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War as Metaphor

The Public Eye, Fall 2009

At War With Metaphor: Media, Propaganda, And Racism In The War On Terror
By Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills
Lexington Books, 2008, 268 pages, $70.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Josh Klein

Josh Klein is a sociologist at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He currently is researching the culture of political violence and state-corporate crime.

How was the Bush Administration able to win support for its war in Iraq when its official reasons for war were so empty? In this thoughtful, scholarly reflection, Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills look to the virulent metaphors that framed public discussion of the war’s objects, enemies, and essential terms to answer this question, arguing, in short, that metaphors have power.

This is especially true when the mainstream media acts “as a stenographer to power, ‘spin[ning]’ even horrific acts of brutality, and characterize[ing] opposition as disloyalty. … The mainstream news media bears the blame for boiling the blood and narrowing the mind of so many.” (p. vii)

Age-old tropes like orientalism swirled in the mouths of politicians and media as they presented the Arab enemy as a mysterious and alien Other, only one step from the warriors’ own dehumanization of their opponents. As the authors point out, the media constantly recirculates images and language that reinforce the characterization of Muslims as being fundamentally alien, zealous, and fanatical. Influential writer Bernard Lewis answered an interviewer by saying there is nothing to do about the problems with Muslims, “They are just the way they are. They’re just going to hate us and go after us.” (p. 30) Drawing links between dehumanizing stereotypes and dehumanizing practices, the authors track dehumanization in the print media’s use of animal metaphors, cartoonists’ lust for extermination, and talk radio. Rat and rodent imagery were rife. Headlines include: “Exhausted Saddam Snared,” and “As British Close In On Basra, Iraqis Scurry Away.” (p. 73) Monster was another popular word: “Arab World Created This Suicidal Monster,” “The Terrorism Monster,” “Revolving-Door Monsters.” (p. 75)

The military’s horrifying willingness to kill civilians is echoed by media commentators and columnists, as when Ben Shapiro, on, says he does not care about civilian casualties, and that “One American soldier is worth far more than an Afghan civilian.” (p. 21) An effect of this is also seen in a survey of U.S. soldiers and marines, only half of whom said they would report a member of their unit for killing or injuring a non-combatant. (p. 20) More interestingly, the authors find the powers that be linked terrorism to infestation, corruption, and decay - all ideas with religious resonance for those listening for the apocalypse.

The book certainly documents racism and chauvinism in war on terror culture. It is a clear analysis of the role of metaphor in propaganda and a good example of the cultural/discursive analysis that is currently fashionable in academic research. Other strengths of the book are its exploration of how many types of media support militarism and gung ho politics.

But the book’s weakness is that it offers an unsatisfying analysis of the political and economic interests that drive propaganda. It is troubling that, as with many similar works, the authors offer limited acknowledgement of the political economy and the social (as opposed to cultural) forces behind racism, the war on terror, and war. 
The limits of the authors’ approach are glaring in their weak suggestions about how to change this state of affairs: “We might insist on new metaphors…” and ask, “what would happen if we disbanded our metaphoric army.” (p. 209) Fine suggestion, but mentioning the need to disband real armies would strengthen the book’s policy suggestions.

Their explanation of the sources of racism and war promotion in the media is similarly tepid: “Those who own and operate the mainstream media in the United States often have connections to corporate or military power that can result in conflicting interests.” (p. 168) “Often” have connections? “Can” result in “conflicting” interests? This careful language makes media and cultural militarism sound like an occasional problem, minimizing the stark institutional challenge we face. Further, the book leaves you curious about those who were immune to the lure of propaganda and how the authors would account for them in their focus on discourse. How do people become grounded in oppositional or humanist thinking and institutions so they see propaganda for what it is?

I do not want to sound unduly harsh in my criticisms of the book.  At War With Metaphor is full of useful critical insights and shameful facts and quotes – valuable stuff. As an assessment of war on terror ideology, this book is terribly important for policy analysts, activists, and social scientists – especially if accompanied by a clear-eyed analysis of more material forces driving war.