Enough with the “war” metaphor

Charles Lane is sick of the “war” metaphor in political discourse, something all sides are doing:

The Democratic National Committee accuses the GOP of a “Republican War on Women,” to go along with its “war on working families” (according to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee) and “Paul Ryan’s war on seniors” (Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky).

Various Republicans accuse President Obama of waging “war on religious freedom” or even, in the words of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, “a war on religion.” According to the Republican National Committee, the president is also waging “war on energy,” the sequel, apparently, to what the House Republican Leadership has called “Democrats’ war on American jobs.”

Progressive author Chris Mooney called his book “The Republican War on Science”; not to be outdone, conservatives Grover Norquist and John R. Lott Jr. have published “Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth.”

A Washington Times editorial warned Wisconsin taxpayers that “President Obama and the Democratic National Committee have declared war on you.” “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau observes that “[Rick] Santorum, [Rush] Limbaugh, et al. thought this would be a good time to declare war on half the electorate.”

And on and on and on — until you could almost lose sight of the fact that not one of these institutions or individuals is describing a physical conflict in which people fight, bleed and die.

There are, of course, plenty of real wars raging around the world; in some of them, Americans are dying. But the folks back home, busy with their election-year quarrels, have little interest in discussing such matters.

No, what the metaphor-mongers are referring to is political disagreement among citizens of the same democracy. And the last time I checked, most of those disagreements were being expressed through peaceful means — and neither side in any of these debates had a monopoly on the truth.

To be sure, we have been waging “war on” this or that for decades. America is such a diverse and disputatious country that war, actual or metaphorical, has been one of the few causes capable of bringing together its various factions, regions and races. That is why we had Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and a series of presidents’ war on cancer. Heck, even Jimmy Carter tried to convince us that saving energy was “the moral equivalent of war.”

These metaphors attempted to recast an abstract threat as a particular enemy, thereby rallying the country to a common effort.

That is totally different from what the professional polarizers who dominate today’s politics, and their respective media allies, are trying to achieve. . . .

For both parties, the goal is to encourage Americans to think of one another as enemies and, eventually, to hate and fear one another. Today’s “wars on” are all civil wars. . . .

Multiplied across the entire electorate, however, the effect may be more corrosive. To the extent that sensible citizens tune out politics, they abandon the field to people who are receptive to constant cries of war, war, war — people who are prepared to think of their opponents as enemies.

When you think of someone as an enemy, it’s harder to contemplate trusting, respecting or cooperating with him or her. Indeed, those behaviors start to look like treason, instead of what they really are: the minimum requirements of democratic life.

via In the war of words, we are all losing – The Washington Post.

War imagery is a staple of today’s Christian discourse too.  We have “worship wars,” “the battle for the Bible,” and, of course, the “culture wars.”   I’ve sometimes used that kind of language myself.

Is it appropriate sometimes?  Or does it short-circuit thought, riling people up and creating “enemies” while doing more harm than good?

The UN & NATO authorize our wars, not Congress

So says our Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs:

The Obama administration and Defense Secretary Panetta are contending that when offensive military action is needed, it does not have to go to Congress first for permission but that international agreements, the UN or NATO can override Congressional acts of authorization of war or use of force.

At a hearing that was held in Washington on March 7, 2012, Sen. Sessions of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned not only Defense Secretary Leon Panetta but also of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey about offensive military action and the permissions that are needed.

Both Panetta and General Dempsey indicated that “international permission,” rather than Congressional approval, provided a ‘legal basis’ for military action by the United States.

In other words, they explained that they didn’t need permission by the Congress and can pursue offensive military action without Congress’ involvement and that the UN would dictate when and how the hostilities would occur, therefore bypassing the War Powers Act.

via Panetta: ‘Use of military force can be granted by UN or NATO, not Congress’ – Atlanta Paulding County Republican | Examiner.com.

Nevermind the Constitution, which as a War Powers Clause that specifically invests the power to make war with Congress:

[Congress shall have Power…] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 11

That’s Congress and not the Executive branch–even though presidents have been running roughshod over this Constitutional requirement for our last several wars–and certainly not international agencies!

On the Koran burning riots

More details on the Koran burnings in Afghanistan from Andrew C. McCarthy, in the context of President Obama’s apology:

The facts are that the Korans were seized at a jail because jihadists imprisoned there were using them not for prayer but to communicate incendiary messages. The soldiers dispatched to burn refuse from the jail were not the officials who had seized the books, had no idea they were burning Korans, and tried desperately to retrieve the books when the situation was brought to their attention.

