Ceci N’est Pas Une Guerre: The Misuse of War as Metaphor in Iraq

Ted Remington, University of Saint Francis


On the occasion of the end of the official “combat mission” in Iraq, it is worth examining the role rhetoric played in what some have termed one of the longest wars in U.S. history. But that raises the question.  Was what happened in Iraq, at least after the initial invasion in 2003, a “war?”  Everyone from the most hawkish of hawks to the most peaceful of doves chose war as the term with which to refer to the United States’ involvement in that country.  But was this term literal or metaphoric?  If the former, was it accurate? If the latter, what were the rhetorical (and political, social, and global) consequences of its use?

I use this question as a starting point for a meditation on the larger theme of the rhetorical role of metaphor as described by Kenneth Burke.  Given Burke’s admonishment to beware the dangers of understanding the symbolic literally, I suggest taking a closer look at the distinction between metaphor and simile, not simply as literary tropes, but as conceptual tools for ordering the world.  I particularly look at the Burkean triad of the Order, Secret, and Kill (in Rhetoric of Motives) to understand what’s at stake in our symbolic choices.The metaphor/simile distinction allows us to more fully understand the role of the symbolic in Burke’s ultimate goal: the purification of war.  Understanding the rhetorical and philosophical consequences of the metaphor/simile distinction gives us a tool to move toward (but, of course, never fully arriving at) transcendence.

Returning to the specific case study of Iraq, I close by hypothesizing how using the term war was a rhetorical choice that blocked the way to peace.  Even those who most opposed U.S. policy in Iraq rhetorically empowered the rationale for never-ending conflict when they referred to their position as “anti-war.”  A keener understanding of the role of the symbolic in structuring our motives, as provided by Burke, coupled with an appreciation for the distinction between simile and metaphor (something even Burke spends little time discussing) provides us one way of moving toward a better life.

ALL METAPHORS ARE FALSE, all similes are true.  We rarely note this fact, given its obviousness.  Metaphors say two different things are the same, while similes say two things resemble each other.  No matter how alike two things are, they are never identical, and no matter how different they are, there are always qualities they share (even if that quality is something as vague as “existence.”).   To say, “Juliet is the sun” is to lie—Juliet and the sun are not one in the same.  But saying “Juliet is like the sun” states something demonstrably true. Regardless of the radiance of her beauty, Juliet and the sun share qualities in common, even if that quality is simply their existence in Romeo’s world.

At first blush, this seems like mere wordplay. But of the many lessons Kenneth Burke teaches us, one of the most central is this: pay attention to tropes and their use.  In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke warns of the dangers of confusing the literal and the symbolic. I would add that ignorance of how different figures of speech operate make this confusion much more likely.  This is particularly true in the case of metaphor, which is, on the surface, a claim that could be taken literally.  It does not call attention to its own figurativeness the way simile does.  Burke defines metaphor as the trope that allows us perspective—itself a metaphor that implies distance.  But what if a metaphor actually collapses that distance?  What happens to the perspective then?  And what are the consequences?

I suggest that the consequences can be grave indeed, particularly when the metaphors lead us to the deadly cooperation Burke most wanted to save us from: war.  In this essay, I suggest that the word “war” itself has become an uneasy and unstable metaphor, not offering perspective, but creating a deadly myopia.  Specifically, the word “war” in relation to United States involvement in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, while often used as a factually accurate term, was not appropriate on a literal level.  It must be metaphorical, then.  But its metaphorical aspect, while crucial to its power as a rhetorical term, went unnoted.  The president, the press, protesters . . . all invoked “war” when referring to the conflict in Iraq.  Yet the consequences of this trope remain unacknowledged.  Most problematically, the insistence on using the term “war” brought about the deaths of tens of thousands of human beings by making U.S. disengagement from Iraq problematic, thus drawing out the occupation and its attendant violence for the better part of a decade.

This essay aims to acknowledge the consequences and suggest a Burkean antidote.  I make a number of specific assertions:

  • the situation in Iraq did not meet the literal definition of “war” after 2003
  • the continuing use of “war” to describe the situation in Iraq was a figurative use of the term, one loaded with rhetorical weight
  • the unproblematic use of the term by virtually all parties shows us the power of war as a representative anecdote (as Burke describes in A Grammar of Motives)
  • the metaphor of war holds a powerful allure, even for those who oppose U.S. policies in Iraq

My hope is that this examination of a specific case of the power of tropes to shape our collective lives together can shed some light on our journey toward a better life.  In this effort, I pull broadly and freely from Burke’s work rather than working through a single specific concept.  When using ideas of some critics, this might be unseemly liberty-taking.  I hope and trust, however, that I am working within the spirit of Burke’s ideas and his own idea of the critical enterprise.  I take as my guide Burke’s own words from A Rhetoric of Motives:

So we must keep trying anything and everything, improvising, borrowing from others, developing from others, dialectically using one text as comment upon another, schematizing; using the incentive to new wandering, returning from these excursions to schematize again, being oversubtle where the straining seems to promise some further glimpse, and making amends by reduction to very simple anecdotes.  (265)

“War” As a Metaphor We Live (and Die) By

Within hours of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the word “war” became the dominant term to describe the situation facing the United States (Montgomery).  This became explicit with the coining of the phrase “war on terror.”  Any number of commentators have noted the problem of waging “war” on a concept, and it would be hard to argue that this use of the word “war” is not in large sense metaphoric, as it is in the phrases “war on poverty” and “war on drugs” (John, Domke, Coe, and Graham; Smith; Goodall; Ivie; Stahl).

But the invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq made the metaphor real.  Although war was not declared in either case, the events in both countries surely fit the general definition of the word—an ongoing military conflict between two nation states.  But by this definition, the “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq ended after a matter of weeks.  This is particularly true in the case of Iraq, where the opposing army was disbanded, the leader of one of the nations involved was forced into hiding (and eventually captured), and the armed forces of the other nation occupying its adversary. 

Yet, despite the surrender of the opposing army, the word “war” continued to be used to refer to the situation in Iraq. At first glance, this seems fair.  After all, armed conflict continued, with far more U.S. service members (as well as Iraqis) killed after the fall of Saddam Hussein than were killed during the invasion.

Still, the situation did not fit the definition of “war.”  There was not one conflict between two nations, but a series of conflicts among a wide variety of entities with shifting alliances.  There was no capturing of territory or even pitched battles.  Rather, Iraq suffered through sporadic, spasmodic fits of violence among any number of groups, including the United States military.  It is a bloody and chaotic occupation of a defeated country, not a war.

Despite this, the word “war” continued to be used to describe Iraq, not only by the Bush administration, but by journalists and those opposed to the administration’s policy.  So, we find not only Bush referring to himself as a “war” president, but also reporters discussing legislation on funding “the war in Iraq” and groups protesting U.S. involvement in Iraq printing bumper stickers saying “End this endless war.”

Why War?

Why would “war” be the chosen metaphor for Iraq?  Burke would have a ready answer to this question.  As he writes in A Grammar of Motives, war offers a powerful and comprehensive representative anecdote not simply for armed conflict, but for conflict (and hence the human condition as a whole).  If one is looking for a means of drawing a collective together for action (as was the case with Bush and his policy in Iraq), war is a perfect vehicle since, as Burke notes, “war draws things to a head as thoroughly as a suppurating abscess, and is usually, like revolution, the dramatic moment of explosion after an infinity of minute preparatory charges” (Burke, Grammar of Motives 329).1

This explains the lure of war as metaphor for Bush, but what about the media?  Why the unquestioning use of the word “war” despite the clear problems with using it literally?  One might suggest that the singular power of a political leader such as Bush to frame the issue in terms of his choosing makes the press’s acceptance of the term inevitable.  But plenty of examples exist of the media not simply accepting a president’s favored terminology.  So, where does the media’s motivation lie2

Again, Burke offers an answer.  Noting that the press in a capitalist democracy largely gives itself over to propagandizing for private business, Burke suggests that the press serves its master by celebrating the destructive component of the military (part of the public sector).  This contrasts with its dialectical opposite, the constructivist private sector.  Collective sacrifice is fetishized only when it is in the service of “booty” (Burke’s term).  Burke, who suggested this in looking back at the actions of the press leading up to and through World War II, would likely point out the extent to which the benefits of the invasion and occupation of Iraq landed in the laps of private industry.  At the same time, true collective sacrifice for the greater good (e.g., higher taxes to pay for the invasion) has not only been ignored, but actively discouraged, as in Bush’s exhortation for consumers to spend more money at the mall as a response to the terrorist attacks.

To the extent that militaristic adventuring serves private gains, and the press serves as a propagandistic tool of private industry, it should not surprise us that our media continued to label the occupation of Iraq as an ongoing “war.”  This was not in deference to the Bush administration as much as it was to corporate forces, which were the ones to collect the booty.  In fact, the situation in Iraq served as an almost comic exaggeration of the motives Burke describes.  Writing half a century ago, Burke says: “I have never heard it said that we should let out our wars to private contractors, so far as the recruiting of a fighting force itself is concerned” (Grammar 395).  With the advent of Blackwater, KBR, and a host of other private “contractors,” the corporate/military synergy described by Burke reached an extent in Iraq that even he might have had trouble believing.

