Ghostly Metaphor: War at a Bargain


Creditor’s Ledger Payments Book detailing creditor payments between 1958 and 1977 by companies commissioning work from Holmes McDougall. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like a ghost, the metaphors embedded in war talk go largely unnoticed. They are a specter haunting our speech and thought, just below the threshold of awareness. Calling attention to them can reveal an unexamined pretext for continuing to fight an interminable war.

Ghostly metaphors do not call attention to themselves as figures of speech. They operate furtively as though they are just ordinary words conveying literal meaning. With guard down, we allow them to shape the message and form our thoughts. When we draw on the literalized language of accounting to think about military matters, for example, we reason figuratively, drawing a tacit analogy between conducting business and fighting wars.

This rhetorical ghost lurked in a recent Washington Post editorial under the title “What the U.S. can learn from the fight against the Islamic State.” The editorial about what lesson to draw from military success is sprinkled with seemingly mundane and benign words, ten words that subtly establish a framework of interpretation:











Lining them up this way, in the order of their initial appearance in the editorial and removed from the sentences they inhabit, helps to suggest the shadow of an implied metaphor—specifically, an accounting metaphor that depicts war as a bargain.

The rhetorical work undertaken with these accounting words becomes readily apparent in context. They endorse the continuation of cost-effective warfare.

“. . . the final elimination of a self-declared califate . . . is worth celebrating”

“It represents a victory . . . for a U.S. military mission that succeeded with a light footprint and relatively low costs.”

“The biggest U.S. contribution was in air power.”

“American allies paid a heavy price.”

“U.S. losses, in contrast, were relatively light.”

“As of the end of last year, the war has cost some $28.5 billion—a fraction of the more than $1.5 trillion price of the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“In all, the fight against the Islamic State showed that the United States is capable of leading effective foreign counterterrorism campaigns, provided it partners with local forces and focuses on supplying unique U.S. assets.”

“. . . the costs of playing such a role are far less, in the long run, than withdrawing and allowing terrorist groups to rebuild.”

What are we to make of victory at relatively little “cost” as the standard for judging the “worth” of a war? How does looking at war through a narrow accounting lens distort our view of what is right and wrong, necessary and avoidable, acceptable and unacceptable, wise and unwise, moral and immoral?

To ponder such questions more broadly and deeply, we must detect the ghostly metaphors of war talk that too often elude critical attention. Recognized as such, they can be assessed on their own terms and rounded out from other standpoints.

Upon further reflection, the notion that cost-effectiveness supports continued “foreign counterterrorism campaigns” is questionable even within an accounting framework. The larger “toll of America’s post-9/11 conflicts” has been catastrophic, Katrina vanden Heuvel explains in a Washington Post opinion piece. She refers readers to the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, which has been documenting “the wars’ devastating human, economic, and political costs.” The cost of wars in the Middle East are about to exceed $6 trillion, a price tag that has skyrocketed U.S. budget deficits and justified “deep cuts in essential government programs.” The costs to the countries that the wars were supposed to liberate have been “even more ruinous.” Moreover, these wars “failed to stop—and, in some ways, fueled—the spread of terrorism and extremist violence across the region.” Without taking this larger picture into account, “we are doomed to repeat our mistakes,” she concludes.

The accounting metaphor can be stretched to take into consideration the impact on our humanity, the world in which we live, and the soul of the nation, not just the calculation of dollars spent, human and material assets expended, and so on. Calculating relative cost-effectiveness is not a sufficient substitute for addressing larger questions of feasibility, wisdom, and justice.



One comment

  1. Thank you, Robert, for bringing these ghostly metaphors to light and uncovering their meanings. Insightful essay.


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