War and Its Metaphors
War and Its Metaphors:
News Language and the Prelude to War in Iraq, 2003
War is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is
born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of peace and in the kingdom of
war. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later
each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as
citizens of that other place.
Those words, and my title, are a reworking of Susan Sontag's text, Illness
as Metaphor, and its companion, AIDS and Its Metaphors (Sontag, 1990, p. 3;
1978, 1989). I have replaced illness with war and well with peace. But my
project, like Sontag's, takes as its starting point that metaphoric
language shapes thought and that calling something by another name can have
profound implications. In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag looked at metaphors
surrounding cancer. She found language of invasion, violation and
victimage. In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Sontag again uncovered language of
invasion and violation, as well as desolation and plague. She argued that
such language had significant, even mortal, consequences.
Sontag's subject, she emphasized, was not physical illness but language
about illness – the uses and implications of illness and its metaphors.
Similarly, my subject is not war but language about war, news language –
the uses and implications of war and its metaphors in the news, and the use
of metaphor in the configuration of war. To rework Sontag's words once more
(1990, pp. 3-4):
My point is that war is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of
regarding war is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric
thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take up residence in the kingdom
unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped. It
is toward an elucidation of those metaphors, and a liberation from them,
that I dedicate this inquiry.
In the first months of 2003, the administration of President George W. Bush
attempted to build support, nationally and internationally, for war against
Iraq. Through speeches, press conferences, committee reports, United Nation
sessions, televised addresses and other venues, the president and his
spokespeople proffered rationales for war. Saddam Hussein, the president
said, had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to U.S. security and
world peace. Saddam was linked to terrorism, particularly the activities of
al Qaeda. Saddam was a despotic ruler over the people of Iraq. Saddam was
an impediment to peace in the Middle East ("In the President's Words," New
York Times, 2003, p. A-10; "Excerpts from Bush's News Conference on Iraq
and Likelihood of War," New York Times, 2003, p. A-12; "Bush's Speech on
Iraq: 'Saddam Hussein and His Sons Must Leave,'" New York Times, 2003, p.
A-14; "Bush's Speech on the Start of War," New York Times, 2003, p. A-20).
Others were unconvinced. Members of the U.N. Security Council, including
France, Russia and Germany, argued for a process of inspection and eventual
destruction of Iraqi weapons; they refused to pass a war resolution. Other
U.S. allies too were not persuaded of the need for war. In March, millions
of people held peace rallies in cities around the world. The Bush
administration, allied with leaders of Britain and Spain, pressed forward.
On March 19, U.S. jets bombed Baghdad and war began.
How did U.S. news media report events in the crucial weeks before war? It
is almost a commonplace that the determination to go to war is perhaps the
most critical decision a nation can make. The news media should play a
vital role in the decision-making process. As a nation prepares for war,
the news media should offer sites in which rationales for war are
identified and verified; official claims are solicited and evaluated;
alternate views are sought and assessed; costs, both human and material,
are weighed; legalities are established; possible outcomes and aftermaths
are considered, and wide-ranging debates are given voice. The consequences
of war seem to require no less from the news (Galtung, 1986; Galtung and
Vincent, 1992; Mathews, 1957; Pedelty, 1995; Roach, 1993).
Metaphor provides one means of analyzing such news coverage. As Sontag
(1978, 1989), Lakoff and Johnson (1980), and numerous others (Burke, 1945,
1950; Deetz, 1984; Ortony, 1993; Ricoeur, 1978, 1981), have made clear,
metaphor is integral to human understanding, an inescapable aspect of human
thought. Neither good nor bad, metaphor may be the only way for humans to
comprehend profound and complex issues, such as life, death, sickness,
health, war and peace. As a review of literature below will indicate,
metaphor thus has offered an important tool to probe subtleties of news
reporting on complex subjects such as social movements (Neveu, 2002), the
information highway (Berdayes & Berdayes, 1998), AIDS (Sontag, 1989),
conflict in Kosovo (Kennedy, 2000; Paris, 2002), cloning (Hellsten, 2000;
Nerlich, Clarke & Dingwall, 2000), and international affairs (Kitis and
Metaphor may prove particularly useful for study of news coverage of the
prelude to the 2003 conflict in Iraq. At the end of 1990, Lakoff (1991)
published an "open letter to the Internet" arguing that the political and
media discourse surrounding justification for the eventual 1991 war against
Iraq "was a panorama of metaphor." In a scathing critique, he charged that
metaphors such as War is Business and War is Politics helped create public
support for the war while hiding the true justification and costs of the
conflict. Iraq was often reduced through State is a Person metonymy to the
figure of Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein himself was depicted
metaphorically. Saddam, it was said, had invaded Kuwait. In more lurid
speech, Saddam had raped Kuwait. Saddam was a threat to his neighbors and
the world. The United States, in contrast, was cast metaphorically as hero
and savior. By liberating Kuwait, the United States, thus personified,
repulsed the villain, saved the victim and took the lead role in the fairy
tale of the just war (Greenberg and Gantz, 1993; Kellner, 1992; MacArthur,
1992; Mowlana, Gerbner & Schiller, 1992).
