It started during the Nixon administration. To convey the idea of a more forceful, energetic initiative, they named the enterprise the “War on Drugs.” Since then, “war” has become a garden variety idiom of the worst sort, gaining tremendous prominence with Bush’s current “War on Terror.” But what’s so bad about a seemingly harmless metaphor?
Three things are troubling about this phrase. For one, it is inaccurate and misleading; worse, it is a manipulative marketing strategy; most troubling of all, its popularity and rampant overuse have made such a serious action an utterly banal term.
I am not the first to state that it is asinine to declare war on a group of substances or an abstract noun. These initiatives are obviously not trying to combat such abstractions. The War on Drugs aims to eradicate drug traffic and abuse; the War on Terror aims to prevent terrorist actions.
It can be argued that these phrases are meant to be taken figuratively, and I certainly hope that is the case. But consistently calling these enterprises “wars” influences the ways that the public thinks about these endeavors, and shifts the dialogue to the advantage of those who named them.
“War on Terror.” Say it to yourself. “We’re fighting the War on Terror” (and be sure to capitalize). It sounds big. Effective. Righteous. It makes you wax patriotic. It’s poetic: they’ve even dropped the “ism” to make it “Terror,” and how much smoother it sounds because of it! What a catchy title, too, like that of a movie. And terror’s bad, right? Naturally we should fight a war against it!
Are these reactions, simple-minded as they may be, so farfetched? In a country with such a history of belligerence and where war is so prominent in popular culture, can people avoid reacting strongly to it, especially when the word is mouthed by their Commander-in-Chief?
Now, consider the implications of being at war. A war polarizes, naturally providing an “us versus them” mentality. This makes people defensive of their own country, less likely to criticize their leaders and more likely to accept the curtailment of civil rights; the people must defer to their leaders a little more unquestioningly, simply because this is a necessity of wartime. A war also sounds effective, and a war is final: you eventually win or lose.
Except this isn’t really a war. The enemy is a vague notion, and the effort is not a question of taking up arms. It’s not a question of who’s stronger. Most importantly, and I must underscore this, this is a war that cannot be won. It is a war against violence toward the United States in particular and negative sentiment toward the country in general. How can you destroy such a thing? I’m frankly at a loss.
Now here’s the worst part: American society ate it up. The term is used everywhere now. Doubt it? Run a Google search on the words “war on,” and look at some of the results, and note how few of them are actual wars.
The results of this search will broadly fit two categories. One is a more mundane usage, such as the “War on Spam,” and is relatively harmless, except for its inaccuracy and contribution to the banalization of war itself. The other is a corruption of the use of the term that is manipulative in a whole new way. Such is the case with the “War on Christmas,” a book by Fox News host John Gibson that denounces the secularization of the state. To call it a war and have “Christmas” as the enemy alarms Christians and makes them more sympathetic to his arguments. It’s a clever ploy to oversimplify an issue and make his own side appear as the wronged one. Not that this is a conservative phenomenon, because the liberal media is as much a perpetrator, with “War on Journalism,” which criticizes Fox News. Then there is the War on Youth, the War on Civil Liberties, War on Blogs, War on Rational Discourse, War on Choice, War on Christianity — it seems that nothing is free from military action these days.
This trend seems to have entrenched itself in the English language, just like so many other bad habits. It is hard to say whether anything can be done to deracinate it at this point. Perhaps the best anyone can do is keep in mind how misleading and manipulative it is until it comes to the fate of most other bad habits of language, falling into disuse or becoming so commonplace as to lose any evocative power.
Caio Camargo is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. He is a staff photographer for the News.