Finally, we have the use of “war” by those who specifically opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and oppose the continued occupation.  Even Barack Obama, as both candidate and as president, continued to invoke the term “war” for the situation in Iraq, despite his opposition to the initial invasion. If “war” is the metaphor of choice largely because it serves the purposes of those who profit from U.S. policy in Iraq, why should those who opposed this policy also embrace "war"?3

Again, Burke’s discussion of war-as-anecdote sheds light on the question.   War, he notes, need not be used only as a constitutive anecdote (saying what we are), but as an admonitory one (one that warns us of what we may become) (Grammar 330). That is, “war” can be used as a means of insisting on the necessity of peace.  Those who implored us to “end this endless war” used “war” because of the power of the word to stand for all that we fear.  Calling for an end to the “war” frames a policy debate in nearly metaphysical terms, asking us to turn away from the most hideous and cruel aspect of ourselves and toward the better angels of our nature.

This goes some way in explaining the acceptance of the “war” trope by Barack Obama.  Although opposed to the initial invasion and promising to bring the troops in Iraq home, candidate Obama repeatedly referred to the situation in Iraq as a “war.”  After becoming president, Obama continued to use the term in discussing Iraq, despite his efforts to bring U.S. troops home as promised during the campaign.  It might make sense for Obama to abandon the “war” metaphor precisely because that would allow him to undercut the rationale the continued presence of the military in Iraq and make ending the occupation of Iraq less rhetorically tricky.  So why did he continue to invoke “war?”

Part of this might be explained by the fact that the situation in Iraq had already been rhetorically framed as a “war,” and to not use this trope might make Obama seem out of touch with the “reality” of the situation, as popularly understood.  On a deeper level, however, Obama may well have been using “war” for the same reasons critics of the Bush policy did: it served to dramatize the situation.  By ending the “combat mission” in Iraq, Obama could claim to have ended the “war” in Iraq, an achievement that looks much better on a presidential resumé than ending an “occupation.”  Such framing portrays Obama as triumphing over “war,” the ultimate evil, by putting an end to it.

Yet Burke warns that there are limits to the power of “war” to serve the function of the ultimate “thou-shalt-not”, noting:

It may be doubted whether a purely admonitory idiom can serve even the deterrent role for which it is designed; for it creates nothing but the image of the enemy, and if men are to make themselves over in the image of imagery, what other call but that of the enemy is there for them to answer?  (Grammar 331).

Burke’s rhetorical question takes on even more weight given that one of Obama’s leading reasons for drawing down combat forces in Iraq was to aid in persecuting the United States’ other “war” in Afghanistan.

Burke’s discussion of war as a representative anecdote takes place in context of a search for an overarching constitutive anecdote for the human condition.  One can raise the objection that to apply this to the much more tactical situation of the rhetoric of the Iraq conflict is to conflate two very different issues.  I agree.   Burke’s discussion of the lure of war as a lens through which we can understand human nature does suggest some answers to the question of why “war” would become the metaphor of choice for the Iraq.  However, I do not suggest that Bush, the media, or those opposed to U.S. policy in Iraq proposed war as an overarching representative anecdote for humanity.

To apply this observation to the specific and narrow case of the rhetoric of the Iraq conflict, I use another Burkean concept, the terministic screen.  (It strikes me that when Burke talks about a “representative anecdote,” he is talking about the equivalent of a terministic screen writ large.). The adoption of “war” as the controlling metaphor for American involvement in Iraq colored our understanding of it in particular ways, ways that are not in the control of those who use the word.  

In Attitudes Toward History, Burke notes that “[e]ven if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” [Burke’s emphasis] (Burke, Attitudes Toward History 45).  A terministic screen “necessarily directs the attention into some channels rather than others” (45).  If, for varied reasons, “war” has been chosen as the terministic screen through which we view Iraq, we should look at what it draws our attention to and what it deflects. 

“War” suggests at least three specific qualities of the conflict in Iraq.  First, it views the United States engaging a singular, monolithic “Enemy” that must be defeated.  Wars are fought against someone.  Second, it lets us see only two possible outcomes: victory or defeat (surrender). In war, one side wins, the other loses.  Lastly, it portrays the conflict in Iraq as a defense of the United States itself.  Wars are fought to defend one’s own way of life.  Even wars of aggression are sold to the citizens who fight them as the only way to defend their own homes, families, and livelihoods. 

What is deflected?  The complex, chaotic nature of the multiple conflicts and shifting alliances in Iraq, where even those collectively labeled “insurgents” are often battling each other, and today’s “warlord” is tomorrow’s valued “tribal leader.”  So is the possibility of negotiation.  In war, peaceful settlement happens after one side conquers the other.  Withdrawal of troops equals surrender.  Finally, the terministic screen of war obscured the nature of U.S. interests in Iraq, which are primarily economic and geo-political “booty,” not the immediate safety of Americans.

The collective mythic understanding of war in America amplifies these distortions.  World War II remains the archetypal war in America’s collective consciousness, a “good” war where “citizen soldiers” “liberated” oppressed people terrorized by an undeniably evil enemy.  We see the potency of this when we reflect on Bush’s rhetorical linkage of Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler before the invasion.  When the United States fights a war (says the myth), it is a good war against an evil enemy, and victory is the only acceptable, indeed the only possible, result.

