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[casi] Metaphor and War: Part 2

This the second part of George Lakoff's article.


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

George Lakoff, Linguistics Department, UC Berkeley

Part II: Application of the Metaphors

Is Saddam Irrational?

The villain in the Fairy Tale of the Just War may be
cunning, but he cannot be rational. You just do not
reason with a demon, nor do you enter into
negotiations with him. The logic of the metaphor
demands that Saddam Hussein be irrational. But was he?

Administration policy was confused on the issue.
Clausewitz's metaphor, as used by strategists, assumes
that the enemy is rational: He too is maximizing gains
and minimizing costs. Our strategy from the outset was
to "increase the cost" to Saddam Hussein. That assumed
he was rational and was maximizing his self-interest.

At the same time, he was being called irrational. The
nuclear weapons argument depends on it. If rational,
he should follow the logic of deterrence. We have
thousands of hydrogen bombs in warheads. Israel is
estimated to have between 100 and 200 deliverable
atomic bombs. It would have taken Saddam Hussein at
least eight months and possibly five years before he
had a crude, untested atomic bomb on a truck. The
argument that he would not be deterred by our nuclear
arsenal and by Israel's assumes irrationality.

The Hitler analogy also assumes that Saddam is a
villainous madman. The analogy presupposes a Hitler
myth, in which Hitler too was an irrational demon,
rather than a rational self-serving brutal politician.
In the myth, Munich was a mistake and Hitler could
have been stopped early on had England entered the war
then. Military historians disagree as to whether the
myth is true. Be that as it may, the analogy does not
hold. Whether or not Saddam is Hitler, Iraq wasn't
Germany. It has 17 million people, not 70 million. It
is economically weak, not strong. It simply was not a
threat to the world.

Saddam Hussein is certainly immoral, ruthless, and
brutal, but there is no evidence that he is anything
but rational. Everything he has done, from
assassinating political opponents to invading Kuwait
can be see as furthering his own self-interest.

Kuwait as Victim

The classical victim is innocent. To the Iraqis,
Kuwait was anything but an innocent ingenue. The war
with Iran virtually bankrupted Iraq. Iraq saw itself
as having fought that war partly for the benefit of
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where Shiite citizens
supported Khomeini's Islamic Revolution. Kuwait had
agreed to help finance the war, but after the war, the
Kuwaitis insisted on repayment of the "loan." Kuwaitis
had invested hundreds of billions in Europe, America
and Japan, but would not invest in Iraq after the war
to help it rebuild. On the contrary, it began what
amounted to economic warfare against Iraq by
overproducing its oil quota to hold oil prices down.

In addition, Kuwait had drilled laterally into Iraqi
territory in the Rumailah oil field and had extracted
oil from Iraqi territory. Kuwait further took
advantage of Iraq by buying its currency, but only at
extremely low exchange rates. Subsequently, wealthy
Kuwaitis used that Iraqi currency on trips to Iraq,
where they bought Iraqi goods at bargain rates. Among
the things they bought most flamboyantly were liquor
and prostitutes, widows and orphans of men killed in
the war, who, because of the state of the economy, had
no other means of support. All this did not endear
Kuwaitis to Iraqis, who were suffering from over 70%

Moreover, Kuwaitis had long been resented for good
reason by Iraqis and Moslems from other nations.
Capital rich, but labor poor, Kuwait imported cheap
labor from other Moslem countries to do its least
pleasant work. At the time of the invasion, there were
800,000 Kuwaiti citizens and 2.2 million foreign
laborers who were treated by the Kuwaitis as lesser
beings. In short, to the Iraqis and to labor-exporting
Arab countries, Kuwait is badly miscast as a purely
innocent victim.

This does not in any way justify the horrors
perpetrated on the Kuwaitis by the Iraqi army. But it
is part of what is hidden when Kuwait is cast as an
innocent victim. The "legitimate government" of Kuwait
is an oppressive monarchy.

What is Victory?

In a fairy tale or a game, victory is well-defined.
Once it is achieved, the story or game is over.
Neither is the case in the gulf crisis. History
continues, and "victory" makes sense only in terms of
continuing history.

