Misusing the War Metaphor, Yet Again

Through my work rebuilding the Iraq mental health care system after the war, I met an astonishingly brave young American man who had willingly taken on multiple dangerous assignments, had a genius for organization, and an admirably developed sense of right and wrong. When I ran into him again a few years later, he was, in his mid 30s, already an Assistant Secretary of Defense. Everyone who knew him had him tapped in their minds as a future member of the Joint Chiefs. When I saw him yet again a few years after that, he had quit the military and was working for a foundation dedicated to providing health and social services to low-income families. When I asked him why he had made such a radical career change, he said something simple that has stayed with me since:

“Winning wars is about killing people and breaking stuff. I want to build something.”

I am from a military family and I admire people who dedicate their life to the service of their country. And I recognize that there are problems (e.g., the removal of Colonel Gaddafi from power) that can only be solved by killing people and breaking stuff. But that only makes me wish all the more that politicians appreciated the simple wisdom of what this remarkable man said.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who quite commendably has announced that he wants to help Britain’s most troubled families apparently felt compelled to add that he would declare “a concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture.” A small minority of gang members are truly sociopathic thugs with whom things might indeed, sadly, come down to “killing people and breaking stuff”, but is Britain really going to heal and support 125,000 troubled families as Cameron wants to do under the banner of “war”? Like the wretched “war on drugs” metaphor, this framing of domestic policy as war calls up in everyone’s mind a need for violence against an external enemy, an eye for an eye retribution, the taking of prisoners and the willingness to engage in wanton destruction. But such brutal measures are largely unnecessary and do not in any event resemble the package of policies the PM is rolling out today.

As with the war on drugs (or the prior war on poverty), politicians engaged in domestic reforms could do a service to their countries by abandoning the language of war and replacing it with a more appropriate and positive framing, language and set of symbols. What Cameron wants — and what most of his fellow Britons want — are more families who have the resources to rear children who, through a combination of love and limits, become fulfilled and productive members of society. That’s nothing to do with killing people and breaking stuff. Rather, it’s a campaign for economic opportunity, health and responsibility. The surest way to make it fail right out of the gate is to keep describing it in militaristic language that puts all people concerned into the wrong frame of mind.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Misusing the War Metaphor, Yet Again”

  1. Clausewitz knew something about war, and the way he viewed it supports Keith’s point: it’s a mechanism to make a party with agency and will do what you want it to. To have a war you have to have an opponent with the capacity to do comply, and drugs are not like that; neither is poverty. The killing and blowing up stuff entailed by the word war is a serious rhetorical bug. Maybe campaign (going out in the field to accomplish a big project), or enterprise, are better and we should learn to use them. Certainly if there’s no-one who can sign surrender documents on the other side, we aren’t having a war: if we get mixed up about the nature of a big expensive project we are likely to pooch it.

  2. The war metaphor leads to errors in judgement. Cameron is cutting off the families of rioters from welfare and housing (shades of Israel dealing with terrorists). In so doing, he sows the wind and will reap a whirlwind – just as Israel has. hurting people’s families will not create a peaceful resolution to the problems at the root of the unrest, it will exacerbate it. Better he should investigate why an average of 25 prisoners have died in custody each year in one district (for the past 12 years). Better he should find a way to offer people hope, not despair as he is doing.

  3. War is an apt descriptor for Cameron’s project given that he has decided to punish and destroy rather than offer “a campaign for economic opportunity, health and responsibility.” It is a war [b]on[/b] people who have been written off by society rather than a war against the denial of opportunity.

    Cameron has declared war on Britain’s socially excluded. He is not there to help them.

  4. When I read the first few lines of Cameron’s speech about his nation’s moral decay, I thought he was being courageous in taking on his own party and social class, which have made out-of-touch venality and callousness a byword. Then he went on.

    I would say this will likely be seen as his Katrina moment, except that that would be insulting to the people of New Orleans.

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