War Metaphor—what Is It Good for? 

Several American flags are shown again a background of trees

By Sara Veltkamp— 


We cannot fight a war against COVID-19. It’s a virus and the unfortunate peopleor maybe we should call them Trojan Horses?who have the virus are not our enemies. Similarly, we cannot go to battle with drugs, crime, cancer, or Christmas.  


None of these social challenges (excluding Christmas) have a cohesive strategy for domination, leadership, or even sentience. In other words, we have no enemies to attackSo why, when we’re attempting to change behaviors, do we feel the need to revert to wartime language in our communications?  


The easy answer is that it can be useful. When Americans think of war, they often call to mind self-sacrifice, unity, collective action, and honor. These associations make it easier to convince people to behave differently, give up liberties they would otherwise hold tightly, and feel good about doing both 


Leaders go to war to unite their countryman around their vision and against rivals. Many even attempt to prolong a warlike stance to keep this rivalry and internal cohesiveness going. For example, Syria’s previous leader, Hafez al-Assad entered, along with Egypt, into the losing 1973 “October War with Israel at least partly for this purpose. To commemorate the war, al-Assad built a museum—with the help of his friend Kim il-Sung in North Korea—dedicated to this war. The museum includes a massive panorama that tells the story of the war from the Syrian perspective, twisted to show how Syria had triumphed—when all accounts show that they demonstrably lost.  


War and addressing social issues do have some things in common. We should create strategic plans, some sacrifice may be involved, and we’ll probably need to invest substantial resources to solve the problem. But the same could be said of road construction. And we don’t often declare a war on potholes though this may be a politically expedient campaign platform for candidates in states where potholes have been known to swallow smaller vehicles whole—Rhode Island and my home state Michigan come to mind 


Despite being an easy way to move people, adopting warlike language is problematic for a variety of reasonsFirst, war is not an apt metaphorAsk people who’ve been in a warAt the beginning of the pandemic, leaders described social distancing measures not just as a means to slow the rise of cases, but also as an opportunity for heroism. As if, for most Americans, staying home with family and watching Netflix requires the same courage as heading out in a Humvee to Fallujah during the height of the Iraq war or fleeing from Syria as a refugee.  


Second, war is not effective. Only when painting the rosiest of one-sided pictures, can we envision a historical or current war as anything other than devastating and incredibly expensiveWe may win, but at what cost? We continue to pay for the wars we’ve engaged in as a country in myriad ways—from deaths of our young people to destroyed economies and fragile states around the world to mental health challenges related to traumaWhy would we want to model a program to reduce crime or a COVID-19 response after these disasters? 


What I find most troubling, however, is that using a war metaphor to describe anything that isn’t a war bolsters the belief that adversarial relationships, division, and creating common enemies is the only way to bring people together to make progress toward a common cause.  


How we speak impacts how we think about the world. The war metaphor underscores a zero-sum worldview that stresses the importance of dominance and maintaining power. This view has thrived in our world for too long. We are so deep in this view that we struggleeven when creating metaphorsto break from alignment.  


Fortunately, another narrative is battling for our attention during the pandemic. It’s a rallying cry that points out an obvious truth: We are in this together. The challenges we’re facing—the health of the planet, poverty, disease, or speaking with civility in an election year—are too multifaceted for anyone to solve alone, and too important to tackle as ineffectively as a war.  


We humans have no choice but to figure things out together, so let’s blow the war metaphor to smithereens and start using new language to motivate the changes we need to see in the world  


About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in Chicago, Illinois and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.