One might think that the specter of Vietnam would act as a corrective to this triumphalism, but in fact, it simply shows the dangers of not seeing a war through to victory.  To give up a war (rarely is the word “lose” used, even in reference to Vietnam) invites dishonor and raises the dangers of falling into a “syndrome.” 

To sum up: “war” was the dominant term used in the public sphere to describe U.S. involvement in Iraq.  This is despite the fact that the literal meaning of the word bore little resemblance to the situation on the ground after 2003.  Its use was a rhetorical choice made by a variety of voices for a variety of reasons, all of which were tied to war’s natural appeal as a representative anecdote for human action. The term “war” was a figure—a metaphor—which created a terministic screen through which we viewed events in Iraq that necessarily drew our attention to certain aspects of the situation while obscuring and distorting others.   Most problematically, it placed possible topics of debate and policy decisions squarely “out of bounds.”

The Lure of War

In the previous section, we considered possible motivations for the use of the war metaphor in conjunction with Iraq.  We noted that those who supported the invasion and occupation, those reporting on it, and those opposed to it—including Obama—had particular reasons for using this term, despite the gap between its literal meaning and the situation on the ground.  In this section, I push this discussion further, speculating on deeper, more visceral motivations for the adoption of this metaphor by all parties.  While the previous section looked at different motivations among these three groups, I now move to looking at the lure of war as a metaphor in a way that is shared among all who use it, drawing together even those who see themselves as enemies.

Specifically, the term “war” serves as a seductive term of mystification, invoking deep-seated myths of human action at its highest and most dramatic levels.  This lure transcends the particular positions of those involved in the rhetorical give-and-take.  All involved, including those who label themselves “anti-war,” participate in the thrill that this invocation provides. “War” becomes what Burke describes as a “grounding” term that allows opposing factions to transcend differences.  It is the shared battlefield for those on opposing sides, and as such, it “transcends their factionalism, being ‘superior’ to it and ‘neutral’ to their motives, though the conditions of the terrain may happen to favor one faction” (Rhetoric of Motives, 11).  Yet, while this lure is equally powerful, the ramifications of adopting the war metaphor are not equal. I suggest that this metaphor serves the interests of those in favor of the continued occupation of Iraq. 

In his book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, former war correspondent Chris Hedges describes how war holds a perverse attraction for us at both individual and communal levels.  He states that

[t]he enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life.  I can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.  Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent.” (Hedges, 3).
[t]he enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. I can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent.” (Hedges, 3).  

Hedges speaks candidly of how, despite coming face to face with war’s horrors and suffering tremendously as a result, he personally found himself addicted to the visceral thrill of participating in war, even as a neutral observer, to the point of being willing to risk death, if only it would allow him to live for another moment in this heightened state of human drama and avoid being taken back to the humdrum routine of a life of peaceful ordinariness (5).

This heightened state of being, this sense of being involved in a cause that draws us to the most meaningful of actions, does not operate only on the level of the individual but on the level of the social as well.  For Hedges, this is most clear in the strength of patriotism’s grip on us during times of war.  Such is the power of nationalism that it can, at times, relieve us of our moral judgment and sense of individual autonomy.  War is the ultimate expression of this drive for collective action, of dissolving the self into the social.  While myths of nationalism are often invoked during peacetime for “benign” ends, they also “are the kindling nationalists use to light a conflict” (Hedges).

The myth of nationalism is the overarching lie that grounds and justifies the innumerable other lies that are told to justify and carry out war, including the most barbaric atrocities. It is also this myth that makes such lies believable.  Hedges cites examples of otherwise intelligent, educated people, from the former Yugoslavia to Argentina, willingly believing the most outlandish, risible claims because they were in the thrall of the nationalist myth. 

In both the description of the allure of war on the personal level and its collective seductiveness as the epitome of social action, Hedges (while not referencing Burke) describes processes akin to mystification.  Personal pain, uncertainty, and collective anxiety are numbed by the narcotic of war, a situation that replaces reality with a simplified vision of a world of black and white, right and wrong.   But more than assuaging the anxieties that are inherent in the scramble of life, war holds out the promise of personal and collective transformation through participation in human action at its most dramatic levels.  This is what Burke terms the “special” form of mystification that is used in overt deception (as opposed to the general sort he believes lurks in any mode of persuasion), that creates the “misunderstandings that goad to war” (Rhetoric of Motives, 179).  When such mystification involves issues of war and peace, they invoke “ultimate choices,” for “[m]en must make themselves over profoundly, when cooperatively engaged in following such inescapable purposes.  And as the acts of persuasion add up in a social texture, they amount to one or the other of those routes—and they are radical, no matter however trivial the errors by which war is permitted to emerge out of peace” (179). 

