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[casi] Metaphor and War: Part 1


Elga brought forth a very important subject related to
the current aggression against Iraq: the use (or
rather misuse) of language in order to manipulate

I am posting here an old article in two parts from the
1991 aggression against Iraq also mistakenly referred
to as the Gulf War.
I find it very informative and very relevant to the
ongoing slaughter of Iraqis.



Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify
War in the Gulf
(Part 1 of 2)

George Lakoff, Linguistics Department, UC Berkeley

This paper was presented on January 30, 1991 in the
midst of the Gulf War to an audience at Alumni House
on the campus of the University of California at
Berkeley. An earlier version had been distributed
widely via electronic mail, starting on December 31,

Metaphors can kill. The discourse over whether to go
to war in the gulf was a panorama 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 Schwarzkopf characterized the
occupation of Kuwait as a "rape" that was ongoing. The
President said that the US was in the gulf to "protect
freedom, protect our future, and protect the
innocent", and that we had to "push Saddam Hussein
back." Saddam Hussein was painted as a Hitler. It is
vital, literally vital, to understand just what role
metaphorical thought played in bringing us in this

Metaphorical thought, in itself, is neither good nor
bad; it is simply commonplace and inescapable.
Abstractions and enormously complex situations are
routinely understood via metaphor. Indeed, there is an
extensive, and mostly unconscious, system of metaphor
that we use automatically and unreflectively to
understand complexities and abstractions. Part of this
system is devoted to understanding international
relations and war. We now know enough about this
system to have an idea of how it functions.

The metaphorical understanding of a situation
functions in two parts. First, there is a widespread,
relatively fixed set of metaphors that structure how
we think. For example, a decision to go to war might
be seen as a form of cost -benefit analysis, where war
is justified when the costs of going to war are less
than the costs of not going to war. Second, there is a
set of metaphorical definitions that that allow one to
apply such a metaphor to a particular situation. In
this case, there must be a definition of "cost",
including a means of comparing relative "costs". The
use of a metaphor with a set of definitions becomes
pernicious when it hides realities in a harmful way.

It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical
from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death,
starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are
not metaphorical. They are real and in this war, they
could afflict hundreds of thousands of real human
beings, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or American.

War as Politics; Politics as Business

Military and international relations strategists do
use a cost-benefit analysis metaphor. It comes about
through a metaphor that is taken as definitional by
most strategic thinkers in the area of international
politics, Clausewitz's Metaphor:


Karl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general whose views
on war became dominant in American foreign policy
circles during the Vietnam War, when they were seen as
a way to rationally limit the use of war as an
instrument of foreign policy. Clausewitz is most
commonly presented as seeing war in terms of political
cost-benefit analysis: Each nation-state has political
objectives, and war may best serve those objectives.
The political "gains" are to to be weighed against
acceptable "costs." When the costs of war exceed the
political gains, the war should cease.

There is another metaphor implicit here: POLITICS IS
BUSINESS, where efficient political management is seen
as akin to efficient business management. As in a
well-run business, a well-run government should keep a
careful tally of costs and gains. This metaphor for
characterizing politics, together with Clausewitz's
metaphor, makes war a matter of cost-benefit analysis:
defining beneficial "objectives", tallying the
"costs", and deciding whether achieving the objectives
is "worth" the costs.

The New York Times, on November 12, 1990, ran a
front-page story announcing that "a national debate
has begun as to whether the United States should go to
war in the Persian Gulf." The Times described the
debate as defined by what I have called Clausewitz's
metaphor (though it described the metaphor as
literal), and then raised the question, "What then is
the nation's political object in the gulf and what
level of sacrifice is it worth?" The "debate" was not
over whether Clausewitz's metaphor was appropriate,
but only over how various analysts calculated the
relative gains and losses. The same was true of the
hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
where Clausewitz's metaphor provided the framework
within which most discussion took place.

The broad acceptance of Clausewitz's metaphor raises
vital questions: What, exactly, makes it a metaphor
rather than a literal truth? Why does it seem so
natural to foreign policy experts? How does it fit
into the overall metaphor system for understanding
foreign relations and war? And, most importantly, what
realities does it hide?

To answer these questions, let us turn to the system
of metaphorical thought most commonly used by the
general public in comprehending international
politics. What follows is a two-part discussion of the
role of metaphorical reasoning about the gulf crisis.
The first part lays out the central metaphor systems
used in reasoning about the crisis: both the system
used by foreign policy experts and the system used by
the public at large. The second part discusses how the
system was applied to the crisis in the gulf.