The president's stated objectives were total Iraqi
withdrawal and restoration of the Kuwaiti monarchy.
But no one believes the matter will end there, since
Saddam Hussein would still be in power. General Powell
said in his Senate testimony that if Saddam withdrew
and retained his military strength, the US would have
to "strengthen the indigenous countries of the region"
to achieve a balance of power. Presumably that means
arming Assad of Syria, who is every bit as dangerous
as Saddam. Would arming another villain count as

What could constitute "victory" in the present war?
Suppose we conquer Iraq, wiping out its military
capability. How would Iraq be governed? No puppet
government that we set up could govern effectively
since it would be hated by the entire populace. Since
Saddam has wiped out all opposition, the only
remaining effective government for the country would
be his Ba'ath party. Would it count as a victory if
Saddam's friends wound up in power? If not, what other
choice is there? And if Iraq has no remaining military
force, how could it defend itself against Syria and
Iran? It would certainly not be a "victory" for us if
either of them took over Iraq. If Syria did, then
Assad's Arab nationalism would become a threat. If
Iran did, then Islamic fundamentalism would become
even more powerful and threatening.

It would seem that the closest thing to a "victory"
for the US in case of war would be to drive the Iraqis
out of Kuwait; destroy just enough of Iraq's military
to leave it capable of defending itself against Syria
and Iran; somehow get Saddam out of power, but let his
Ba'ath party remain in control of a country just
strong enough to defend itself, but not strong enough
to be a threat; and keep the price of oil at a
reasonably low level.

The problems: It is not obvious that we could get
Saddam out of power without wiping out most of Iraq's
military capability. We would have invaded an Arab
country, which would create vast hatred for us
throughout the Arab world, and would no doubt result
in decades of increased terrorism and lack of
cooperation by Arab states. We would, by defeating an
Arab nationalist state, strengthen Islamic
fundamentalism. Iraq would remain a cruel dictatorship
run by cronies of Saddam. By reinstating the
government of Kuwait, we would inflame the hatred of
the poor toward the rich throughout the Arab world,
and thus increase instability. Even the closest thing
to a victory doesn't look very victorious.

If we weaken Iraq's military, the result would most
likely be civil war within Iraq. This has been
considered by the U.S. administration, which has
decided that it could not allow either a Shiite
victory (which would strengthen Iran) or a Kurdish
victory (which would threaten Turkey). This means that
we would not prevent a defeat, and most likely, a
slaughter of Shiites and Kurds by Saddam Hussein's
Sunni minority. Would this be "victory"?

Considering the tens of thousands of man hours that
have gone into the planning how to "win" the war, very
little time and effort has been spent clarifying what
"winning" would be.

The Arab Viewpoint

The metaphors used to conceptualize the gulf crisis
hide the most powerful political ideas in the Arab
world: Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.
The first seeks to form a racially-based all-Arab
nation, the second, a theocratic all-Islamic state.
Though bitterly opposed to one another, they share a
great deal. Both are conceptualized in family terms,
an Arab brotherhood and an Islamic brotherhood. Both
see brotherhoods as more legitimate than existing
states. Both are at odds with the state-as-person
metaphor, which sees currently existing states as
distinct entities with a right to exist in perpetuity.

Also hidden by our metaphors is perhaps the most
important daily concern throughout the Arab world:
Arab dignity. Both political movements are seen as
ways to achieve dignity through unity. The current
national boundaries are widely perceived as working
against Arab dignity in two ways: one internal and one

The internal issue is the division between rich and
poor in the Arab world. Poor Arabs see rich Arabs as
rich by accident, by where the British happened to
draw the lines that created the contemporary nations
of the Middle East. To see Arabs metaphorically as one
big family is to suggest that oil wealth should belong
to all Arabs. To many Arabs, the national boundaries
drawn by colonial powers are illegitimate, violating
the conception of Arabs as a single "brotherhood" and
impoverishing millions.

To those impoverished millions, the positive side of
Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was that it challenged
national borders and brought to the fore the divisions
between rich and poor that result from those lines in
the sand. If there is to be peace in the region, these
divisions must be addressed, say, by having rich Arab
countries make extensive investments in development
that will help poor Arabs. As long as the huge gulf
between rich and poor exists in the Arab world, a
large number of poor Arabs will continue to see one of
the superstate solutions, either Arab nationalism or
Islamic fundamentalism, as being in their
self-interest, and the region will continue to be

The external issue is the weakness. The current
national boundaries keep Arab nations squabbling among
themselves and therefore weak relative to Western
nations. To unity advocates, what we call "stability"
means continued weakness.

Weakness is a major theme in the Arab world, and is
often conceptualized in sexual terms, even more than
in the West. American officials, in speaking of the
"rape" of Kuwait, were conceptualizing a weak,
defenseless country as female and a strong militarily
powerful country as male. Similarly, it is common for
Arabs to conceptualize the colonization and subsequent
domination of the Arab world by the West, especially
the US, as emasculation.