In understanding the fundamental allure of the metaphor of war that lays at the foundation of any particular invocation of it by various parties, we should note this promise of transformation.  Hedges notes the ability of war to provide an almost drug-like state of euphoria on a personal level.  But it would be a mistake, and underestimation of war’s power, to suggest that war holds out only illusory promises of transformation.  As William James notes in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” war calls for demonstrations of the highest of human values.  Militarism, James notes, “is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible” (James, 664).  War calls on universally acknowledged ideals of bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, ingenuity, tenacity and evokes them within the most extreme of situations, where individual and collective survival are placed in the balance.  Only pointing to the horrors of war will never do away with war, since “the horrors make the fascination” (661).  Only when we create a peaceful alternative, one that calls for peaceful purposes on those qualities fostered by war to facilitate killing and destruction, can we hope to do away with war’s gruesome allure.  

This discussion has suggested reasons why the invocation of “war” carries weight beyond the parochial interests of particular interest groups.  Its lures are manifold.  It soothes individual and collective frustrations that emerge in the give-and-take of life, and it calls on qualities that are, in and of themselves, laudable and even necessary for the health of a society.  Above all, as Burke, Hedges, and James all note, war holds out the promise of life lived at its most dramatic and intense limits.  It is presented to us as the human drama played out in the most visceral of ways, and this drama depends on the very things that make it abominable. 

But what does this do for us in terms of our specific topic, the use of war as a metaphor for the U.S. actions in Iraq beyond 2003?  Obviously, it gives us a better sense of what might motivate those inclined to favor these policies.  It even suggests reasons for why the media adopted this metaphor so readily.  Hedges’ personal experiences serve as a synecdoche for the allure war has for those who tell its story.  War is the ultimate story.  Even those who, unlike Hedges, are far from the actual slaughter and immune from the visceral thrill of life lived in extremis, partake in the vicarious thrill of telling the ultimate story.  And attendant with this are the lucrative rewards of serving up the ultimate story to audiences who, likewise, wish to partake in this communal action from a distance, if in no other way than bearing witness to it.

But what of those who opposed the invasion and occupation?  Why would they invoke the war metaphor?  I suggest it is because war provides, to use Burke’s terminology, a grounding term for transformation (Rhetoric of Motives, 10-11).  If war is, as Hedges suggests, a higher mode of being, then to oppose war itself becomes a higher mode of being.  “War” as a term provides a place of transcendence—a common ground that both sides accept.  I have argued that the acceptance of this particular common ground greatly favors those who supported the invasion and occupation, but one does not need to look very far to see why the allure of the war metaphor would blind activists on the other side to its perils. 

An anecdote might help illustrate this phenomenon.  As a college student during the first Gulf War in 1991, I saw many of my fellow students become fascinated with recreating an anti-war movement reminiscent of the Vietnam-era protests of the 1960s and 70s (which was part of their mythic past rather than remembered past, given that these students were just being born at the height of the antiwar movement).  Although there was no serious consideration of a draft, informational meetings were held about how to achieve conscientious objector status and the ramifications of signing up (or not) for selective service.  Protests were planned.   Fliers were put up. 

Certainly much of this activity was based on sincere and thoughtful disagreement with the specifics of the foreign policy decisions of the first Bush administration.  But even as a student myself, it was clear to see that there was another motivation—a craving to create anew the drama and passion that these students had read about from their parents’ generation.  The desire to transcend the humdrum existence of a student at a small college in the Midwest was powerful and understandable.  “War” carries a cachet as a modifier, whether it comes in the phrase “war president,” “war correspondent,” or “anti-war protestor.” 

In a Burkean sense, “war” as a term connotes drama, both personal and social, at its highest level.  To play with Burke’s metaphor of a “battleground” term, one could reframe this dramatistically: “war” provides all involved, regardless of their animosity toward one another, the grandest of stages.  That this stage is fit only for putting on the bloodiest of tragedies is lost on the participants.  Or, if not lost, it actually heightens the perverse attraction of the term (as Hedges and James say of war itself) as a scene for human drama. 

The particular danger for champions of peace in setting foot on this stage is that the invocation of war is powerful and activates deep seeded narratives.  Yes, war can be framed as the ultimate evil, as the perverse result of human cooperation at its blackest.  As such, it seems an inviting target.  Yet, to grant the figurative use of this term is a devil’s bargain—a Trojan horse that seems promising but brings defeat.  “War,” particularly in the context of American political rhetoric, conjures up images of victorious soldiers vanquishing a hated and evil enemy, of making the world safe for democracy.  Were we closer in time to the Civil War, or had we had the European experience of the world wars in the twentieth century, perhaps our collective vision of war would be more realistic.  But, despite involvement in Korea and Vietnam, our myth of war is still based largely on Greatest Generation triumphalism.  In that context, it is difficult to persuade Americans, let alone those elected to represent them, to unilaterally disengage from a “war” without the requisite signs of victory.  Such signs were in abundance at the end of the actual war in Iraq: enemy POWs, a bombed capital city, effigies of the enemy leader ripped from their pedestals, etc.  But an occupation does not lead to a triumphal march through the streets or a treaty signed on a battleship.  It cannot provide victory of the sort that the “war” metaphor promises.  By invoking this metaphor in the case of Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter) we frame the conflict in a way that makes it extraordinary difficult to bring ourselves to break off from it.