Part 1: The Metaphor Systems

The State-as-Person System

A state is conceptualized as a person, engaging in
social relations within a world community. Its
land-mass is its home. It lives in a neighborhood, and
has neighbors, friends and enemies. States are seen as
having inherent dispositions: they can be peaceful or
aggressive, responsible or irresponsible, industrious
or lazy.

Well-being is wealth. The general well-being of a
state is understood in economic terms: its economic
health. A serious threat to economic health can thus
be seen as a death threat. To the extent that a
nation's economy depends on foreign oil, that oil
supply becomes a 'lifeline' (reinforced by the image
of an oil pipeline).

Strength for a state is military strength. Maturity
for the person-state is industrialization.
Unindustrialized nations are '`underdeveloped', with
industrialization as a natural state to be reached.
Third-world nations are thus immature children, to be
taught how to develop properly or disciplined if they
get out of line. Nations that fail to industrialize at
a rate considered normal are seen as akin to retarded
children and judged as "backward" nations. Rationality
is the maximization of self-interest.

There is an implicit logic to the use of these
metaphors: Since it is in the interest of every person
to be as strong and healthy as possible, a rational
state seeks to maximize wealth and military might.

Violence can further self-interest. It can be stopped
in three ways: Either a balance of power, so that no
one in a neighborhood is strong enough to threaten
anyone else. Or the use of collective persuasion by
the community to make violence counter to
self-interest. Or a cop strong enough to deter
violence or punish it. The cop should act morally, in
the community's interest, and with the sanction of the
community as a whole.

Morality is a matter of accounting, of keeping the
moral books balanced. A wrongdoer incurs a debt, and
he must be made to pay. The moral books can be
balanced by a return to the situation prior to the
wrongdoing, by giving back what has been taken, by
recompense, or by punishment. Justice is the balancing
of the moral books.

War in this metaphor is a fight between two people, a
form of hand-to-hand combat. Thus, the US sought to
"push Iraq back out of Kuwait" or "deal the enemy a
heavy blow," or "deliver a knockout punch." A just war
is thus a form of combat for the purpose of settling
moral accounts.

The most common discourse form in the West where there
is combat to settle moral accounts is the classic
fairy tale. When people are replaced by states in such
a fairy tale, what results is the most common scenario
for a just war. So:

The Fairy Tale of the Just War

Cast of characters: A villain, a victim, and a hero.
The victim and the hero may be the same person.

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 either gathers helpers or decides to go it alone.
The hero makes sacrifices; he undergoes difficulties,
typically making an arduous heroic journey, sometimes
across the sea to a treacherous terrain. The villain
is inherently evil, perhaps even a monster, and thus
reasoning with him is out of the question. The hero is
left with no choice but to engage the villain in
battle. The hero defeats the villain and rescues the
victim. The moral balance is restored. Victory is
achieved. The hero, who always acts honorably, has
proved his manhood and achieved glory. The sacrifice
was worthwhile. The hero receives acclaim, along with
the gratitude of the victim and the community.

The fairy tale has an asymmetry built into it. The
hero is moral and courageous, while the villain is
amoral and vicious. The hero is rational, but though
the villain may be cunning and calculating, he cannot
be reasoned with. Heroes thus cannot negotiate with
villains; they must defeat them. The enemy-as-demon
metaphor arises as a consequence of the fact that we
understand what a just war is in terms of this fairy

Metaphorical Definition

The most natural way to justify a war on moral grounds
is to fit this fairy tale structure to a given
situation. This is done by metaphorical definition,
that is, by answering the questions: Who is the
victim? Who is the villain? Who is the hero? What is
the crime? What counts as victory? Each set of answers
provides a different filled-out scenario.

As the gulf crisis developed, President Bush tried to
justify going to war by the use of such a scenario. At
first, he couldn't get his story straight. What
happened was that he was using two different sets of
metaphorical definitions, which resulted in two
different scenarios:

The Self-Defense Scenario: Iraq is villain, the US is
hero, the US and other industrialized nations are
victims, the crime is a death threat, that is, a
threat to economic health.

The Rescue Scenario: Iraq is villain, the US is hero,
Kuwait is victim, the crime is kidnap and rape. The
American people could not accept the Self-Defense
scenario, since it amounted to trading lives for oil.
The day after a national poll that asked Americans
what they would be willing to go to war for, the
administration settled on the Rescue Scenario, which
was readily embraced by the public, the media, and
Congress as providing moral justification for going to

The Ruler-for-State Metonymy

There is a metonymy that goes hand-in-hand with the
State-as-Person metaphor: THE RULER STANDS FOR THE
STATE. Thus, we can refer to Iraq by referring to
Saddam Hussein, and so have a single person, not just
an amorphous state, to play the villain in the just
war scenario. It is this metonymy that was invoked
every time President Bush said "We have to get Saddam
out of Kuwait."