An Arab proverb that was reported to be popular in
Iraq before the US invasion was "It is better to be a
cock for a day than a chicken for a year." The message
is clear: It is better to be male, that is, strong and
dominant for a short period of time than to be female,
that is, weak and defenseless for a long time. Much of
the support for Saddam Hussein among Arabs is due to
the fact that he is seen as standing up to the US,
even if only for a while, and that there is a dignity
in this. Since upholding dignity was an essential part
of what defined Saddam's "rational self-interest", it
should be no surprise that he was willing to go to war
to "be a cock for a day." Just surviving a war with
the US makes him a hero in much of the Moslem world.

What is Hidden By Seeing the State as a Person?

The State-as-Person metaphor highlights the ways in
which states act as units, and hides the internal
structure of the state. Class structure is hidden by
this metaphor, as is ethnic composition, religious
rivalry, political parties, the ecology, and the
influence of the military and of corporations
(especially multi-national corporations).

Consider the "national interest." It is in a person's
interest to be healthy and strong. The State-as-Person
metaphor translates this into a "national interest" of
economic health and military strength. But what is in
the "national interest" may or may not be in the
interest of many ordinary citizens, groups, or
institutions, who may become poorer as the GNP rises
and weaker as the military gets stronger.

The "national interest" is a metaphorical concept, and
it is defined in America by politicians and policy
makers. For the most part, they are influenced more by
the rich than by the poor, more by large corporations
than by small business, and more by developers than
ecological activists.

When President Bush argues that going to war would
"serve our vital national interests", he is using a
metaphor that hides exactly whose interests would be
served and whose would not. For example, poor people,
especially blacks, are represented in the military in
disproportionately large numbers, and in a war the
lower classes and those ethnic groups will suffer
proportionally more casualties and have their lives
disrupted more. Thus war is less in the interest of
ethnic minorities and the lower classes than the white
upper classes.

Also hidden are the interests of the military itself.
It is against the military's interest to have its
budget cut, or to diminish its own influence in any
way. War justifies the military's importance and its
budgetary needs. The end of the cold war promised to
reduce the size and influence of the military. This
war has guaranteed the continued influence of the
military. Given that Air Force General Brent Scowcroft
heads the National Security Council and that he played
a major role in advising the president to go to war,
it would appear as if the military played a decisive
role in maintaining its own influence.

Energy Policy

The State-as-Person metaphor defines health for the
state in economic terms, with our current
understanding of economic health taken as a given,
including our dependence on foreign oil. Many
commentators argued prior to the war that a change in
energy policy to make us less dependent on foreign oil
would be more rational than going to war to preserve
our supply of cheap oil from the gulf. This argument
may have a real force, but it has no metaphorical
force when the definition of economic health is taken
as fixed. After all, you don't deal with an attack on
your health by changing the definition of health.
Metaphorical logic pushes a change in energy policy
out of the spotlight in the current crisis.

I do not want to give the impression that all that is
involved here is metaphor. Obviously there are
powerful corporate interests lined up against a
fundamental restructuring of our national energy
policy. What is sad is that they have a very
compelling system of metaphorical thought on their
side. If the debate is framed in terms of an attack on
our economic health, one cannot argue for redefining
what economic health is without changing the grounds
for the debate. And if the debate is framed in terms
of rescuing a victim, then changes in energy policy
seem utterly beside the point.

The "Costs" of War

Clausewitz's metaphor requires a calculation of the
"costs" and the "gains" of going to war. What,
exactly, goes into that calculation and what does not?
Certainly American casualties, loss of equipment, and
dollars spent on the operation count as costs. But
Vietnam taught us that there are social costs: trauma
to families and communities, disruption of lives,
psychological effects on veterans, long-term health
problems, in addition to the cost of spending our
money on war instead of on vital social needs at home,
as well as the vast cost of continuing to develop and
maintain a huge war machine.

Barely discussed is the moral cost that comes from
killing and maiming as a way to settle disputes. And
there is the moral cost of using a "cost" metaphor at
all. When we do so, we quantify the effects of war and
thus hide from ourselves the qualitative reality of
pain and death.