The day before the 2003 war began, Lakoff (2003) issued another critique
over the Internet, this time of the metaphor system "being used to justify
Gulf War II." He stated that many previous "metaphorical ideas are back,
but within a very different and more dangerous context." He found that A
Nation Is Person allowed continued demonization of Saddam Hussein and
hostility to states such as France that were not "loyal friends." He found
the Rational Actor who goes to war, weighing assets and gains. He found the
Rescue Scenario in which American forces rescue the Iraqi people and Iraq's
neighbors. He concluded that metaphor once again had driven U.S. foreign
Can Lakoff's critique be extended to news? Have metaphors shaped news
reporting of the buildup to the second gulf war? The research questions
then that guide this paper: What metaphors, if any, can be identified in
U.S. news language concerning the rationale for war with Iraq in 2003? If
metaphors did indeed inform news reporting in the weeks before the
conflict, what were possible interpretations and implications of those
metaphors? If metaphor is an inescapable aspect of human thought, what are
the implications of metaphor for news language of war?
The paper first reviews briefly the rich literature on metaphor, focusing
in particular on metaphor and news. Then, drawing from the work of Lakoff
and Johnson (1980), Deetz (1984), van Dijk (1988), Ricoeur (1978), and
Cameron and Low (1999), the paper outlines a methodology for study of
metaphor in news. The paper then applies this method to a sample of U.S.
news reporting – coverage by NBC Nightly News, the top-rated U.S. evening
newscast– in the six weeks before the start of war with Iraq, and
appraises possible metaphors in NBC coverage. Finally, the paper examines
implications of the metaphors used in reporting the prelude to war and,
more broadly, considers the role of metaphor and news language in the
conception and construction of war.
Study of Metaphor
The voluminous literature on metaphor, which can only be touched upon here,
offers a number of starting points from which to commence research. Sontag
and many others begin with Aristotle whose Poetics provides a simple and
clarifying definition: "Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that
belongs to something else." Building on Aristotle, instructive study of
metaphor has long been undertaken in rhetoric, speech, literature,
linguistics, pragmatics, psychology, cognitive science and other fields
(Boys-Stones, 2003; Burke, 1950; Eubanks, 2000; Ortony, 1993; Searle, 1993;
Considerations of the social and political influence of metaphor also have
varied starting points. George Orwell's (1957) classic essay, "Politics and
the English Language," published in 1946, remains invaluable. "Political
language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from
Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and
murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,"
Orwell wrote (p. 157). Indeed, the field of political communication is
particularly fertile ground for research on metaphor; of particular
interest to this study is study of political language and U.S. foreign
policy, including the justification for war (Bostdorff, 1994; Green, 1992;
Hart, 1987; Ivie, 1974; Medhurst et al.; 1998; Swanson & Nimmo, 1990;
Lakoff and Johnson's (1980) Metaphors We Live By became an important
touchstone for social and political discussions of metaphor. In that
volume, the authors argued that the human conceptual system is
fundamentally metaphoric, that metaphors structure the way people think.
Their proposition that metaphors "are not just a matter of language, but of
thought and reason" helped support study of social and political discourse
through metaphor (p. 208; Lakoff and Turner, 1989). Lakoff's (1991, 2003)
critique of metaphors employed by the Bush administrations to justify wars
in the Persian Gulf exemplifies such work.
