Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Monday, June 02, 2008

Metaphors in War

This is a quick post based on some already half written notes.

Tim at Ubiwar has a good post on Metaphor that made me think about a couple of ideas on "Metaphors in War" for a series of posts I was going to do. I'll post the notes here. The ideas are somewhat short and underdeveloped (and perhaps wrong). Perhaps I might "flesh them out" over the next few months. For the moment they are something to ponder and might add to the discussion rather than leaving them sit inside my computer.


The first metaphor that bothers me is "Leviathan," which has a bit of a history from Hobbes up to current day strategists like Barnett. I'll concentrate more on how Barnett uses it. If you read Job 41 Leviathan is higher than humans and just below God. From a Judaistic perspective it looks like God also uses Leviathan as a way to keep humans in order. This has problems in itself. Could you say that a military force is higher than others? In that particular verse it is implied Leviathan is higher than Job, so it would follow from the metaphor that non-military people, are subservient to Leviathan, which of course raises problems for democratic societies and "winning hearts and minds" through military forces. Although Barnett differentiates between sys-admin and leviathan there. Of course later on there are other problems, God broke Leviathan's heads into a food source (Psalm 74). Should literal Biblical readers follow God's advice and break down the military in times of trouble? The metaphor of Leviathan also has problems of interpretation depending upon your religious background. Some scholars think Leviathan represents chaos and the chaotic nature of humans (see this wiki sub-article, which would be the opposite of what Hobbes and Barnett describe).

Many-Headed Hydra

The second metaphor is Hercules fighting the many-headed hydra. This is a metaphor that was used some centuries ago. It hasn't arisen again into mainstream thought. However, I can see similarities between the metaphor of the many-headed hydra and the use of "network" vernacular to describe terrorist groups. I remember reading news articles describing Al Qaeda as a many-headed hydra. The Hercules metaphor also seems quite similar to recent thought on Super-Empowered Individuals. The problem I have with this particular metaphor is not in the thing described but in the historic use of the terms. The book 'The Many-Headed Hydra' by Linebaugh and Rediker describes the euphemisms and dysphemisms that were built on top of these metaphors. The many-headed hydra was often used to describe barbaric cultures and went on to describe slave revolts. Royalty and other influential individuals at the time began describing themselves as "Hercules." The only way to stop slave revolts was through Hercules wiping out the "many-headed hydra." One example was this poem written by J.J. Mauricius, ex-governer of Suriname, who eventually likened himself to Hercules. He tried to hunt the Saramaka, who were escaped slaves. The poem from 1751 goes:

There you must fight blindly an invisible enemy
Who shoots you down like ducks in the swamps.
Even if an army of ten thousand men were gathered, with
The courage and strategy of Caesar and Eugene,
They'd find their work cut out for them, destroying a Hydra's growth
Which even Alcides (Hercules) would try to avoid.
Man as a Predatory Hunter

The third metaphor that comes across as problematic to me is thinking that Man is a predatory hunter. Certainly man has been an apex-predator for the last 10,000 years or so. So it seems less metaphor than documented fact. However, there is good research from primatologists, paleontologists, and evolutionary psychologists (good overview of all the evidence in this book) to suggest that the majority of our evolutionary history has been as a prey, albeit a highly adaptable prey, which is why we are here today. Evolutionary psychologists are looking into the consequences of this large tract of history that may have had an effect on our brains. I don't think it is talked about often within civilian circles but the "Man as a predator" is often used in military training. I can remember crusty, old warrant officers and sergeants stating things like "you are a predator, not a prey" or "you are a killer rah rah rah." Not that they did that all the time, but it definitely occured. I think Dave Grossman may also mention the predatory mindset in some of his training articles. It is certainly a good "mindset" to be in in war but is it a good "metaphor"?

If, as some individuals believe, our brains were influenced by predator-prey interactions, with us as a prey, then this holds consequences for how we, and our opponents, really think in battle. Are our mindsets really influenced by predatory-thinking when we stalk other predatory-thinkers in the dark, back alleys of some warzone? Or are both our thinking-processes influenced in some manner by our evolutionary history as highly adaptable prey? It's an area of knowledge that I'm ignorant in to make any specific claims about the truth of the premise, or how much influence the processes have on our thinking. However it still seems somewhat problematic as being a metaphorical "predator" would mean a predator would eventually catch its prey, however if that predator and prey are really highly adaptable prey, then the "predatory" metaphor is going to run into some introspective thinking when their prey remains elusive and a constant on the battlefield.


Anonymous said...

Hi Soob,

Thanks for the link. Metaphor is important as both function and driver of action and perception.

Ran across this a couple of minutes ago. Haven't had a chance to go through the links yet, but there might be something of interest: