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Not “Winning the War on…”

Posted by softestpawn on July 31, 2010

“The war on” terrorism, drugs, crime, poverty and so on frames these activities as a struggle with an end: either victory or defeat. As with the Second World War, the armies will destroy the enemy’s will to fight, the victors will introduce a Marshall Plan to fix everything that got broken, and then everyone settles down to enjoy peace and posterity.

If the end does not arrive nice and promptly, that the war is going on ‘too long’. The activity may not even be winnable. And if it’s not winnable, then we should give it up as pointless.

This metaphor seems suitable when ‘The War On..’ involves real war. The invasion of Iraq and the struggle for control of areas of Afghanistan had and have soldiers and gun battles and people deliberately trying to kill each other.

But real actual killing warfighting is only a fairly specific component of even a military-backed mission. Without other activities the overall intent can fail: the coalitions plainly won the war to control Iraq. They just never quite established that control themselves, and what they did they lost – through ‘factors other than war’. Even within modern armed conflicts we rarely operate with the clear remits for killing that we associate with clear warfare. The rules of engagement in Afghanistan are heavily restricted to reduce casualties amongst civilians; this necessarily prolongs the fire fights but is intended to improve the overall situation.

The wars on crime, on drugs, on poverty are more obviously foolish as useful metaphors.  There is no expected end state on any of these; we don’t expect crime to ever disappear, and definitions of poverty tends to change as our overall standard of living improves.

We could just give up the struggle; ‘the war on drugs’ could be ended (in defeat? victory?) by legalising all drugs. While it solves a few issues, it doesn’t suddenly solve debilating addictions. Some activities-other-than-war would still be needed.

Using metaphors like ‘the war on’ doesn’t just hide all these other important activities, it makes it difficult to appreciate them and balance them, and it provides the wrong references for judging progress.

‘Fighting crime’ for example involves quite a lot of not fighting at all: improving education to improve prospects, encouraging employment, changes to social and community attitudes.

A much more appropriate metaphor is gardening. There is no end-state ‘win’ in gardening; there are desired states for the garden or parts of it but work does not stop when you reach it. Indeed, some gardens require tremendous effort to maintain. You can change your intended result to make the work easier or harder,  but you have to keep working to maintain an approximation to that result.

And while “Crime Gardening” doesn’t really cut the spin mustard, some metaphors might be usable: Weeding Out Crime, Landscaping A New Society, Cultivating Good Relationships, and probably something about Roots.

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3 Responses to “Not “Winning the War on…””

  1. Alex said

    The other problem with fighting metaphors is that they’re terribly masculinist, reinforcing the idea that the strongest (physically), most combative “side” is the most powerful and important.

  2. Culex said

    Shouldn’t we have started to fight the war against wars?

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