Lakoff alluded to the complicity of news in his essays on Gulf war
metaphors. Other studies, including much recent work, have taken up in
detail the influence of metaphors in the news. For example, Kitis and
Milapides (1997) analyzed a Time magazine piece on Greece and Macedonia to
explore how metaphor constructs ideology in news discourse. Berdayes &
Berdayes (1998) examined the information highway metaphor in contemporary
magazines. Paris (2002) touched upon news coverage in his study of
metaphors surrounding the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. Neveu (2002) studied
press coverage of farmers' protest in Brittany. Winfield, Friedman and
Trisnadi (2002) studied history as metaphor in news reporting after the
terrorist attacks of September 11. The journal, Metaphor and Symbol,
devoted a special section to "Metaphors in the News." In that issue,
Kennedy (2000) studied reporting on the war in Kosovo and argued that ill
chosen or conflicting metaphors can negate intended messages of journalists
and politicians; Hellstenn (2000) looked at metaphors used in reporting on
"Dolly," the cloned sheep; Nerlich, Clarke and Dingwall (2000) also
analyzed news of cloning and bioengineering; Batstone (2000) studied how
problems are often framed as metaphors in an examination of a conflict
between two metaphors: university as business and university as community.
The variety of topics and perspectives confirms the power and potential of
research on metaphor in the news, and provides methodological direction for
study of metaphor in news reporting of the prelude to the 2003 war in Iraq.
Methodology for study of metaphoric language has been set forth in previous
research as well as in work by Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Ricoeur (1978;
1981), Deetz (1984), van Dijk (1988), Cameron and Low (1999) and others.
Following these scholars, a researcher first identifies the text for study,
such as a novel, play, news story or network broadcast. Often "the text" is
actually a series of texts, such as the works of an author or a set of news
reports (Ricoeur, 1981). The researcher then identifies and isolates within
each text narrative elements that provide context for figurative language:
Actors (or agents), settings (or scenes), actions (or acts), chronology (or
temporal relations), and causal relations (or motives). Metaphoric elements
are then identified. Depending on the researcher, the concept of metaphor
can be used for an array of figurative language such as metonymy and
synecdoche. This broad conception of metaphor will be followed here.
Metaphors are considered on two levels. The semantic level considers the
lexical choice (choice of word, such as the showdown) and the propositions
proffered by the choice. This can be particularly important for study of
news. "Lexical choice," van Dijk writes (1988, p. 177) "is an eminent
aspect of news discourse in which hidden opinions or ideologies may
surface." Analysis also considers the syntactic level, the relationship of
word choices within a single text and within a series of texts. Common and
recurring metaphors are noted, organized and clustered. The relationship of
the metaphors to other narrative elements is made clear and finally the
role of metaphor in the text is suggested and explored. Such steps are
necessarily inductive and interpretive. Scholars explore and explicate
possible interpretations of language (Ricoeur, 1978). Researchers therefore
acknowledge the ambiguity of metaphoric language and the possibility,
indeed the necessity, of differing interpretations.
For this analysis of metaphor in news reporting of the prelude to war with
Iraq, NBC Nightly News was selected for study. At the time of this
research, NBC Nightly News was the most watched evening news show,
averaging close to 12 million viewers nightly. The time period selected was
February 5, 2003, the day of Secretary of State Colin Powell's report to
the U.N. Security Council, laying out the Bush administration's rationale
for war with Iraq, to March 19, 2003, the day bombs first fell on Baghdad.
In that time period, reporting focused on a number of topics: Inspectors
were trying to ascertain if Iraq possessed "weapons of mass destruction,"
as charged by the Bush administration; the United States and Britain
pressed for a U.N. Security Council resolution for war with Iraq; other
members of the Security Council, particularly France, Germany and Russia,
were attempting to provide more time for inspections; the United States and
Britain continued the build up of forces in the Persian Gulf; President
Bush and his administration attempted to build support for the war among
the American people. Broadcasts were studied nightly and transcripts were
obtained for each newscast. More than 400 reports – 404 – were aired over
the six-week period. Of that total, 171 stories – 42 percent – focused on
some aspect of the possible conflict with Iraq, a significant percentage
that reflected the importance of the subject. These were the stories
analyzed each evening and through subsequent transcripts.
Framework: Structural Metaphors
Like other networks and cable television broadcasts, NBC Nightly News
employed an overarching theme to promote, introduce and organize its
newscasts on the buildup for war with Iraq. These themes, now a staple of
broadcast news, often are spoken by news anchors or appear on the screen as
banners, accompanied by dramatic or martial music. In early 2003, for
example, MSNBC introduced its Iraq coverage with the words, "Showdown with
Saddam." CNN used "Showdown: Iraq" while Fox offered, "Target Iraq:
Disarming Saddam." For the time period studied, NBC Nightly News alternated
a variety of themes and banners, including "Countdown: Iraq," "Showdown:
Iraq and, most often, "Target: Iraq." It might be easy to overlook or
dismiss these banners and logos. But they are important organizing devices
to which the cable and broadcast networks devote considerable editorial,
design and marketing considerations (Lowry, 2003; Pennington, 2003; Solomon
& Erlich, 2003).