Of course, these facts may not become widely known, because no one is supposed to mention the main significance of what has happened here. First, as usual, Muslims — not al-Qaeda terrorists, but ordinary, mainstream Muslims — are rioting and murdering over the burning (indeed, the inadvertent burning) of a book. Yes, it’s the Koran, but it’s a book all the same — and one that, moderate Muslims never tire of telling us, doesn’t really mean everything it says anyhow.

Muslim leaders and their leftist apologists are also forever lecturing the United States about “proportionality” in our war-fighting. Yet when it comes to Muslim proportionality, Americans are supposed to shrug meekly and accept the “you burn books, we kill people” law of the jungle. Disgustingly, the Times would inure us to this moral equivalence by rationalizing that “Afghans are fiercely protective of their Islamic faith.” Well then, I guess that makes it all right, huh?

Then there’s the second not-to-be-uttered truth: Defiling the Koran becomes an issue for Muslims only when it has been done by non-Muslims. Observe that the unintentional burning would not have occurred if these “fiercely protective of their Islamic faith” Afghans had not defiled the Korans in the first place. They were Muslim prisoners who annotated the “holy” pages with what a U.S. military official described as “extremist inscriptions” in covert messages sent back and forth, just as the jihadists held at Gitmo have been known to do (notwithstanding that Muslim prisoners get their Korans courtesy of the American taxpayers they construe the book to justify killing).

via Why Apologize to Afghanistan? – Andrew C. McCarthy – National Review Online.

But why don’t they love us?

Afghanistan has exploded after a number of Korans were burned by U.S. officials at a military detention center.  It seems anti-American messages were scrawled on the covers, so they were “disposed of.”  Ever since word of this came out, Afghans have been rioting, killing NATO personnel, and demanding that  the Americans who did this to be tried in an Islamic court.  Meanwhile, the generals and the President himself are falling all over themselves apologizing, as our progress in pacifying the country melts away.

How could anyone in Afghanistan not know what the reaction is going to be from burning a Koran?  When that Florida preacher was considering doing it, Afghan mobs killed 12 people.

I’m not justifying the reaction, but the point is, the cultures just don’t understand each other.  We had better just leave.

Afghan protests over Koran burning spread on second day – The Washington Post.

When leftists want civilians to be like the military

Civilian society is not supposed to be like the military, though making it that way is the leftist’s dream.  So says George Will:

Obama, an unfettered executive wielding a swollen state, began and ended his [State of the Union] address by celebrating the armed forces. They are not “consumed with personal ambition,” they “work together” and “focus on the mission at hand” and do not “obsess over their differences.” Americans should emulate troops “marching into battle,” who “rise or fall as one unit.”

Well. The armed services’ ethos, although noble, is not a template for civilian society, unless the aspiration is to extinguish politics. People marching in serried ranks, fused into a solid mass by the heat of martial ardor, proceeding in lock step, shoulder to shoulder, obedient to orders from a commanding officer — this is a recurring dream of progressives eager to dispense with tiresome persuasion and untidy dissension in a free, tumultuous society.

Progressive presidents use martial language as a way of encouraging Americans to confuse civilian politics with military exertions, thereby circumventing an impediment to progressive aspirations — the Constitution and the patience it demands. As a young professor, Woodrow Wilson had lamented that America’s political parties “are like armies without officers.” The most theoretically inclined of progressive politicians, Wilson was the first president to criticize America’s founding. This he did thoroughly, rejecting the Madisonian system of checks and balances — the separation of powers, a crucial component of limited government — because it makes a government that cannot be wielded efficiently by a strong executive. . . .

In his first inaugural address, FDR demanded “broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” He said Americans must “move as a trained and loyal army” with “a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.” The next day, addressing the American Legion, Roosevelt said it was “a mistake to assume that the virtues of war differ essentially from the virtues of peace.” In such a time, dissent is disloyalty.

via Obama follows the progressive president’s model of martial language – The Washington Post.

The two kinds of warriors: Hector & Achilles

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has written a fascinating essay entitled “Do Sports Build Character or Damage It?”  The short answer is “both,” or “either.”  In the course of his discussion, which draws on his own experience playing football, he points out Plato’s observation that human beings have a need for thymos–the thirst for glory–but that this passion needs to be subordinated to reason.  Edmundson illustrates his points by contrasting the two major figures of Homer’s Iliad:  Hector and Achilles.

