Let Slip the Dogs of Metaphor

by John Kilgore

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon them."
—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, II, v.

In its original context, spoken by minor characters intent on a practical joke, Shakespeare's famous reflection on "greatness" really refers only to wealth and status. George W. Bush always had those, but till recently no one applied the quote to him, or accused him of the larger kind of "greatness" that is usually read into the line.

And then suddenly, they did. In the waning days of September, this blackest of Septembers, the papers and news shows were full of talk of the President's great change. The greatness-thrust-upon-him formula was used, and Jeff Greenfield repeatedly compared Bush to Prince Hal, the tavern prankster transformed into "the mirror of all Christian Kings" in Henry V. One of my favorite talking heads, Chris Matthews, pointed to a specific moment of anagnorisis: the President's visit to Ground Zero, where he slung one arm over the shoulder of an exhausted relief worker, grabbed a megaphone, and with rough (and surprising) eloquence declared, "I can hear you, and America hears you. And before long the people who knocked down these buildings are going to hear from all of us." At that moment, said Matthews, the President seemed "born again. . . and the memory still gives me goosebumps."

Others point to the September 20 speech to Congress, universally praised; to the surprisingly adept creation and stewardship of an international coalition; to what is looking like the masterful conduct of the military operation per se. But for me the goosebump moment came earlier. It was within hours of the attacks, when I saw not Bush himself but nearly the first quote attributed to him, scrolling across the bottom of my TV: "We are at war."

Four plain monosyllables, but they had their own kind of poetry. At a moment when he could not possibly have known what he was up against, a moment when other politicians would have temporized, split hairs, run polls, Bush had quietly staked his presidency on a fight which—for all anyone knew then, or knows now—might prove unwinnable. This was not bravery on the order of that shown by firefighters and police on that day, but it was bravery nonetheless.

As for the substance of the declaration, that it could seem reassuring is a measure of the terror of the moment. It was not as if Bush were announcing a decision to take us to war, when other options remained. He had merely given a name to the horror, the buildings falling, the bodies burned and crushed. Naming it, though, was a long first step toward coping with it, toward bringing it under the sway of a known paradigm and tradition. We all know what happens in war: you suffer, sometimes terribly, but you pull together, you work, you fight, and usually, in our lucky American experience, you win in the end (Native Americans, Southerners, and veterans of recent Asian wars excepted). Surely it was for the same reason that so many commentators quickly seized on the Pearl Harbor parallel. This was not a serious historical analogy, but emotional shorthand: a way of saying, "Take heart! We have suffered disaster and defeat before, only to triumph in the long run." In the same way Bush, as we used to say in my long-ago grad school days, was speaking expressively, not referentially. The information might be vague, but the spirit was unmistakable.

Since then plenty has happened to break the spell, reminding me why I register and vote as a Democrat: an economic stimulus bill that foundered only after the House passed what would have been a grotesque piece of corporate welfare; excessive curtailment of civil liberties, especially for the 1,000 prisoners detained domestically since the attacks; the unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. John Ashcroft gives me the creeps when I see him on TV, explaining in parsonish, vaguely wounded tones that Osama bin Laden must not be allowed the benefits of "a flamboyant lawyer" and "non-stop media coverage"—these apparently being, in Ashcroft's view, the defining attributes of the legal system over which he presides. Even Bush gives me the creeps sometimes, as when he swore to get bin Laden "dead or alive," and when he insistently refers to the enemy as "the evil ones" who attack us because "they hate freedom." The "gift to be simple" is one thing; a Know-Nothing approach to crucial history is another. Surely, this kind of Marvel Comics reductivism in the face of perilous complexity can only lead to repeated disaster—if Bush really means it.

But I comfort myself that he does not really mean it. Not really really I mean, with the sort of flatfooted literalism that makes ideologues prisoners of their own rhetoric. Notoriously inarticulate though he is, the President seems to have a sound grasp of at least one of the central principles of Rhetoric: the plurality of discourses, the fungibility of metaphors and paradigms. In one crucial week, he went from being the most isolationist President since Hoover to one of the most internationalist ever. He declared war to the death against terrorism while calling for a Palestinian homeland and a massive Christmas relief effort for the children of Afghanistan. A little bit later, he dropped bombs and food packages simultaneously.

In all this there is something more than blithe inconsistency. Anyone can sense that such changes would have come harder to a more theoretically self-conscious leader—a Clinton or Carter, even a Reagan—and I am tempted to say that the same is true of a more articulate leader. However badly Bush may mismanage his metaphors, the up-side seems to be that he doesn't get trapped in them. He may turn screws with table knives and pound nails with shoeheels, linguistically speaking, but he doesn't get confused about what the job is. When one tool doesn't work he tries another, but the goal remains the same. There is some kind of cautionary lesson for English teachers here, but I can't for the life of me decide what it is.