This is not to say, of course, that “war” should never be used.  Nor is the case being made that the issue is whether “war” is being used correctly in a legalistic sense.  The objection to the use of “war” in the case of Iraq is not that the invasion and occupation did not occur under the auspices of a formal declaration of war.  Certainly American involvement in Korea and Vietnam deserved to be called “wars” regardless of whether they were declared or not.  Insisting on not calling something a war will not necessarily make it easier to end.  In fact, in the case of both Korea and Vietnam, surely the hesitance by political leaders to call these episodes “wars” made it easier, not harder, to escalate them.  The argument is simply that, in the case of Iraq, the use of “war” to describe the conditions after spring 2003 was figurative and that the adoption of this figure by all involved was both understandable and, from the point of view of those who labeled themselves “anti war,” tragically counterproductive.

The Cult of the Kill

As we have seen, “war” possesses a terrible power as a representative anecdote, so much so that in the case of Iraq, it is invoked unquestioningly by all parties concerned, despite the fact that it does not describe the situation on the ground.  This discussion focused on Burke’s observations about war’s constitutive powers as a term—its socio-political power.

But there is another level.  Other forces are at work which are more deeply psychological.  Again, Burke offers us a vocabulary with which to talk about them, particularly his idea of the “Cult of the Kill.”

The Kill, the climax of the order-pollution-guilt-purification-redemption narrative, describes the destruction of the scapegoat—a sacrifice—that purges collective sin (or, more properly, the guilt created by the sense of having sinned).  For Burke, of course, this process should be symbolic.  Yet the symbol of The Kill, like the term “war,” is dangerous in that it is easily misunderstood or pursued so feverishly that it becomes an end in itself.  In its most destructive form, it becomes literal.  It takes the form of conflict rather than becoming a symbolic way of transcending conflict through dialectic.  In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke tells us why this is:

[G]enuine peace today could be got only by such a dialectic that risked “contamination” by the enemy.  Or rather, by such a dialectic as sought deliberately to give full expression to the voice of the enemy, not excluding it, but seeking to assign it an active place in an ultimate order.  But when confronting the need for “dyings” and new “births” thus dialectically encouraged, men seem to prefer the simple suicide and homicide of militarist devotion, having persuaded themselves that the further dialectical growth of doctrine would be immoral.  (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives 263)

This aptly captures the tenor of the war rhetoric of the Bush administration (and many others) from September 11, 2001, through the invasion of Iraq, and beyond.  Understanding underlying causes for the attacks, or even focusing strictly on eliminating those most responsible for the attacks, were lost under the rhetoric of “evil” that placed any dialectic out of bounds and symbolically conflated the 9/11 hijackers, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein into one looming threat that had to be destroyed through “simple homicide”—what Burke would call an example of the “’scrupulous’ preference for militaristic solutions over peaceful solutions” which is part and parcel of the deception used to invoke a devotion to killing (Rhetoric 264).

Here, Burke delves more deeply into the power of war as symbol, a power that goes beyond its use as an anecdote to its deeply entrenched psychological seductiveness.  Just as it “draws things to a head as thoroughly as a suppurating abscess,” it draws people together: “we cannot deny that consubstantiality is established by the common involvement in a killing” [Burke’s emphasis] (p. 265).  Burke immediately follows this statement with the warning, “But one must not isolate the killing itself as the essence of the exaltation” (Rhetoric 265).  The problem, as Burke himself realizes, is that the awful lure of the literal understanding of the kill as a replacement for the messier, more complicated dialectic of peace can overwhelm us.4

The invasion and occupation of Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks gives us an all-too-vivid example of Burke’s fears about the perversion of The Cult of the Kill.  We collectively enact an Abrahamic sacrifice of our sons (and daughters) in an effort to rid ourselves the “evil” that we have allowed to harm us.  But this act itself causes guilt. (How could it not?)  And more sacrifice is required.  Thus, we get the often-invoked argument that if we were to leave Iraq, those who have fallen already “will have died in vain.”  More killing is required to stave off the terrible guilt that would come from asking ourselves, “Why did we do this?” and not having an answer worthy of the sacrifice.  And so more are killed.  And the potential guilt grows.  And the killing must continue, ad infinitum.

