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The gateway to the soul


Metaphors that Justify War


Kevin Steiner

Truth Uncloaked

Do you think we had all the information that was at the President's disposal when he made the decision to deploy our troops in the Gulf? Do you think having that information might have made you feel more comfortable about our involvement? Should our government decide what we get to know and what we don't? By in large, we hear exactly what our government wants us to hear. Knowing this, at no other time paralleled in history, we want the truth; we thirst for it like those traveling through the desert without water and we are tired of being manipulated and deceived by those we elect to serve our interests. However, more often than not, we settle for what is given to us. Our truth is wrapped by the media and promoted as gospel without hesitation or moral reservation. Our acceptance of and reliance upon the media for sensitive, truthful, information brings a sense of security and knowledge of world affairs that satisfies our internal push for social involvement (even if it is at the point of acknowledgment only). We are happy with the knowledge because there is no discernible contradictions and seldom question its relevancy, focus or content. Then later, a contradictory report erupts in the media and we begin to question even what we see. The short footage shown by the media concerning the beating of Rodney King was out of context. Who is responsible for the disparity? The media. They decide what we hear and see. They manipulate to dramatize for the dollar. Gossip, murder, rape, political espionage, treason, drug deals, incest, wife battering, muggings, immoral behavior of all sizes shapes and volumes seem to appeal to human interest and the Networks use it to build their ratings while claiming they proclaim truth for all (double effect). These people and their focus gave us the Gulf War everyday, around the clock. Would it be surprising to know that the media not only reports the news they help facilitate public approval that could justify a war through the use of metaphors alone? The use of metaphors in war and everyday life is common and an important method employed to eventually arrive at a position of approval for military action. Before the use of metaphors is discussed it is necessary to understand specific conditions in which any war is justified.

Conditions Necessary to Justify a War

Two specific conditions are necessary to justify war. First, direct aggression against the United States, our allies, or those who are unable to protect themselves against direct aggression. Second, indirect aggression against the U.S.. During both conditions the moral correctness, realistic threat and potential harm would be assessed to determine an appropriate response. After a decision has been made from those premises, war could morally be justified and action should be taken. However, indirect aggression is the most difficult premise to evaluate. Its relevancy to our nation and allies is difficult to determine succinctly. In order to understand how we would deal with such a condition to engage in a war built on this premise one must understand U.S. ideology.

Current U. S. ideology insists that direct aggression be met with self defense. Under this condition, the main concerns are the safety of its citizens, the freedom to exercise their rights and proportional intervention against the aggressor to ensure such safety and freedom. An example of U. S. policy for this situation occurred on December 7, 1941. The United States declared war on Japan in self defense. U.S. response was considered necessary and imminent. Indirect aggression on the other hand, it is not so easy to establish a just war.

Every war fought after W.W. II rested on the U.S. response to indirect aggression. Capitalism and democracy is directly opposed to dictatorship and communism. The fear of such tyrannical rule made most Americans shudder. Any possibility of communistic rule or influence was perceived as a direct threat and destroyed, if by no other reason, by fear.. The thought established in the 1950' sheds a great amount of light on U.S. policy as it relates to communism. The cold war was a reality. Commercials were made over the radio about the need for bomb shelters and the possible attack that would be launched from Russia. People fear anything that is unfamiliar. Communism was heralded as a terrible disease that would spread like the plague and American policy was a direct reflection of that fear. Any opportunity to defeat communism or to prevent it's capture of other nations was considered a just venture that would elevate a potential threat to our nation. The Vietnam war was fought against communism and so was the Korean conflict.

New Policy-World Responsibility and the Protection of Human Rights

The Wall fell in the late 80's and the cold war disappeared. American policy had to make several adjustments to the new world order and our responsibility to it. Another concept was developed in addition to a just war fought on indirect and direct aggression against us: The protection of others who could not protect themselves (not an ally) against an unjust enemy.

The U S could not make a connection of indirect aggression against us but it had another card to play. A poll was released by several news papers and magazines asking Americans what reasons did they think we could use to justify coming to the aid of Kuwait. The results: They would not support our involvement based upon indirect aggression. However, they would support the other position offered by the Bush administration in support of human rights.

Political and economic considerations are always woven into every military action and considered in-depth relating to the cost of war in both areas of concern. The Public was not politically or economically sagacious in the terms of justifying action. No one questioned the use of two scenarios. Why did the government give us two options? Was our involvement so questionable or were there more reasons? Studying the reasons for the use of metaphors might help and knowing how the President approached the situation.

Old Policy-Create Empathy to Gain Approval for Justifying a War

How did the President justify a war? It's simple--gain public support. If the public believes going to war is morally correct (even if they do not know all the facts) the war is universally justified and the President can wash his hands at the expense of public interest. The public makes its determination several ways. In reference to the Gulf crisis, the involvement of the state initiates involvement of the media and the media passes on information to the public and the public makes the decision that justifies of condemns military action. Since the President had already deployed the military he counted on the media to educate the people on the injustice Kuwait had suffered and support his decision to deploy and possibly go to war if need be. Eventually, public thought would be reflected by congressional vote.

Strategy of the State and the Role of the Media

Since information from the media is the central player in this decision it should be examined closely. There are three specific functions of the media during a war. "Delivering the facts" concept of the media serves three larger purposes for the state. First, the media will be giving information to the people and the people are needed to gain a firm vote in congress. This is not as simple as it appears you must put yourself in the shoes of the President. He has put his political career in jeopardy if he does not gain support (it is election year). If he is forced to withdraw military support after he has deployed US looks like a red-headed step-child in the face of world opinion. So it would follow that large amount of information and many meetings would be conducted before he would take such action based upon information that the public is not privileged to see. The three things he needs from the public in order to gain full support for his actions are: Capture the interest of the voters; promote empathy for Kuwait; and make the public feel that US involvement is necessary to the point of answering polls ect.... The media would ensure that American's got everything that the White House had to offer including passing on every intercepted electronic impulse that passed from the scene of the potential conflict. Almost every briefing and commentary had at least one thing in common-metaphors.

