Dead metaphors are the figurations of myth made literal by common consent in the war state. Unacknowledged as mythic figures, their imagery is lost to conscious awareness and inaccessible to critical interpretation. They denote a factual world rather than symbolize condensed narratives of the human imagination that reveal society’s “deepest hopes, desires and fears, potentialities and conflicts” (Joseph Campbell, “Metaphor as Myth and Religion”).
Mythic metaphors turn ferocious when they are routinized, when language loses its figurative life force, when words merge with things-in-themselves. Misreading metaphors as denotative language turns nations against one another, each nationality treating the other’s truths as vicious lies.
Below the threshold of perception lurk the war state’s mythic metaphors, which goad the people to smite the demons of tyranny and defend the citadel of democracy. The war god resides in the discourse of an exceptional people, the primal myth of the American creed (Robert Bellah, Myths America Lives By). Rooted in religion, the myth is perverted into notions of national innocence and superiority, reified as the redemptive warfare of a righteous people on a special mission to vanquish evil and spread the blessing of liberty. Linguistic self-delusion conflates strength with virtue, making America out to be the most powerful, richest, and morally paramount land in the world (Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism).
These are America’s sacred beliefs, the secular expression of a religious vision—a heroic quest for the Holy Grail sufficiently literalized to make commonsense of a boundless war on terrorism. The mythic motif of heroes slaying monsters, embedded in the literalisms of the war state, dictates the modern logic of just war.
Thus, the ironic premise of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is that he is first and foremost the Commander in Chief of a nation at war. In his words:
“War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned. It was simply a fact like drought or disease—the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.”
That was primitive time. In our enlightened era:
“The destructive power of war” is regulated by the concept of “just war.” Armed conflict is legitimate only as a matter of self-defense or last resort. Civilians are spared if possible, and force is used proportional to the circumstances at hand. America’s “fortitude and foresight” in war has advanced “the ideals of liberty, self-determination, equality and the rule of law.”
And in the present moment:
“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.” Terrorists use religion “to justify the murder of innocents,” but “no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe you are carrying out divine will, there is no need for constraint.”
Dead metaphors feed a morbid appetite for war. They are mythologically opaque so that the blinded Cyclops groping for prey cannot his own reflection see.