (“All’s fair . . .”) by suggesting that anyone who opposes you is engaged in an attempt to destroy you and your allies. This tactic is understood well by people who study relationships and negotiations. Strategically speaking, saying that “we are at war” is usually a way to shut down a meeting or force those who disagree out of the room (see, e.g., Bailey, 1983). The war metaphor suggests deliberate, organized violence as the way to solve a problem. It’s a small step from such talk, then, to think, “I’d better do whatever I can to destroy the other side and what they hold dear.”
Tragically, we often jump to the “last resort” by labeling another group either “bad” or “mad” or both, as Communication scholar Robert Ivie (e.g., 1980) observes across many historical periods. The resort to the language of “savagery” of the other side becomes a vehicle for dehumanization and a justification for all-out opposition, and even destruction. At the same time, the personification of, say, a “rogue nation” in its “crazy” leader can divert attention from the millions of lives at stake. With respect to both leaders and peoples, as Kenneth Burke (1969) implored, it’s better to try to think of others who think or act differently as mistaken rather than as evil. This kind of framing leaves open lines of communication and even the possibility of each side admitting that they may not be completely right. This is not to deny the existence of evil in the world, but only to say we should be more cautious in rushing to name it.
Philosopher and theologian James Childress (1982) reminds us that by relying on the language of war, we often forget the moral dimension. War is easily thought of as complete destruction or defeat. So, how do we treat “others” in this context? How does one side (or both sides) “get out” of the war intact? What is the morality of war? When is war just? What rules still apply in wartime engagement? When is the war over? And, what does “winning” look like? What is the plan for managing the aftermath? The easy resort to war talk begs all of these questions, but often when we jump to war talk, we don’t consider the implications.
It’s just too easy to blame another group for our problems. And, when we do that repeatedly, that group becomes the enemy, and off we go in being “invaded,” “under siege,” or “at war.” This is part of the problem with today’s immigration debate, of course. It is too often cast as a kind of war. That does everyone a disservice and can be used to justify extremely harsh actions against entire populations that have been declared different and a threat. On an interpersonal level, this “war” can be used as justification for targeting innocent individuals, as has sadly occurred in many schools, colleges, and universities, with minority students who are viewed as invaders being told by majority white students to “get out.” More broadly, the war metaphor can creep into policy as well as our thinking, preventing us from seeing, for example, the pressing needs of refugees who may be fleeing real war and terror in their home countries.
We can talk about differences among people and describe social problems in many ways that both recognize the problem and bring people together. For example, we can talk about a comprehensive plan to cure cancer. We can talk about a program to reduce poverty as a kind of space program—all aboard. We can talk about drugs, perhaps opioids in particular, as a demon to which we as a society are vulnerable (as was done with “demon rum”). We can talk about moving toward a world that is free of terror (with the implications of a social movement). We can talk about an alternative future (as in moving toward alternative energy). Most importantly, we can talk about the need for complicated solutions to complex problems. This may not be catchy, but it’s realistic.
We do best when we don’t maximize or exaggerate differences in our talk about others. In most cases, there are going to be disagreements and points of tension; that’s normal. Still, we need to resist the idea of TOTAL opposition, while recognizing the seductiveness of the collective meaning and direction that can come with mobilization for war (Hedges, 2002). The fact is that it’s hard to hold onto a “mixed” view of someone else or another society or country; it’s more comfortable to move toward a position of either complete acceptance or complete rejection. A good example of this was the almost complete disregard of the positive aspects of Iraqi society—the education and political representation of women, for example—in the campaign to treat Saddam Hussein and his admittedly dictatorial regime as a new global threat. The “good guys” and “bad guys” picture of the world makes it easier to organize things and can make us feel better—at least for a while. But this kind of talk is misleading and often quite dangerous.
Do we really want to act as if war were the norm rather than the exception in our daily lives? We have enough real or “hot” wars going on in the world without bringing on more.
- Bailey, F. G. (1983). The tactical uses of passion: An essay on power, reason, and reality. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Burke, K. (1969). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Childress, J. (1982). Moral responsibility in conflicts. Essays on nonviolence, war, and conscience, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
- Fields, G. (2009, May 14). White House czar calls for end to war on drugs. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 14, 2009.
- Hedges, C. (2002). War is a force that gives us meaning. New York: PublicAffairs.
- Ivie, R. L. (1980). Images of savagery in American justifications of war. Communication Monographs, 47, 279-294.
- Snyder, J. A. (2015, 23 April). America will never move beyond culture wars. The New Republic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/121627/war-soul-america-history-culture-wars-review on 23 September 2017.
- Wikipedia (2017). War on Terror. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_on_Terror on 19 September 2017.