Searching new articles on ye olde internets the past couple of days for the word “war,” I turned up roughly equal uses of “war” to refer to wars and to refer to other things entirely. Apparently there is a war on graft, a propaganda war, a number of price wars, a war of words, a Republican war on women, and a woman who has been breast-feeding and is now suffering from “war-torn nipples.”
While a war on women or a war on the poor can involve as much cruelty and suffering as an actual war, it isn’t an actual war. It’s a different phenomenon, requiring a different set of solutions.
While a war on terror or a war on drugs can include actual war, it is not just actual war, and it is better understood if its components are split apart.
While a cyber war can cause damage, it is a very different creature from a, you know, war war — different physically, visually, legally, morally, and in terms of measures of prevention.
A war on poverty or racism or any bad thing that we want eliminated is quite different from a war on a nation or a population which, typically, only a certain section of a war’s supporters actually wants eliminated.
I don’t just mean that other wars fail to compare to war in terms of investment (“If the war on poverty were a real war we’d actually be putting money into it!”). I mean that war is entirely the wrong way, metaphorically or literally, to think about ending poverty.
And I don’t just mean that war always fails, although it does. (“The war on terror has brought more terror and the war on drugs has brought more drugs; maybe we should have a war on happiness!”) I mean that war is a violent, reckless, irrational lashing out at a problem in order to very noisily make seen than one is “doing something.” This is entirely different from trying to develop a world without poverty or without racism or — for that matter — without war. You cannot have a war upon the makers of war and expect to get peace out of it.
It is certainly important to recognize who is causing a problem. The 1% is hoarding wealth and imposing poverty. Promoters of sexism are driving sexism. Et cetera. But treating them as war enemies makes no more sense, and will work no better, than your local police treating your public demonstration as an act of terrorism. We don’t have to kill the 1% or win them over. We have to win over and engage in strategic nonviolent action with enough people to control our world.
War language in non-war discourse in our culture is not limited to the word “war” but includes the full range of barbaric, counter-productive, advocacy of violence — serious, metaphorical, and joking. The “war on crime” includes state-sanctioned murder and worse. Wars on abortion doctors and sex offenders and political opponents include state-modeled murder. The state uses murder to relate to other states, as individuals use it to relate to other individuals.
Acceptance of war, of course, makes it easier to use war language in other settings. If war were thought of as something as evil as slavery or rape or child abuse, we wouldn’t be so eager to launch a war on cancer (or send soldiers to kill Ebola). But acceptance of the war metaphor throughout our lives must also make it easier to accept actual war. If we have a war on cancer, why in the world not have a war on beheaders? If there’s a war on women, why not launch a war to defend every right of women except the right not to be bombed?
I’m proposing that we try thinking differently as well as talking differently, that our foreign policy make use of diplomacy, aid, and the rule of law, rather than mass-murder — or what might in strategic terms be called terrorism generation; and that our domestic policies follow suit, that we don’t just madly attack social ills, but transform the systems that generate them. A war on climate change doesn’t sound like it includes a radical reduction in consumerism and capitalism, as it must. It sounds more like a big but token investment in solar panels and perhaps a very shiny train. And a war on climate change is already something the Pentagon is beginning to use to mean actual war on human beings.
So, how should we talk differently? Here’s one idea for certain contexts: Instead of engaging in a war on poverty, lets work on the movement to abolish poverty, to end poverty, or to eliminate or overcome poverty, to make poverty a thing of the past. Instead of lamenting a war on women, let’s work to expose and put a stop to cruelty, abuse, violence, unfairness, brutality, and discrimination against women. In doing so, we can be more specific about what the problems and solutions are. Instead of a war on graft, let’s end political corruption. Instead of a propaganda war, let’s expose propaganda and counter it with accurate information and calm, wise understanding. Instead of price wars, market competition. Instead of a war of words, rudeness. I imagine most people can rewrite “war-torn nipples” without much assistance.
A logical place to start, I think, is on a campaign to abolish (not wage war on) war.