Incidentally, the metonymy only applies to those
leaders perceived as illegitimate rulers. Thus, it
would be strange for us to describe the American
invasion of Kuwait by saying, "George Bush marched
into Kuwait."

The Experts' Metaphors

Experts in international relations have an additional
system of metaphors that are taken as defining a
"rational" approach. The principal ones are the
Rational Actor metaphor and Clausewitz's metaphor,
which are commonly taught as truths in courses on
international relations. We are now in a position to
show precisely what is metaphorical about Clausewitz's
metaphor. To do so, we need to look at a system of
metaphors that is presupposed by Clausewitz's
metaphor. We will begin with an everyday system of
metaphors for understanding causation:

The Causal Commerce System

The Causal Commerce system is a way to comprehend
actions intended to achieve positive effects, but
which may also have negative effects. The system is
composed of three metaphors:

Causal Transfer: An effect is an object transferred
from a cause to an affected party. For example,
sanctions are seen as "giving" Iraq economic
difficulties. Correspondingly, economic difficulties
for Iraq are seen as "coming from" the sanctions. This
metaphor turns purposeful actions into transfers of

The Exchange Metaphor for Value: The value of
something is what you are willing to exchange for it.
Whenever we ask whether it is "worth" going to war to
get Iraq out of Kuwait, we are using the Exchange
Metaphor for Value plus the Causal Transfer metaphor.

Well-being is Wealth: Things of value constitute
wealth. Increases in well-being are "gains"; decreases
in well -being are "costs." The metaphor of
Well-being-as-Wealth has the effect of making
qualitative effects quantitative. It not only makes
qualitatively different things comparable, it even
provides a kind of arithmetic calculus for adding up
costs and gains.

Taken together, these three metaphors portray actions
as commercial transactions with costs and gains.
Seeing actions as transactions is crucial to applying
ideas from economics to actions in general.


A risk is an action taken to achieve a positive
effect, where the outcome is uncertain and where there
is also a significant probability of a negative
effect. Since Causal Commerce allows one to see
positive effects of actions as "gains" and negative
effects as "costs", it becomes natural to see a risky
action metaphorically as a financial risk of a certain
type, namely, a gamble.

Risks are Gambles

In gambling to achieve certain "gains", there are
"stakes" that one can "lose". When one asks what is
"at stake" in going to war, one is using the metaphors
of Causal Commerce and Risks-as-Gambles. These are
also the metaphors that President Bush uses when he
refers to strategic moves in the gulf as a "poker
game" where it would be foolish for him to "show his
cards", that is, to make strategic knowledge public.

The Mathematicization of Metaphor

The Causal Commerce and Risks-as-Gambles metaphors lie
behind our everyday way of understanding risky actions
as gambles. At this point, mathematics enters the
picture, since there is mathematics of gambling,
namely, probability theory, decision theory, and game
theory. Since the metaphors of Causal Commerce and
Risks-as -Gambles are so common in our everyday
thought, their metaphorical nature often goes
unnoticed. As a result, it is not uncommon for social
scientists to think that the mathematics of gambling
literally applies to all forms of risky action, and
that it can provide a general basis for the scientific
study of risky action, so that risk can be minimized.

Rational Action

Within the social sciences, especially in economics,
it is common to see a rational person as someone who
acts in his own self-interest, that is, to maximize
his own well-being. Hard-core advocates of this view
may even see altruistic action as being in one's
self-interest if there is a value in feeling righteous
about altruism and in deriving gratitude from others.
In the Causal Commerce system, where well-being is
wealth, this view of Rational Action translates
metaphorically into maximizing gains and minimizing
losses. In other words:

Rationality is Profit Maximization

This metaphor presupposes Causal Commerce plus
Risks-as-Gambles, and brings with it the mathematics
of gambling as applied to risky action. It has the
effect of turning specialists in mathematical
economics into "scientific" specialists in acting
rationally so as to minimize risk and cost while
maximizing gains.

Suppose we now add the State-as-Person metaphor to the
Rationality-as-Profit-Maximization metaphor. The
result is:

International Politics is Business

Here the state is a Rational Actor, whose actions are
transactions and who is engaged in maximizing gains
and minimizing costs. This metaphor brings with it the
mathematics of cost-benefit calculation and game
theory, which is commonly taught in graduate programs
in international relations. Clausewitz's metaphor, the
major metaphor preferred by international relations
strategists, presupposes this system.