In the perspective of this study, these newscast themes can be understood
as structural metaphors. According to Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. 61),
structural metaphors "use one highly structured and clearly delineated
concept to structure another." They provide coherence across concepts and
texts, and offer a context in which other metaphors may be understood.
Ironically, war itself is often employed as a structural metaphor in U.S.
culture. Politicians have declared war on drugs, war on poverty and war on
crime. War also permeates the language of sports, debate and medicine. Yet
NBC Nightly News and surely other news media reached for metaphor to make
sense of war. The structural metaphors invoked by "Countdown: Iraq,"
"Showdown: Iraq," and "Target: Iraq" have important implications that
differ for each title.
"Countdown: Iraq" was used often in lead-ins to the NBC broadcast during
the early weeks of the study period. For example, Tom Brokaw began the
newscast of February 18: "Countdown Iraq. President Bush says worldwide
protests by millions did not change his mind about war. And a new flash
point: Saddam's missiles." Countdown was also used within many stories
themselves, such as a report on February 10 that stated, "In Baghdad, this
is another countdown week."
A countdown of course is an audible backward counting in fixed units (such
as seconds or days), from an arbitrary starting number, to mark the time
remaining before an event. It can also mean the preparations carried on
during the count and before the event. Of particular interest to this
study, a countdown assumes the upcoming event is scheduled and inevitable.
A countdown moves inexorably to its conclusion. By using "Countdown:
Iraq" as a structural metaphor, particularly in the middle of February
2003, NBC Nightly News affirmed the inevitability of conflict with Iraq at
a time when many Americans and nations around the world were still
attempting to prevent the conflict. 
Showdown was used 18 times during the time period. "Showdown: Iraq" frames
the situation as a final confrontation, a reckoning between Iraq and an
unnamed opponent – the United States? The world? The metaphor has links to
American Western texts, in which two gunmen face off. In this perspective,
the metaphor perhaps complements portrayals of President George Bush as a
cowboy figure. For example, a report on February 9 referred to a "crucial
week in the showdown with Saddam." A February 15 newscast stated that
President Bush was considering "his next move in the showdown with Saddam
Hussein." Showdown also has linguistic roots in card games, especially the
placing of poker hands face-up on a table to determine the winner. From any
root, the metaphor suggests the situation in Iraq seems inevitably headed
toward a confrontational denouement.
"Target: Iraq" was perhaps the most aggressive theme employed by NBC
Nightly News. Used more than two dozen times in a variety of combinations,
Target Iraq became particularly prominent in the later weeks of the study,
even as negotiations were still underway in the Security Council and
elsewhere. As a noun, target implies that Iraq is a place or object
selected for military attack, especially by aerial bombing or missile
assault. As a verb, target can be seen as a command to identify, mark and
aim at Iraq. As noun or verb, "Target: Iraq" anticipates, assumes and
metaphorically takes up conflict with Iraq.
The three primary structural metaphors employed by NBC Nightly News thus
can be seen as anticipating an inevitable conflict with Iraq, even as that
conflict was still in doubt. The aggressive nature of the language can be
further illuminated by consideration of organizing metaphors that were not
employed by the newscast. For example, "Negotiations: Iraq," "Inspections:
Iraq," or "The Debate over Iraq" might have still yielded some of the
dramatic allure seemingly needed by modern newscasts without the overtures
Infrastructure: Four Metaphors
Structural metaphors provided frameworks, overarching themes to NBC
broadcasts. Within individual stories each night, other metaphoric language
was used as anchors and reporters strove to make sense of events for
viewers. Each report, of course, might have drawn upon a huge trove of
figurative language. The analysis revealed, however, a surprisingly limited
cluster of metaphors in reporting the prelude to war with Iraq. Four
metaphors in particular dominated reporting, connecting coverage night
after night: the Timetable; the Games of Saddam; the Patience of the White
House, and Making the Case/Selling the Plan.
In the reporting of NBC Nightly News, the administration had a timetable it
was trying to follow, a timetable with a final and inevitable destination:
war. The timetable, however, was threatened by the games of Saddam who
adroitly played hide and seek with weapons, and bluffed and gambled his way
through weeks of negotiations. The White House was losing patience with the
process, the United Nations and eventually, its allies. Subsequently, the
administration was forced to make its case, sell its plan to the American
people, the U.N. Security Council and the world community. In the midst of
making the case, the administration led the United States into war.
