Misusing the War Metaphor, Yet Again

Through my work rebuilding the Iraq mental health care system after the war, I met an astonishingly brave young American man who had willingly taken on multiple dangerous assignments, had a genius for organization, and an admirably developed sense of right and wrong. When I ran into him again a few years later, he was, in his mid 30s, already an Assistant Secretary of Defense. Everyone who knew him had him tapped in their minds as a future member of the Joint Chiefs. When I saw him yet again a few years after that, he had quit the military and was working for a foundation dedicated to providing health and social services to low-income families. When I asked him why he had made such a radical career change, he said something simple that has stayed with me since:

“Winning wars is about killing people and breaking stuff. I want to build something.”

I am from a military family and I admire people who dedicate their life to the service of their country. And I recognize that there are problems (e.g., the removal of Colonel Gaddafi from power) that can only be solved by killing people and breaking stuff. But that only makes me wish all the more that politicians appreciated the simple wisdom of what this remarkable man said.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who quite commendably has announced that he wants to help Britain’s most troubled families apparently felt compelled to add that he would declare “a concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture.” A small minority of gang members are truly sociopathic thugs with whom things might indeed, sadly, come down to “killing people and breaking stuff”, but is Britain really going to heal and support 125,000 troubled families as Cameron wants to do under the banner of “war”? Like the wretched “war on drugs” metaphor, this framing of domestic policy as war calls up in everyone’s mind a need for violence against an external enemy, an eye for an eye retribution, the taking of prisoners and the willingness to engage in wanton destruction. But such brutal measures are largely unnecessary and do not in any event resemble the package of policies the PM is rolling out today.

As with the war on drugs (or the prior war on poverty), politicians engaged in domestic reforms could do a service to their countries by abandoning the language of war and replacing it with a more appropriate and positive framing, language and set of symbols. What Cameron wants — and what most of his fellow Britons want — are more families who have the resources to rear children, who, through a combination of love and limits, become fulfilled and productive members of society. That’s nothing to do with killing people and breaking stuff. Rather, it’s a campaign for economic opportunity, health and responsibility. The surest way to make it fail right out of the gate is to keep describing it in militaristic language that puts all people concerned into the wrong frame of mind.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.