Clausewitz's Metaphor: War is Politics, pursued by
other means.

Since politics is business, war becomes a matter of
maximizing political gains and minimizing losses. In
Clausewitzian terms, war is justified when there is
more to be gained by going to war than by not going to
war. Morality is absent from the Clausewitzian
equation, except when there is a political cost to
acting immorally or a political gain from acting

Clausewitz's metaphor only allows war to be justified
on pragmatic, not moral, grounds. To justify war on
both moral and pragmatic grounds, the Fairy Tale of
the Just War and Clausewitz's metaphor must mesh: The
"worthwhile sacrifices" of the fairy tale must equal
the Clausewitzian "costs" and the "victory" in the
fairy tale must equal the Clausewitzian "gains."

Clausewitz's metaphor is the perfect expert's
metaphor, since it requires specialists in political
cost-benefit calculation. It sanctions the use of the
mathematics of economics, probability theory, decision
theory, and game theory in the name of making foreign
policy rational and scientific.

Clausewitz's metaphor is commonly seen as literally
true. We are now in a position to see exactly what
makes it metaphorical. First, it uses the
State-as-Person metaphor. Second, it turns qualitative
effects on human beings into quantifiable costs and
gains, thus seeing political action as economics.
Third, it sees rationality as profit-making. Fourth,
it sees war in terms of only one dimension of war,
that of political expediency, which is in turn
conceptualized as business.

War as Violent Crime

To bear in mind what is hidden by Clausewitz's
metaphor, we should consider an alternative metaphor
that is not used by professional strategists nor by
the general public to understand war as we engage in


Here, war is understood only in terms of its moral
dimension, and not, say, its political or economic
dimension. The metaphor highlights those aspects of
war that would otherwise be seen as major crimes.

There is an Us/Them asymmetry between the public use
of Clausewitz's metaphor and the War-as-Crime
metaphor. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was reported on
in terms of murder, theft and rape. The American
invasion was never discussed in terms of murder,
assault, and arson. Moreover, the US plans for war
were seen, in Clausewitzian terms, as rational
calculation. But the Iraqi invasion was discussed not
as a rational move by Saddam Hussein, but as the work
of a madman. We portrayed Us as rational, moral, and
courageous and Them as criminal and insane.

War as a Competitive Game

It has long been noted that we understand war as a
competitive game like chess, or as a sport, like
football or boxing. It is a metaphor in which there is
a clear winner and loser, and a clear end to the game.
The metaphor highlights strategic thinking, team work,
preparedness, the spectators in the world arena, the
glory of winning and the shame of defeat.

This metaphor is taken very seriously. There is a long
tradition in the West of training military officers in
team sports and chess. The military is trained to win.
This can lead to a metaphor conflict, as it did in
Vietnam, since Clausewitz's metaphor seeks to maximize
geopolitical gains, which may or may not be consistent
with absolute military victory. Indeed, the right wing
myth that the Vietnam War was fought "with one hand
tied behind our back" uses the boxing version of the
sports metaphor. What is being referred to was the
application of Clausewitzian principles in Vietnam to
limit our involvement in that war.

War as Medicine

Finally, there is a common metaphor in which military
control by the enemy is seen as a cancer that can
spread. In this metaphor, military "operations" are
seen as hygienic, to "clean out" enemy fortifications.
Bombing raids are portrayed as "surgical strikes" to
"take out" anything that can serve a military purpose.
The metaphor is supported by imagery of shiny metallic
instruments of war, especially jets.

The First Days of the War

All these metaphor systems were apparent in the TV
coverage of the first days of the war. The Fairy Tale:
American soldiers were "heroes." They had used their
magic weaponry to smite the demonic enemy. There was
voluminous TV reportage on the magical quality of the

Sports: Commanding officers told their troops "This is
our Super Bowl." The actual Super Bowl half-time
activities mixed war and sports imagery
interchangeably. Pilots returning from bombing runs
gave each other "high-fives" and waved their index
fingers in the air proclaiming "We're number one!"
Casualty estimates was given in the form of a
scoreboard. The major American tactic was named after
a football play.

Cost-benefit: Within hours of the first bombing,
Pentagon officials and Republican politicians started
declaring that the enormously expensive development of
weapons over the last fifteen years was "well worth
it" and a sound investment.

Medicine: Endless pictures of surgical strikes.
In short, the War brought the basic metaphors into
full view. Those things highlighted by the metaphors
were shown vividly and often. But what was hidden by
the metaphors was largely undiscussable.

Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
V3, N3 (November 1991)

Texts made available by the Sixties Project, are
generally copyrighted by the Author or by Viet Nam
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