This was the metaphoric system that connected NBC news reports on Iraq in
the weeks preceding the war. NBC Nightly News was particularly interested
in dramatizing and personalizing the process by which the nation
eventually, seemingly inevitably, entered into conflict. The network showed
much less interest in exploring calls for peaceful alternatives or
evaluating the progress of inspections. It also devoted little time or
language to verifying claims, assessing evidence, establishing legalities,
or weighing outcomes and aftermaths. Was Saddam Hussein a threat to the
United States? Did Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? Was Saddam
Hussein linked to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? Was Iraq an impediment to
Middle East peace? These questions went unasked by the broadcast. Instead,
as the following sections will show, the evening broadcast was most
interested in the unfolding of the timetable, the machinations of Saddam,
the frustration of the White House, and the administration's failure or
success at making the case to go to war.
NBC Nightly News referred often to a timetable for war that was controlling
the situation between the United States and Iraq. The language of time
pervaded broadcasts. Some of this language came directly from the Bush
administration, whose officials spoke often of deadlines and of Saddam
running out of time. Newscasts adopted and extended such language. For
example, on February 17, after world-wide protests against military action,
a report stated, "the US reassesses its timetable for war." The following
day, the newscast said, "the timetable for war has been slowed by the epic
diplomatic struggle between the United States and others on the UN Security
Council." Other metaphors of time supported the notion that the nation was
on a timetable for war. On February 15, a report said, "some military
experts believe the use of force in Iraq is now just a matter of time." The
following day, a story said, "Military action is likely weeks away." On
February 18: "The idea of war and the casualties it will surely bring,
perhaps days away." Iraq and Saddam Hussein were said to be running out of
time. "Even as President Bush warns Iraq it's running out of time to
disarm," said a report of February 22. The following day: "After weeks of
saying that time is running out for Iraq to disarm, President Bush now says
it's time for the world to act."
The metaphor could be seen in numerous other reports. "So the clock does
seem to be ticking faster on two fronts tonight," said a February 26 story.
On March 4: "Target Iraq. The shifting timetable. Will the US skip the UN
and attack Saddam within days?" In that same broadcast, a story asked: "So
what is the timeline for war?" On March 5: "It has been an up and down day
for the Bush administration as the countdown to war now appears to be in
its final stages." And on March 6: "On the brink of war, President Bush
calls a rare prime time news conference. Will he reveal a new timetable?"
On March 11: "Pentagon officials say the current UN debate has pushed the
military's timetable for war back by only a matter of days, not weeks."
The notion of the timetable and deadline, complementing the structural
banner theme of the countdown, went unquestioned by the newscast. Anchors
and reporters did not pursue the rationale behind a timetable or deadline
for war. Why set a deadline? What was its purpose? Why name a particular
date? Why not wait, as other nations urged? Rather, the timetable and
deadline proved to be convenient devices for network coverage, providing a
sense of urgency and drama that spanned the weeks.
The Games of Saddam
In the portrayals offered by NBC Nightly News, the timetable for war was
threatened by the games of Saddam. The metaphor actually combines two
tropes. The game metaphor was applied to Iraqi actions during weapons
inspections. Saddam was the metonymic replacement of ruler for state of
which Lakoff (1991; 2003) has written. (Metonymy is understood here as a
figure of speech in which a word or phrase is substituted for another with
which it is closely associated.) Although metaphors of war and sports often
overlap, with military action taking on the language of sports and sports
adopting the language of war, games in the sense employed by NBC Nightly
News refer more to children's diversions or card games than to sports. With
the games of Saddam, Saddam Hussein was said to be playing hide and seek
with weapons of mass destruction during inspections. He was bluffing the
United States and the United Nations, as if in a poker game, gambling with
his future and the future of his people.
For example, on February 9, a story stated that "President Bush kept up the
pressure on Iraq today, accusing Saddam Hussein of playing a game of hide
and seek with weapons of mass destruction." The words hide and seek came
from the reporter rather than the president. March 21 saw the same words:
"US military intelligence sources say the Iraqis have played a game of hide
and seek, firing mobile launchers in southern Iraq even as American forces
invade." Reports of March 1 and 2 referred to Saddam's "game of deception."
Other reports cast Saddam's actions as card games. For example, on February
24, anchor Tom Brokaw said, "Tonight the great debate about Iraq resembles
a three-handed game of showdown poker with Saddam now sitting at the table
playing his cards out in the open." On March 10, Brokaw continued the
metaphor: "We've gone from showdown poker to 52 pickup, the kid's game in
which all the cards are on the floor and all the players are turning them
over, trying to find a winning hand." On March 6, a story said, "Secretary
of State Colin Powell made a very strong case for war, saying Saddam
Hussein has thrown away his last chance."
