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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Is Anything the Moral Equivalent of War?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Ever since 2001, when President George W. Bush launched an endless "global war" not on al-Qaeda but on a phenomenon, or perhaps simply a feeling ("terror") and those who could potentially induce it, America's all-too-real conflicts have become, as TomDispatchregular Rebecca Gordon writes today, ever more metaphorical. In a sense, they have come to seem so distant from our shores and lives (unless you happen to be a member of the country's all-volunteer military or a family member of such a volunteer) as to be little short of fantastical -- or nonexistent. Who here even notices when, as in recent weeks, American military personnel again hit the ground in Yemen, or the Pentagon considers loosing its drones on jihadists in the Philippines, or U.S. raids occur in Somalia, or civilians in significant numbers continue to die in a Syrian city under American air strikes? The answer is essentially no one.

Washington's conflicts in those distant lands couldn't be more real and yet here in the United States they have largely been replaced by a single fantasy bogeyman: Islamic terrorism. It matters little that the actual danger to Americans at the hands of such terrorists is vanishingly small. Fear of them (and the need to feel "safe" from them) has filled American screens and minds for years, helping fund our national security state at levels that might once have staggered the imagination and prepared the way for the election of a truly strange, even fantastical president.

Think of it this way: as Washington has engaged in a set of disastrous spreading conflicts across the Greater Middle East, the population of this country has been gripped by the strangest of war fevers -- a demobilizing set of militarized fantasies largely focused on our own potential destruction that have distorted how we look at our world in dangerous and crippling ways. Rebecca Gordon, who has been writing about America's "forever wars" and the fantasies that accompany them for some time now, considers what happens when war and metaphor become one, when militarized fantasies invade and occupy everyday life. Tom

When All the World's a War...
And All the Men and Women Merely Soldiers
By Rebecca Gordon

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been fighting a "war on terror." Real soldiers have been deployed to distant lands; real cluster bombs and white phosphorus have been used; real cruise missiles have been launched; the first MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, has been dropped; and real cities have been reduced to rubble. In revenge for the deaths of 2,977 civilians that day, real people -- in the millions -- have died and millions more have become refugees. But is the war on terror actually a war at all -- or is it only a metaphor?

In a real war, nations or organized non-state actors square off against each other. A metaphorical war is like a real war -- after all, that's what a metaphor is, a way of saying that one thing is like something else -- but the enemy isn't a country or even a single group of Islamic jihadists. It's some other kind of threat: a disease, a social problem, or in the case of the war on terror, an emotion.

In truth, it may not matter if the war on terror is a real one, since metaphorical wars have a striking way of killing real people in real numbers, too. Take the U.S war on drugs, for example. In Mexico, that war, fueled by U.S. weapons, using U.S. drones, and conducted with the assistance of the Pentagon and the CIA, has already led to the deaths of many thousands of people. A 2015 U.S. Congressional Research Service report estimates that organized crime caused 80,000 deaths in Mexico between 2007 and 2015. Most of the guns used in what has essentially been a mass murder spree came from this country, which is also the main market for the marijuana, cocaine, and heroin that are the identified enemy in this war of ours. As with our more literal wars of recent years, the war on drugs shows no sign of ending (nor does the U.S. hunger for drugs show any sign of abating). If anyone is winning this particular war, it's the drugs -- and, of course, the criminal cartels that move them across the continent.

American metaphorical wars fought in my own lifetime began with President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty," first announced in 1964 when I was 12 years old. Indeed, my mother "served" in that war. We lived in Washington, D.C., at the time and she worked for the United Planning Organization, a community-based group funded under Johnson's Model Cities program. It fought poverty in the slums of my hometown, just a few blocks from the White House. As with other similar groups around the country, its personnel tested new "weapons" in the war on poverty -- job training programs, citizen advice bureaus, and community-organizing efforts of various sorts. I was proud that my mother was a "soldier" in that war, which for a few brief years it even looked like we might be winning.

And there were victories. After all, the legacy of Johnson's Great Society and the war that went with it included Medicare for older people -- I'll be starting on it next month myself -- and Medicaid for people of any age living in poverty. The struggles, sacrifices, and deaths of civil rights activists together with Johnson's political mastery gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Of course the Trump Justice Department is doing its best to roll back both of these victories.) Then, as now, poverty touched the lives of many white people, but it flourished most abundantly in black and brown communities and so these new rights for people of color, some of us believed, signaled a light at the end of the tunnel when it came to the genuine abatement of poverty.

By 1968, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were addressing poverty across racial divides, organizing a Poor People's Campaign. It was to include a march on Washington and culminate in the building on the Capitol Mall of a "Resurrection City," which was to serve as a model -- a metaphor -- for a United States risen from the cross of poverty. King was, however, murdered that April and so didn't live to see that city. It turned out, in any case, to be a plywood encampment that would be drowned in mud from days of torrential rain. In the minds of those who still remember it, Resurrection City became a sad metaphor for Lyndon Johnson's war. "The war on poverty," as the saying went, "is over. Poverty won."

Meanwhile, much of the country was distracted from that metaphorical war by an actual war in Vietnam, where the only metaphor around was the insistence of commander of U.S. forces General William Westmoreland that there was "light at the end of the tunnel" when it came to that disastrous conflict.

What's in a Metaphor?

The war on poverty was hardly this country's first metaphorical war. In the 1930s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched a "war on crime," anticipating by some 40 years Richard Nixon's war on drugs, which itself has lasted another 40 years with no end in sight. Nixon also gave us the "war on cancer" -- still ongoing -- even as he continued to pursue the actual war in Vietnam, a rare American conflict in the second half of the twentieth century, metaphorical or otherwise, that came to a definitive end (even if in defeat).

Nor is the United States alone in fighting "wars" against nonhuman enemies. The World Bank, for example, ran a seven-year "total war" on AIDS in Kenya. The project ended in 2014, by which time 1.6 million people, or 6% of the population, were infected with HIV. Perhaps the bank was smarter than the U.S. in choosing to declare victory and go home, as at one point Vermont Governor George Aiken famously suggested we should do in relation to Vietnam.

What, you might wonder, is the problem in using the metaphor of war to represent a collective effort to battle and overcome some social evil? Certainly, fighting a war often requires from whole populations a special kind of heroic focus, a willingness to mobilize and sacrifice, a commitment to community or country, and for those in uniform, loyalty to one's fellow soldiers. It also requires people to relinquish their own petty interests in the service of a greater whole. Correspondent Chris Hedges caught this aspect of war in the title of his powerful book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Aren't such qualities useful ones to bring to the struggle to solve urgent, life-destroying problems like disease, poverty, or addiction? Wouldn't it be wonderful if human beings could confront those horrors with the same kind of passion, intensity, and funding we bring to actual wars?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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