But those are costs to us. Recall that something can
be a cost to us only if it is one of our "assets." The
"cost -benefit" metaphor therefore rules out certain
possible costs. Consider the oil spill in the gulf and
the oil well fires, which are major ecological
disasters to the region. It was known in advance that
Saddam Hussein would cause the spill and start the
fires if we invaded. The American military decided
that these would be "acceptable costs." What that
means is that American soldiers would not be affected
that much. But since the ecology of the region is not
an American "asset", it could not be a significant
"cost" to the US. Had the oil spill and fires occurred
in Florida or Texas, the assessment of "cost" would
have been very much higher.

What is most ghoulish about the cost-benefit
calculation is that it is a zero-sum system: "costs"
to the other side count as "gains" for us. In Vietnam,
the body counts of killed Viet Cong were taken as
evidence of what was being "gained" in the war. Dead
human beings went on the profit side of our ledger.

There is a lot of talk of American deaths as "costs",
but Iraqi deaths aren't mentioned. The metaphors of
cost-benefit accounting and the fairy tale villain
lead us to devalue of the lives of Iraqis, even when
most of those actually killed will not be villains at
all, but simply innocent draftees or reservists or
civilians, especially women, children and the elderly.

America as Hero

The classic fairy tale defines what constitutes a
hero: it is a person who rescues an innocent victim
and who defeats and punishes a guilty and inherently
evil villain, and who does so for moral rather than
venal reasons. Is America a hero in the Gulf War?

It certainly does not fit the profile very well.
First, one of our main goals was to reinstate "the
legitimate government of Kuwait." That means
reinstating an absolute monarchy with an abysmal
record on human rights and civil liberties. Kuwait is
not an innocent victim whose rescue makes us heroic.

Second, the actual human beings who are suffering from
our attack are, for the most part, innocent people who
did not take part in the atrocities in Kuwait. Killing
and maiming a lot of innocent bystanders in the
process of nabbing a much smaller number of villains
does not make one much of a hero.

Third, in the self-defense scenario, where oil is at
issue, America is acting in its self-interest. But, in
order to qualify as a legitimate hero in the rescue
scenario, it must be acting selflessly. Thus, there is
a contradictiocontradiction between the
self-interested hero of the self-defense scenario and
the purely selfless hero of the rescue scenario.

Fourth, America may be a hero to the royal families of
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but it will not be a hero to
most Arabs. Most Arabs do not think in terms of our
metaphors. A great many Arabs see us as a kind of
colonial power using illegitimate force against an
Arab brother. To them, we are villains, not heroes.

Fifth, America had been supporting and supplying arms
to Saddam Hussein prior to his invasion of Kuwait,
during years when he was no less villainous to the
Iraqi citizenry. Classic heroes don't help out and
provide arms to well-known villains.

America appears as classic hero only if you don't look
carefully at how the metaphor is applied to the
situation. It is here that the State-as-Person
metaphor functions in a way that hides vital truths.
The State-as-Person metaphor hides the internal
structure of states and allows us to think of Kuwait
as a unitary entity, the defenseless maiden to be
rescued in the fairy tale. The metaphor hides the
monarchical character of Kuwait and the way the
Kuwaiti government treats its own dissenters and
foreign workers. The State-as-Person metaphor also
hides the internal structure of Iraq, and thus hides
the actual people who will mostly be killed, maimed,
or otherwise harmed in a war. It also hides the
political divisions in Iraq between Shiites, Sunnis,
and Kurds. The same metaphor also hides the internal
structure of the US, and therefore hides the fact that
it is the poor and minorities who will make the most
sacrifices while not getting any significant benefit.
And it hides the main ideas that drive Middle Eastern

Final Remarks

Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of
metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend
reality. What metaphor does is limit what we notice,
highlight what we do see, and provide part of the
inferential structure that we reason with. Because of
the pervasiveness of metaphor in thought, we cannot
always stick to discussions of reality in purely
literal terms.

There is no way to avoid metaphorical thought,
especially in complex matters like foreign policy. I
am therefore not objecting to the use of metaphor in
itself in foreign policy discourse. My objections are,
first, to the ignorance of the presence of metaphor in
foreign policy deliberations, second, to the failure
to look systematically at what our metaphors hide, and
third, to the failure to think imaginatively about
what new metaphors might be more benign.

It is in the service of reality that we must pay more
attention to the mechanisms of metaphorical thought,
especially because such mechanisms are necessarily
used in foreign policy deliberations, and because, as
we are witnessing, metaphors backed up by bombs can


On March 6, 1991, President Bush went before Congress
and declared victory in a war he justified as follows
“The recent challenge could not have been clearer.
Saddam Hussein was the villain; Kuwait the victim.”.


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

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