The games of Saddam metaphor personalizes, dramatizes, and perhaps
trivializes, the weeks of negotiation that preceded the war with Iraq. The
metaphor continues the theme of the showdown, the finale of a card game,
with Saddam Hussein at the table against President Bush, the United States
and the world. The metaphor also offers a sinister depiction of the Iraqi
leader. It portrays Saddam Hussein as a ruler willing to treat war as a
game, play with the future of his country and the region, and gamble with
the lives of his people.
The Patience of the White House
Another important metaphor on NBC Nightly News represented the weeks
before war as a time that tested the patience of the White House. The
metaphor suggested that the White House was losing patience with the
negotiation process, the United Nations and its allies. This metaphor again
combines two tropes. The White House is another metonymy; it replaces
President Bush and his administration with the building. The metaphor then
personalizes the metonymy by attributing patience to the building or
Early in the period studied, on February 7, a report said, "President Bush,
impatient with the United Nations, said today it better make up its mind
soon about whether to side with the United States." Throughout the month,
the metaphor continued to be used. The lead report on March 9 stated: "For
weeks now, the White House has said it wanted to give diplomacy a chance.
Well, now it appears that the White House's patience is running out."
Other reports drew upon similar language. On February 9, the newscast
stated, "Mr. Bush also said the United Nations must soon decide whether
it's going to be relevant." The introduction to the broadcast of February
13: "Countdown Iraq. The eve of the weapons inspectors' report, President
Bush tells the UN to show some backbone." Another report, on February 19,
began: "Countdown Iraq. The US will bring a new war resolution to a vote of
the UN. President Bush calls it the last chance." That report included a
brief quotation from President Bush: "At some point in time, obviously,
this must come to an end. Yeah, it's sooner rather than later, I think is
the best way to describe it." On March 6, the newscast reported,
"Privately, White House sources say the president has voiced his
frustration with the diplomatic stalemate at the UN."
The metaphor of the patience of the White House surely personalizes the
prelude to war but also casts the Bush administration in an authoritative,
almost paternal role, in relation to Iraq, the United Nation and its
allies. Parents, for example, lose patience with the games played by
children. The metaphor also trivializes the possibility of conflict. Losing
patience hardly seems justification for war.
Making the Case/Selling the Plan
The final dominant metaphor in NBC Nightly News coverage of the prelude to
war with Iraq depicted the Bush administration making the case for war or,
in another variation, selling the plan. A case can mean providing facts or
evidence in support of a claim for law or a product. In this metaphor, the
administration and its spokespersons were portrayed either as prosecutors
presenting a case against a defendant or as salespeople trying to sell a
This metaphor was apparent in reporting on Secretary of State Colin
Powell's February 5 presentation to the United Nations. That night, NBC
Nightly News said Powell "spelled out with visual aids and a prosecutor's
rhetoric the administration's case against Saddam Hussein." Another report,
an interview with a former weapons inspector, said, "His case was
devastating." And later: "I think that the case that [sic] was made and was
compelling" and "Almost all, Republicans and Democrats, praising the
strength of Powell's case." That same day, the report said of the president
and secretary of state: "The two men tried to build a case of Iraq's
deception and denial." The case metaphor was used often throughout the time
period studied. On March 5, the newscast began: "Countdown Iraq. The
secretary of state makes the strongest case yet for war." The report said
of Powell that "today, he marshaled the administration's case against Saddam."
The case metaphor was used for other stories, such as reports on
allegations of ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda: On February 6, a
story reported allegations and asked: "How strong is that case?" The story
continued, "In making his case, Powell claimed the ties between Osama bin
Laden and Saddam Hussein go back nearly 10 years and the threat continues
today." On February 8, a story summarized the reactions of the German
ambassador to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, "You have to make the case."
On February 9, weekend anchor John Seigenthaler asked: "And does this make
it more difficult for the United States to make its case for the use of force?"
The Bush administration was not the only entity portrayed with the
metaphor. On February 14, Iraq too is reported to be "making its case to a
global audience." The following day, massive peace protests were framed
with the same metaphor: "Washington has failed miserably to convince most
of Europe about the need for force when it comes to Saddam Hussein," and
so, "On this one day, so many people in so many different parts of the
world making their case for peaceful solution to Iraq." And, "To them, the
president's case against Saddam Hussein remains unconvincing." Reacting to
the protests, on February 18, the United States and Britain "are now on the
defensive, trying to make their case for war against overwhelmingly
negative world opinion."