The way out, Burke tells us, is through a simultaneous dying and not-dying—dying dialectically.  The first step in this, I am arguing, is to “refigure” the situation in Iraq, denying it the lure of war by critiquing the metaphoric discourse that dominates the discussion of Iraq and offering an alternative discourse based on simile that points out similarities and differences and opens the way for multiple perspectives.  But, as our discussion of the Cult of the Kill suggests, we cannot simply change the way we talk about Iraq.  We have to find an alternative way of feeling about it as well.  We must find an alternative mode of symbolic dying that allows for consubstantiality, purging of guilt, and dialectic with the “enemy” that does not stress the image of the kill over this dialectic, which, Burke reminds us, leads towards the Holocaust rather than away from it (Rhetoric 254). 

Responses to the Metaphor of War

What would such a “refiguring” look like?  Let me briefly offer two suggestions for how, on a practical level, the metaphor of war could be dismantled in a case like Iraq, the first a “negative” solution, and the other a “positive” one.

The first and most obvious response is to point out the mistaken use of the term “war” and refuse to use it.  Such action could be taken by any and all inhabitants of the public sphere, from the president to the average consumer of the news.  Barack Obama could have, both as candidate and as president, reframed the narrative of Iraq as of a war won, followed by an occupation and a return home.  This could have mobilized the dominant American narrative of war—World War II—in a positive way, suggesting that the war had been won, and now we had to “bring our boys home.”  This would not automatically mean that there would be unanimity about the proper course of action; even those accepting this framing of the issue might point out that the United States maintained a significant presence in Europe for decades after the end of World War II and that this presence was necessary for the region’s stability.  But that debate—whether to end an occupation outright or greatly reduce troop levels participating in it—would be much more easily won than a debate about ending a war.

Similarly, critics of the war metaphor could point out the inaccuracy of the term “war” when used in a way that denied its figurativeness.  Journalists could pointedly not use it and critique those who did. When journalists did use it, readers, listeners, and viewers could contact news organizations and point out that the term “war” was misleading and carried an inherent bias.  Self-aware activists could pointedly talk about ending the “occupation” rather than the “war,” and call out their fellow activists who had been lured into adopting this metaphor.  Lastly, students of public discourse could speak up about the inaccuracy of the term and expose the interested motives behind its use.  No doubt there would be many who would turn a deaf ear to such critique, but the more often efforts were made to problematize the unthinking use of the war metaphor—however humble such attempts might be individually—the more difficult it would be for this metaphor to be taken literally.

There is a second, more positive, approach that could be taken as well.  This would be a Burkean solution in that it would invoke the trope of irony to expose the figurative nature of the term “war” as applied to Iraq.  Critics could insist on taking the war metaphor literally themselves, and push for this understanding to be played out to its logical end.  If we truly are at war, then we are fighting for our survival.  If that is the case, then every conceivable action should be taken that would ensure victory.  A move could be made to institute a draft to ensure enough troops to fully pacify Iraq.  Rationing should be put in place to make sure the military has the finest of all material goods in any quantities needed.  A congressional declaration of war should be made to unequivocally commit ourselves to the task at hand. War taxes should be levied so that we are truly supporting our troops by more than affixing a bumper sticker to our SUV.  The use of atomic weaponry should be openly considered as a viable option.

Such suggestions, whether advocated by elected representatives or their constituents, would be ironic to the degree that they would be made not for their own sake, but to reveal the fact that many who support the continued occupation under the cover of “winning the war” would balk at enacting them. Yet, when this happened, those who demurred from supporting these acts could be asked why they are not in favor of doing all that might help to win the war.   Again, this might not yield immediate results.  There is no guarantee that it would yield any results at all.  But using irony to unmask the metaphorical use of “war” would make its invocation more problematic.    Unfortunately, such tactics went largely unused by those opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq, with a few scattered exceptions, the most notable being Representative Charlie Rangel’s yearly introduction of a bill to reinstate the draft. 

Conclusion: Toward the Purification of the “War” Metaphor

How does this discussion help us move toward a better life, toward a “purification of war?”

“War” as a term for the occupation of Iraq cut off the way to peace.  It was invoked by people on all sides without much attention being paid to whether it is being used literally or figuratively.  Of course, Burke would instantly note that simply by virtue of the term “war” being a symbolic construct, it is figurative.  Moreover, it convinces us that the conflict in Iraq was not simply “like” war in some respects, but was war, and with that comes a host of associations that conceal facts, motivations, and possible courses of action.  The war metaphor holds out appeal to all involved in the debate, even to those who oppose the conflict. Most importantly, it tells us that the way forward must be through what Burke calls the Cult of the Kill, this time understood literally, either through destruction of the “enemy” or through an act of collective suicide (“surrender”). 