The Use of Metaphors

The use of metaphors by the state was launched again and again throughout history.

It is nothing new and it serves its purpose well. First, metaphors are a very powerful tool capable of the worst acts imaginable.

"Metaphors can kill. The discourse over whether to go to war in the gulf was a pana-

rama of metaphor. Secretary of State Baker saw Saddam Hussein as 'sitting on our

economic lifeline.' President Bush portrayed him as having a 'stranglehold' on our

economy. General Schwartzkopf characterized the occupation of Kuwait as a 'rape'

that was ongoing." (Lakoff, 1991)

The Legalists Paradigm-The Bridge to Empathy

It is obvious to see the "legalistic paradigm" that Walzer discusses in his theory at work here (Walzer, 1977). The idea of course it to gain support of the public and maybe even convince themselves what they are doing is right. Public support is gained by getting them to empathize. Empathy is always bridged by what we hold as common between parties. So the use of metaphors is the bridge that we use to establish that common ground. Metaphors provide us with a view that is not foreign to our understanding and way of life. They assign meaning to our everyday lifestyle by forming together clustered amounts of information and their systems into a short title. For example: when the word rape is mentioned many things come to mind and an emotional response probably accompanies it. When speaking about a war, metaphors are often hurled around like popcorn at a movie theater bulging with teenagers. Metaphors like rape and the like, which threaten by their very nature, cause us to rally and promote action. Metaphors are extremely powerful when used to explain events, especially if reciprocation is in question. According to Lakoff, "The most natural way to justify a war on moral grounds is to [use a metaphor] (Lakoff, 1991). Many of our current uses of metaphors are a direct result of Carl von Clausewitz view on war.

U.S. Ideology and Foreign Policy

According to, a Prussian General, when the costs of war exceeds the political gains, the war should cease or never be entered. Another one of his points is if at anytime a war would prove beneficial for the state it should be pursued. His "views on war became dominant in American foreign policy circles during the Vietnam War" (Lakoff, 1991). He has continued to influence us even recently:

"The New York Times, on November 12, 1990, ran a front-page story

announcing that 'a national debate ha[d] begun as to whether the United

States should go to war in the Persian Gulf. The Times described the debate

as defined by Clausewitz's metaphor on a literal level of understanding and

then the poised the questions: 'What then in the nation's political objective

in the gulf and what level of sacrifice is it worth?'"

The emphasis wasn't directed at the metaphors but at the costs. The influence of metaphors should not be understated. They are an intrinsic element within any strategist's mind and often follow in close relation to one's personal rights.

The-State-as-Person System Metaphor

The first metaphor under consideration is "The State-as-Person System," more commonly referred to as the legalist paradigm which is built upon the domestic analogy (Walzer, 1977). The state is the person who is living a normal life in society. The area in which he lives is considered his home (Country). Of course he lives with his friends and family and scattered around are enemies he may have to face. His enemies represent the aggressive state(s) that attempt to ruin, change or destroy those whom he cares for, has respect for, or destroy his possessions or seek his destruction. In other words disrupt his manner of life.

The Fairy Tale Metaphor

The next metaphor under consideration is the "Fairy Tale of the Just War."

"The scenario: A crime is committed by the villain against an innocent victim

(typically an assault, theft, or kidnapping). The offense occurs due to an imbalance

of power and creates a moral imbalance. The hero makes scarifies; he undergoes

difficulties, typically making an arduous journey...The villain is inherently evil...

and thus reasoning with him is out of the question. The hero is left with no choice

but to engage in battle. The hero defeats the villain and rescues the victim. The

moral balance is restored. The enemy-as-[a]-demon metaphor arises as a

consequence of the fact that we understand what a just war is in terms of a fairy tale"

(Lakoff, 1991).

From our youth stories like this have brought about the intense feeling of justice- good always wins. These stories capture the imagination and paint a picture of those who employ it as the heroes no doubt. This was one of the analogies used by the Bush administration in a poll that gained the largest public backing (Metaphorical Definition p. 2).

The Violent Crime Metaphor

The last Metaphor under consideration is "War as Violent Crime." This metaphor is dualistic in its approach. War is, in reality, violence and incorporates "murder, assault, kidnapping, arson... and theft" (Lakoff, 1991), and at the same time could be viewed from the point of peace and a terrible domestic crime. Iraq represents the evil criminal and the coalition represents the hero who will triumph and stop the criminal from committing unlawful acts. All the while the coalition is doing the same under the cloak of justice. It boils down to who did it first. Reaction is in the same manner could be justified in the name of a rescue and self-defense.

These are only some of the main analogies used during the Gulf War to gain political support for an approval of U. S. commitment.


No, we don't know all the facts and that is a certainty we must realize even when witnessed by a camera. We have a new role that has yet to be fully understood and planned for so it would not be considered wild for us to be involved in just about anything until we make our position clear. It remain certain however when the use of metaphors crop up in the media and at press conferences the aim is for your empathy and support without knowing the whole story. There would be no need for the use of metaphors when talking about war if there was nothing to hide.

The metaphorical options used by the government assured voter confidence and a "no-lose" situation for the President's decision about the Gulf War.

New York Times. November 12, 1990.

Walzer, Michael Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Information.

Basic Books: HarperCollins, USA, 1977.

Lakoff, George. Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf.

November, 1991; UC Berkeley CA.






Kevin T. Steiner

GVMT 403

Dr. T. Gerald

Term II, 1996

Source: Essay UK -

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