Making the case eventually also became selling the case. The lexical change
was significant. The administration figures were no longer prosecutors
marshaling facts and pressing a case against defendants but salespeople
"pitching" an idea, selling a product or plan. On February 6, the newscast
described Bush and Powell: "First team. The president and Colin Powell,
side by side, selling the case on Iraq." On February 14, a report said,
"Attempting to sell the war at home, Mr. Bush argued again today that any
battle against terror must include Iraq." The February 12 newscast said,
"While Bush administration officials are convinced this latest bin Lade
tape is proof of Iraq's ties to terrorists, it's a hard sell to the rest of
the world." On February 26, the newscast began: "Target: Iraq. President
Bush talks about Iraq after a war, part of the administration's final
campaign to sell the plan." The next day, the broadcast reported, "The
administration's stepped-up efforts to sell the war extended to Capitol
Hill today." But the next day, the broadcast said, "It's not an easy sell."
Making the case and selling the plan borrow language from law, business
and marketing to proffer portrayals of the weeks before war. Making the
case proposes an interesting metaphor: Is the United States the prosecutor?
Saddam Hussein the defendant? And who is the jury? The American people? The
world? Selling the plan provides a more invidious perspective. No longer a
time for the presentation of facts in a legal case, the weeks before war
became a time for the huckster or the salesperson making a pitch or hawking
a product. And what is the product? "President Bush is selling the war."
Discussion: Metaphors Can Kill
As affirmed at the outset, the subject of this paper is not war, nor the
moral or political rightness or wrongness of U.S. war with Iraq. The
subject is news language: the uses and implications of war and its
metaphors in the news, the use of metaphor in the configuration of war,
and, more specifically, the use of metaphors in reporting the prelude to
war with Iraq in 2003. As a nation makes the decision to go to war, the
news media should play a number of crucial roles. The news media can
evaluate the rationale for war. They can verify claims. They can seek
alternate views. They can weigh human and material costs. They can assess
outcomes. And they can give voice to wide-ranging debates.
The results of this study, while narrow in scope, suggest that the news
media, at least the top-rated U.S. evening newscast, failed to provide a
site in which the decision to go to war was assessed, evaluated and
debated. In February and early March 2003, war was not inevitable. American
allies worked furiously to forestall war. The U.N. Security Council refused
to back conflict. The U.N. Secretary General and the Pope both urged
restraint. Millions protested for peace in the United States and around the
world. And yet, through metaphor, through the language of its newscasts,
NBC Nightly News portrayed the United States on a seemingly inevitable path
to war. Rather than investigate, analyze or debate the rationale for war,
the broadcast instead offered, through metaphor, a dramatization of war
unfolding. Accepting that the nation was on a timetable, dismissing
inspections as the games of Saddam, giving voice to the frustration of the
White House as it lost patience with the process, the broadcast then simply
reported how the administration might make its case and sell its plan.
This research adds support to those who have already charged the news media
with failing in its duty to provide debate, history, context and reporting
on the decision to go to war with Iraq (Solomon & Erlich, 2003). Kamiya
(2003), for example, has decried "the vulgar flag-waving bombast of the
mass media" and "the pro-war chest-beating or too-little, too-late
reservations of the nation's leadings newspapers." Writing of Washington
Post coverage, Greider (2003) noted omissions and commissions with stark
similarities to NBC Nightly News coverage. He wrote, "Instead of examining
the factual basis for targeting Iraq, the Post largely framed the story
line as a Washington drama of inside baseball." The Post, Greider charged,
"sold this war" (p. 22). Metaphor provides a means to understand how the
prelude to war was framed and portrayed by news media that anticipated
rather than debated the prospect of war.
"Metaphors can kill," said Lakoff (1991; 2003) in the introductions to
essays on metaphor and the gulf wars of 1991 and 2003. And Sontag (1990, p.
102), writing on illness and metaphor, said: "The metaphors and myths, I
was convinced, kill." For Lakoff, metaphors used by the first and second
Bush administrations led to unjust – unjustified – wars that resulted in
the killings of thousands. For Sontag, metaphors used for cancer and AIDS
led people to reject treatments, follow useless remedies, and resulted in
the killings of thousands. In these perspectives, metaphors indeed can kill.
Yet metaphor is a routine and unalterable aspect of human understanding.
