Metaphors that Justify War
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 panarama 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.”
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
“The New York Times, on November 12, 1990, ran a front-page story
announcing that a national debate had begun as to whether the
States should go to war in the Persian Gulf. The Times described the
as defined by Clausewitz’s metaphor on a literal level of
then the poised the questions: What then in the nation’s political
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
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
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.