About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Please, don't talk to me about “the war on...”

I keep hearing the phrase “the war on...” and I'm beginning to develop an automatic response of reaching for my gun (fortunately I don't own one). We have, of course, a war on terror, one on drugs, another on cancer, on AIDS, on illiteracy, and of course on poverty, to mention just a few. Which one of these is not a “war” by any intelligible definition of the word? All of them (yes, including the one on terror)!

First off, I don't see why people keep using “war on” as a positive, affirmative metaphor. Apparently, it's a good thing to be waging war on cancer or poverty. But, in reality, wars are never a good thing, even in the few instances in which they may have been just from an ethical point of view (World War II comes to mind, with some caveats). So why use an atrocious and most despicable human activity as a metaphor for positive change?

Besides, wars are usually won by someone, and usually within a fairly short period of time (the Hundred Years war being an obvious exception). Which is why politicians love the war metaphor (it also makes them look tough, even though, like Cheney and Bush-II, they were actually very careful to avoid getting themselves on the front line when there was a chance). But all the so-called “wars” mentioned above cannot actually be won, and they will last a long, long time. Cancer, AIDS and poverty cannot lose a war in any meaningful way, because they are not sentient combatants, they are biological and social diseases. And since they are complex diseases, it will take a lot of effort, ingenuity and money to make progress on those struggles, but it's hard to see what one gains from describing them as wars.

The war on terror, of course, is a bit closer to a real war, because it is in fact fought against sentient combatants. But terror wasn't invented on 9/11, despite what some Americans may think. It is a time-honored way for people without the means to raise an army to annoy whoever they see as their oppressors to the point that the oppressors lose interest and go away. This was done against the Romans on the frontiers of the empire, it's how most revolutionary movements begin (think of John Brown before the Civil War, if you want a terrorist that fits the definition), and it is the only way today that a superpower can be violently challenged. But it isn't a war because there are no armies facing each other, no enemy that can be vanquished on the battlefield, no rules of military conduct, and no distinction between soldiers and civilians. Ironically, Bush-II was correct when he triumphantly said, after the fall of Baghdad, that the US won the war. But that's a whole different matter from saying that “the mission was accomplished,” as the “mission” ain't no war.

So please, enough already with the war on this and the war on that. Don't allow politicians to score cheap brownie points by posturing as tough guys when the best they can do with weapons is to shoot their hunting buddies in the face . Terrorism, cancer and poverty have absolutely nothing in common that justifies us labeling them “wars”. A good first step toward making progress with any problem is to form a realistic concept of what kind of problem it really is.


  1. It was interesting when the administration rationalized circumventing congressional laws to wiretap etc without warrants by comparing the "war on terror" with the American Civil war. Yes, Lincoln rolled back civil liberties in the country a great deal...but he barely had any country left!!


    Hey, MP, just curious, what do you think about Sam Harris' position, best summarized as follows:

    SH: "I think the root cause (of moral confusion) in academia, certainly liberal academia now, is what we call “political correctness.” There are so many taboos in academia and in our culture at large, the one of which that I’m going up against most directly in my book is the taboo around criticizing faith itself, which is something you and I are going to differ on. But, there again…"


  2. Kevin,

    this is a bit off topic given the thread, but I think Harris is way overestimating the threat that political correctness in academia poses to the criticism of religion. If that were the major problem, we'd be easily home free. The trouble is that society at large, not just academia, has a huge taboo on criticism of religion.

  3. This is a great sign of progress! We no longer declare war on countries -- we declare war on nouns.

  4. Anonymous,
    Would it then follow that all those deaths in Iraq are being caused by other parts of speech run amok? Taking this home, the whole mess may revert back to Bush's inability to use the English language in any sensible way.

  5. Hm, and you never even mentioned the War on Christmas (TM)! :O)


  6. When the conservative religious use the 'war on christmas' ploy, they are attempting to portay themselves as victims of secularism, and to hold up religion as our only hope. When politicians use the 'war on [blsnk]' ploy they want us to think they are working hard to solve some problem,like drugs. Both methods are examples of obfuscation. And both examples show that the real war is on we the people. Both the ultra-religious and the ultra-political want to take away our freedom of thought.

  7. So then the pacifist movement could be called the the war on wars. And your post could be part of the war on wars.

  8. The reason these calls to action are called "wars" is to reinforce the idea that we must all act together and make sacrifices to "win."

    The curious thing is that this time, there is no call for sacrifice. We are expected to be able to wage an expensive war without having to pay for it. Hey, we can cut taxes, at least for the wealthy, and the vast majority of Americans can go on about their lives without any changes (as long as you ignore the absence of the Bill of Rights).


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