In the Western heroic tradition, the paragon of the humane warrior is Homer’s Hector, prince of the Trojans. He is a fierce fighter: On one particular day, no Greek can stand up to him; his valor puts the whole Greek army to rout. Even on an unexceptional day, Hector can stand up to Ajax, the Greek giant, and trade blow for blow with him. Yet as fierce as Hector can be, he is also humane. He is a loving son to his aged parents, a husband who talks on equal terms with his wife, Andromache, and a tender-hearted father. He and King Priam are the only ones in Troy who treat Helen, the ostensible cause of the war, with kindness.

One of the most memorable scenes in The Iliad comes when Hector, fresh from the battlefield, strides toward his boy, Astyanax. The child screams with fright at the ferocious form encased in armor, covered with dust and gore. Hector understands his child in an instant and takes off his helmet, with its giant horsehair plume, then bends over, picks his boy up and dandles him, while Andromache looks on happily. Astyanax—who will soon be pitched off the battlements of Troy when the Greeks conquer the city—looks up at his father and laughs in delight.

The scene concentrates what is most appealing about Hector—and about a certain kind of athlete and warrior. Hector can turn it off. He can stop being the manslayer that he needs to be out on the windy plains of Troy and become a humane husband and father. The scene shows him in his dual nature—warrior and man of thought and feeling. In a sense, he is the figure that every fighter and athlete should emulate. He is the Navy Seal or Green Beret who would never kill a prisoner, the fearless fighter who could never harm a woman or a child. In the symbolic world of sports, where the horrors and the triumphs of combat are only mimicked, he is the one who comports himself with extreme gentleness off the field, who never speaks ill of an opponent, who never complains, never whines.

But The Iliad is not primarily about Hector. It is the poem of Achilles and his wrath. After Hector kills Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, Achilles goes on a rampage, killing every Trojan he can. All humanity leaves him; all mercy is gone. At one point, a Trojan fighter grasps his knees and begs for mercy. Achilles taunts him: Look at me, he says, so strong and beautiful, and some day I, too, shall have to die. But not today. Today is your day. At another point, a river close to the city, the River Scamander, becomes incensed over Achilles’ murderous spree. The hero has glutted its waters with blood and its bed with bodies. The river is so enraged that it tries to drown the hero. When Achilles finally gets to Hector, he slaughters him before the eyes of his parents, Hecuba and Priam, and drags his body across the plains of Troy.

Achilles is drunk on rage, the poem tells us. His rational mind has left him, and he is mad with the joy of slaughter. The ability to modulate character that Hector shows—the fierce warrior becoming the loving father—is something Achilles does not possess. Achilles, one feels, could not stop himself if he wished to: A fellow Greek who somehow insulted him when he was on his rampage would be in nearly as much danger as a Trojan enemy. Plato would recognize Achilles as a man who has lost all reason and has allowed thymos to dominate his soul.

This ability to go mad—to become berserk—is inseparable from Achilles’ greatness as a warrior. It is part of what sets him above the more circumspect Hector on the battlefield. When Hector encounters Achilles for the last time, Hector feels fear. Achilles in his wrath has no idea what fear is, and that is part of what makes him unstoppable.

Achilles’ fate is too often the fate of warriors and, in a lower key, of athletes. They unleash power in themselves, which they cannot discipline. They leave the field of combat or of play and are still ferocious, or they can be stirred to ferocity by almost nothing. They let no insult pass. A misplaced word sends them into a rage. A mild frustration turns them violent. Thymos, as Plato would have said, has taken over their souls, and reason no longer has a primary place—in some cases, it has no place at all.

via Do Sports Build Character or Damage It? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This comparison, I think, can apply to modern warriors in the military, and to athletes, and to “warriors” in the business world and other professions.  It’s possible for a lawyer, a scholar, a salesman, or maybe even a pastor (you think?) to go so all out that normal human feelings are extinguished in favor of winning at all costs, exerting power over other people, and achieving glory.  They can never “shut it off.”  Even when this means harming their families and ultimately themselves.  (Achilles himself being brought down by the weakling Paris whose arrow hits him at his one point of vulnerability.)

This has to do, of course, with vocation, when the vocation is twisted into a means of aggrandizement for the self rather than love and service to the neighbor.


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