This paper has not then critiqued NBC Nightly News or other news outlets
for employing metaphor in reporting the prelude to war with Iraq. It might
as well critique the newscast for using words. But the paper has critiqued
– and pointed out grim implications of – particular metaphors used by the
newscast. It critiqued the use of metaphors that accepted as inevitable a
timetable for war. It critiqued the use of metaphors that personalized
complex issues into the games of Saddam and the fraying patience of the
White House. It critiqued the use of metaphors that directed primary
attention to how the administration was selling the war.
The metaphors used by NBC Nightly News displaced other possible tropes that
might have better profited a nation considering war. For example, the
metaphor of a claim might have been a fruitful term to employ. Through this
metaphor, the Bush administration could have been understood as making
particular claims about the regime of Saddam Hussein. Newscasts could have
asked what evidence was introduced in support of those claims? Could the
claims be verified? How did Saddam Hussein respond to those claims? How did
other nations view the claims? The metaphor of the claim, as opposed to,
for example, the games of Saddam, would have suggested more questioning and
reporting by the news media. Another possible metaphor might have been a
debate. The Bush administration could have been seen as engaging in a
debate with Iraq, the United Nations or its allies. What were
administration arguments in support of war? What were counterarguments? Who
made the counterarguments and to what effect? Many other metaphors might
have been employed. Perhaps metaphors of negotiation, of process, of
decision-making and deliberation could have offered other directions. The
purpose would have been to self-consciously employ language that invited
debate, encouraged the investigation of claims, invited the assessment of
outcomes, and ultimately strived to fulfill the crucial role of the press
for a nation considering war.
More than words were at stake. Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. 158) made clear
that metaphors are linked to action.
In most cases, what is at issue is not the truth or falsity of a metaphor
but the perceptions and inferences that follow from it and the actions that
are sanctioned by it. In all aspects of life, not just in politics or in
love, we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act
on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make
commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part
structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.
The Bush administration indeed took action, leading the United States into
war with Iraq. The world will never know: If a different system of
metaphors had been used by U.S. news media, would war have been inevitable?
An irony has shadowed the thrust of this research. War itself has proved
to be an encompassing metaphor for many aspects of U.S. social life. We
often use war to speak of business, law, sports, medicine, politics, and
other fields. Sontag (1990, p. 99) wrote:
Abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in a capitalist society, a
society that increasingly restricts the scope and credibility of appeals to
ethical principle, in which it is thought foolish not to subject one's
actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability. War-making is
one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view
"realistically"; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome. In
all-out war, expenditure is all-out, unprudent – war being defined as an
emergency in which no sacrifice is excessive.
And so, our society has seen politicians and corporate leaders call for
wars on drugs, on poverty, on fraud, on waste, on cancer, on AIDS. Yet
because war is so pervasive in our metaphorical understanding, we need to
be especially vigilant in the use of war as metaphor and, conversely, in
the metaphors that configure war. Lakoff (1991) stated:
There is no way to avoid metaphorical thought, especially in complex
matters like foreign policy. I am therefore not objecting to the use of
metaphor in itself in foreign policy discourse. My objections are, first,
to the ignorance of the presence of metaphor in foreign policy
deliberations, second, to the failure to look systematically at what our
metaphors hide, and third, to the failure to think imaginatively about what
new metaphors might be more benign.
Journalists, television viewers and media scholars may simply accept the
vulgar promotion and anticipation of war as just another sign and signal of
the continued degradation of television news. This would be a mistake.
Democratic debate is essential to civic life. Democratic debate about going
to war is essential to global life. The news media have an indispensable,
really irreplaceable, role in this process. And so here, the acts of
scholarship, criticism and interpretation may play their own social roles.
For Lakoff and Sontag, interpretation and criticism can rescue people from
metaphors that kill. Interpretation and criticism are a means "to dissolve
the metaphors," (Sontag, 1990, p. 102) and a way to reveal "the unconscious
system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality"
(Lakoff, 1991). As Sontag (p. 182) noted, "the metaphors cannot be
distanced just by abstaining from them. They have to be exposed,
criticized, belabored, used up." Through scholarship, discussion and
interpretation, perhaps, the language of television news can be "exposed,
criticized, belabored, used up." The presence of metaphor in news discourse
can be clearly shown and understood. The metaphors chosen can be identified
and studied systematically, their implications made clear. And new
metaphors – more thoughtful, encompassing, benign or instructive – can be
offered for use. Perhaps such attention to the language of news can help
inform reporting of war and guard against metaphors that kill.
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 In more difficult language, Ricoeur (1981) says, "a word receives a
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 In American culture, the countdown is often associated with space
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 It is of interest to note that NBC anchor Tom Brokaw spent a week in
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