At any rate, a crucial fact about the war to date is that it has been "war" in quotes, a metaphor whose limitations have been for the most part judiciously observed. We have used the trope to express and clarify certain things—our resolve, our unity, our perceived right to defy borders and use terrible weapons—without falling into the usual delusions of wartime: that the enemy is subhuman, that victory is the only good, that any excess is justified, that battle is glorious, that courage can be comprehensively substituted for reason. For this I credit not just the Administration, but "the people." Old enough to remember Vietnam, I have been cheered from the first, this time around, by what seems to me a much higher general level of circumspection. The rhetoric of that terrible era resolved itself into competing stupidities: "My Country Right or Wrong" on one bumper, "Make Love Not War" on another. The resulting dialogue, or non-dialogue, got us nowhere.

But this fall the people I see in caught-on-the-street interviews, while nearly all declaring (I think correctly) that we must do something of a military nature, have been quick to add sensible caveats: that our real enemy is not a country, that noncombatants must be spared wherever possible, that there are limits to what military power alone can do, that Islam itself is not at fault, that we must not persecute our own Islamic minority, that we must heed world opinion, that eventually we must think hard about our foreign policy failures, that the real problem is not just defeating terrorists, but learning how not to create them.

Likewise, so far the "war" itself has been conducted in a cautious, pragmatic, almost chastened spirit. Diplomatic initiatives have kept pace with military ones, defining and isolating the enemy while care is taken to pick no new quarrels. Pressing our technological advantage ruthlessly and methodically in the air, we have refused to be baited into premature ground confrontations, declining as it were the traditional rhetoric of threat and counter-threat, the challenge to symmetrical combat. Though aerial bombing is always horrific, ours has been confined to military targets and—to use the word applied by the Taliban's own charge d'affaires in Pakistan, three times in one brief interview—"precise." (As so often happens in the history of warfare, the evolution of weapons now seems to demand a speedy rethinking of both strategy and ethics. The most undiscriminating weapon of World War II may have become the most discriminating weapon available to us.) By the horrific standards of modern war, noncombatant casualties appear to have been minimal, and so have our own military casualties, since nearly all the fighting on the ground has been done by the Northern Alliance. The net result of everything is that, as of this writing, we seem to be helping both our own cause and that of the Afghan people, while establishing crucial precedents for the control of rogue states, terrorism, and terror weapons.

Or so at least I read the partial, obscure, and evolving text of the "War on Terror." Many of my Eastern Illinois University colleagues will, I know, passionately disagree. Much of what I have just praised can no doubt be seen from a different angle as the coldest kind of realpolitik, a throwback to the imperialist habit of applying icy practicality (and ruthless arms asymmetry) to problems with the natives. What we are calling a "war" has in fact been more a problem in political engineering, an ideological swamp-draining exercise, and there is something ugly about this. No one is ever going to use words like glory, honor, and sacred to talk about our Afghan intervention. The parades if we have them will not amount to much. Still and all, as a teacher of writing I want to hold the text up to the class and say, "Now THIS is how you use a metaphor. You make it say what you mean, but never get tricked into meaning what it says."

And of the many things we still must fear, one is that the metaphor will get the best of us after all. The plain declaration of September 11 has since evolved into the "Bush Doctrine," asserting our right to pursue terrorists to their bases, holding accomplices and silent partners culpable. It has been a fine, workable principle to march under so far—but how long before it gets us into trouble? There is alarming talk of taking on Iraq next, or Syria, or (what the heck) Colombia. I worry that the President will come down with a routine case of author's vanity. Will he grow a touch too fond of the Doctrine, get caught up in the rhetoric of crusade, take himself too literally? Or will he once again trust his instincts, switch paradigms, and muddle through? So far we are managing, if only just, to stand for humane multilateralism and the evolving rule of international law, while yet vigorously pursuing our own immediate self-defense. But one step too far will lead to Vietnam redux, and to worse disasters than any we have yet suffered or inflicted. My Christmas prayer is that we will not learn the hard way, once again, the limits of the discourse of bombs and bullets.

John Kilgore teaches literature and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He has published work in The Nebraska Review, McCall's, Nebula, Space and Time, The River King Poetry Supplement, TheScreamOnline, and elsewhere. He won Illinois Artists Fellowships in 1987 and again in 1998, and published a small collection, Improbabilities, in 1991. Currently he is seeking a publisher for his novel Radio Roger, a fantasy epic set in a universe where apocalypse has become a bad habit.

John can be reached at cfjdk[AT]eiu.edu.
(replace [AT] with @).

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