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Rules of the Game and Other Evil Metaphors

Getting Real About War.

by Barnabas
October 8, 2003

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Rules of the Game and Other Evil Metaphors_Barnabas-Getting Real About War
The leader of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah, told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV that the Israeli attack was "a grave development that exceeded all rules of the game." –Jayson Keyser, AP, October 5.
I am a satirist as well as ethicist, but even in that role I can’t come up with applicable rules for blowing up unsuspecting civilians as they are eating dinner. Speaking of it as a “game” is to distance it from reality (hence from moral responsibility). The Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups have long since demonstrated that they believe in no rules of moral value when it comes to violence. For them to say that someone else has “exceeded the rules” is beyond absurd. It is silly.

But I’m not going to repeat my column of a few weeks ago (The Unholy Land), which is readily accessible to you. Rather, the words of the Jihad leader called to mind some other metaphors that minimize the horrors of war. Here are just a few examples.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE. Not damage. Death. Specifically, civilian deaths. Tim McVeigh did not invent the term. He learned it in the Army. We were shocked when he said it; we ought to be shocked when our commanders say it. Every instance of unintended death is unbearably tragic. Unintended death in warfare is bad enough without depersonalizing it.

WHIP ASS, KICK BUTT, ETC. (When said by military or political persons in reference to action against an enemy). These terms as metaphor imply minimal violence with comic overtones. The human derriere has its comic aspects. “Slapstick” comedy (as in Moliere) involved actors and actresses whacking each other on the seat with paddles (slapsticks) designed to make loud noises on contact. Their audiences found it hilarious. Even when temporary pain is intended, as in punishment, the seat is targeted because it is least likely to sustain permanent damage. This metaphor for humiliating an opponent is in common use in games, where humiliation is temporary and usually harmless. But it’s the wrong metaphor for blowing people up, riddling them with automatic weapon fire, and incinerating them.

DAISY-CUTTERS, COOKIE-CUTTERS. The “daisy cutter” is a huge bomb, some seven and a half tons, designed to slaughter a large number of people with a single blast. “Blood bomb” would be more accurate.

War is not a game, not an exercise of domestic discipline, not gardening, not cooking. We need to get rid of the cute and clever metaphors,but not because they are cute and clever. They obscure rather than reveal the realities of war.

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