The job of the rhetorical critic is, first, to point out the figurative nature of the term “war” as applied to Iraq and to make explicit the consequences, intended or not, of its use.  The rhetorical critic must show how the use of war cuts off certain paths of action and obscures ways of looking at the issue that might prove productive.  The critic can point out that the conflict in Iraq might be like a war in some respects.  The simile is true.  But it cannot be called a war in any but the most figurative of senses.  The metaphor “We are at war in Iraq” is a lie.

Of course, the ultimate Burkean goal before us is not simply to point out the problems with “war” as a term in the particular case of Iraq, but to move us toward a symbolic transcendence of war itself.  But in the case of the “war,” we at least have one clear, albeit small, step we can take toward that goal.  The role of the rhetorical critic is to refigure the metaphor of war, to rehabilitate it, so that it can play the role Burke envisions for metaphor—a tool with which to gain perspective.  To do this, however, we must acknowledge that any term we choose will always be imperfect.  Only by synthesizing multiple perspectives can we hope to grasp the state of the world.  This way lies the ironic, the comic, and the humane. 

* Dr. Ted Remington is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He can be reached via email at tremington@sf.edu.

An earlier draft of this paper was initially delivered at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the Kenneth Burke Society, June 29-July 1, 2008


1. It is beyond the scope of this essay to offer a catalog of the numerous ways Bush and other administration officials have invoked “war” to describe the post-invasion occupation of Iraq, but a few representative examples might be in order.  In an address to the nation on December 18, 2005 (more than 18 months after the invasion of Iraq), Bush said, "not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.”  Nearly a year later, in announcing the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bush said, “America remains a nation at war . . . In this time of war, the President relies on the Secretary of Defense.”  At the same announcement, the new nominee to be Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, said, “[T]he United States is at war, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  Speaking of Iraq in his 2007 State of the Union speech, Bush said, “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in. Every one of us wishes this war were over and won.”  A year later, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Bush conceded, “No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure.”  In all of these cases, Bush’s word choice states or implies that the “war” in Iraq is ongoing and didn’t end after the occupation of Baghdad. 

2. Again, an exhaustive study of the use of “war” by the media in referring to the occupation of Iraq is beyond the scope of this essay, but there are many examples.  A New York Times article discussing the role of the Iraq issue in the 2008 presidential campaign noted that “Democratic contenders and the presumptive Republican candidate, underscoring how much the economy has overshadowed the war in Iraq, even as the fifth anniversary of the start of that war approaches on Wednesday.”  The following day, an Associate Press story on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq stated that “Activists cite frustration that the war has dragged on for so long and hope the more dramatic actions will galvanize others to protest.”  An article in USA Today about an Army college football player drafted by a professional team who will avoid having to serve in Iraq observed, “more than 4,000 servicemen and women have been killed in the war that's been going on for more than five years with no end in sight.”  As with the rhetoric used by Bush himself, the word choice in each example suggests that the “war in Iraq” is ongoing and current.

3. Several of the leading groups opposing the continued occupation of Iraq prominently invoke the term “war” in their messages to this day.  On its homepage, the group United for Peace & Justice demands that the government “stop sinking billions more of our tax dollars into war.”  In describing their group on its website, CODEPINK says that it “is a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end the war in Iraq.”  An organization of those with family members in the military, Military Families Speak Out, features a call to the Democratic presidential candidates on their website, demanding “Senator Clinton and Senator Obama: use your leadership now to end the war in Iraq!”  And Iraq Veterans Against the War embeds the term in their very name, saying on their website that the group’s purpose is “to give a voice to the large number of active duty service people and veterans who are against this war.”

4. Under the heading of “meaningful coincidence,” it is difficult to read Burke’s section in A Rhetoric of Motives on Order, the Secret, and the Kill without marveling at how the imagery he uses prefigures the symbolic condensation of the events of September 11, 2001 and Iraq.  A recurring image in Burke’s discussion of the Cult of the Kill is that of a father and son standing on top of a tall building in New York City, with the father startled by the sudden thought of throwing his son over the edge.  Burke closes the section with the following paragraph:

“And when our friend, standing with his son in that high place, felt ‘infanticidal’ impulses, perhaps he was but manifesting roundabout the fact that he felt exalted, as though he and his son shared the attributes of the Ultimate Father and the Ultimate Son in heaven.  Even though he may not have got to such feelings by true religious reverence, he could have got to them by the temptations of social reference.  For here was the principle of hierarchy materialized, as he stood atop a high building, while that building itself represented nothing less than the straining social hierarchy of the great modern Babylon.  ‘And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.’ (Revelation 17:5).” (Rhetoric 266-267).

What would Burke have made of the fact that the destruction of two of these monuments to the “straining social hierarchy” in this “great modern Babylon” would be symbolically linked to the invasion and occupation of the land that was once ancient Babylonia?

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"Ceci N’est Pas Une Guerre: The Misuse of War as Metaphor in Iraq" by Ted Remington is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.