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Stop bombarding us with military metaphors



When you are listening to proposals it pays to attend to the metaphors being used. These often shape the argument and the proposals made. When voters are described as punters, for example, the gambling metaphor suggests that the political system is like a horse race in which the politicians are trained owned and trained by others and the well-heeled bookies always win. We would naturally ask whose interests proposals made by the speaker will support. They are not likely to further the cause of an informed democracy.

Two toy soldiers pointing guns at each other (Getty images/Jorg Greuel)

One of the most popular, and largely counterproductive, metaphors in public conversation is the military one. It suggests that the project commended is a war in which there is an enemy, a campaign to be begun, forces to be mobilised, a public whose support is to be won, and weapons to be used. As in a war, too, the stakes are high — matters of life and death. They commit us to do whatever it takes to win the war.

Proper wars, of course, are between nations. But the military metaphor is often used to describe other aspects of international relations: trade and sport, for example. It is almost always unhelpful because in these relationships negotiation and a level of mutual trust are essential to secure national interests. If we see our negotiating partners as enemies to be defeated, we are less likely to advance our interest than if our guiding metaphor were that of a market in which we bartered.

In sport, too, the military metaphor is rife. Winning at all costs, taking one for the team, dying for the flag, shedding the last drop of blood, winning each battle are gold coinage in sporting rhetoric. Its effects on the behaviour of sports persons are evident. The military metaphor, too, corrodes its military origins. The distasteful association of football games with Anzac Day, with its array of sportsperson’s warrior images, trivialises the commemoration of the death of soldiers in war.

The military metaphor is often used, too, when speaking of health. People are described as fighting cancer and other life threatening illnesses, winning or losing battles with sickness. Chemotherapy and other intrusive treatments are described as weapons, and people are praised for never surrendering in the fight against disease, for being valiant warriors to the last. We all deal with life-threatening illness as we can death as we can, of course, and it is unfair to criticise people for adopting this approach. But there are better metaphors for describing illness. The image of war ignores the central fact that illness takes place within and not outside ourselves, and even cancerous growths are part of us. Death, too, is a necessary end of life.

Certainly we struggle when faced by serious illness, owing to the illness itself, to the effects of its treatment, and to our desire to live as fully as possible. We may also face a spiritual struggle to accept the fact of illness and of our mortality, and still to live as fully and freely as we can in hope of cure and in acceptance of death. The military metaphor sees weakness and acceptance as purely negative, and sets an indomitable will in conflict with a sick body. It is alienating because it separates spirit from body.


'A better metaphor for responding to bushfires may be that of public health, with its emphasis on the causes of illness, the social context in which it flourishes, and the variety of relationships that need to be addressed in its care. In public health the dominant metaphor is one of nurturing.'


In speaking of facing serious illness, we might find a better metaphor in gardening, with its times of germination, growth, pruning, digging, lying fallow, shedding leaves and dying. It can hold the whole of human life in an integrated view without focusing narrowly on one aspect of it.

The military metaphor is also much loved by political leaders, most recently in the response to the bushfires. It diverts people from the larger context of the crisis, encourages the belief that military leaders must enjoy the privilege of secrecy, and focuses attention on the powerful and ritzy technology that will win the war. These political advantages are at the expense of participative democracy and responsible decision making that takes into account the larger context.

In the case of bushfires, the military metaphor is particularly inappropriate. It suggests that the deep challenges of global warming , which can be addressed only by strong leadership and by the mobilisation of local communities, will be solved by a centralised command and control model based on the adaptation of sophisticated technology. The fact that a major Canberra fire was started by an air force plane is a parable of the inadequacy of such an approach.

A better metaphor for responding to bushfires may be that of public health, with its emphasis on the causes of illness, the social context in which it flourishes, and the variety of relationships that need to be addressed in its care. In public health the dominant metaphor is one of nurturing. Clinical intervention is set within a policy of sustaining health and preventing illness.

Even in meeting the public health challenge of responding to addiction, however, governments have preferred at heavy cost to adopt the metaphor of waging war on drugs. That preference itself is a sign of addiction.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Two toy soldiers pointing guns at each other (Getty images/Jorg Greuel)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, metaphors, politics



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Existing comments

Metaphors can be useful in conveying ideas about a topic. However, the use of metaphor can not convey the whole of a complexity, even when gentle metaphors are used. As noted in the article, the overuse of metaphor, particularly in a militaristic way can be counter-productive, and counter-productive to such an extent that waters are then muddied. The situation becomes more confusing and the person(s) at the centre can feel besieged (another military metaphor!). This would be particularly relevant to those people dealing with the aftermath of the bushfire crisis. Is there a cure for mixed metaphors?

Pam | 26 February 2020  

St Ignatius of Loyola had been an extremely brave and severely wounded soldier prior to having a genuine, life changing spiritual experience. After that experience he moved on completely from military life, and, as far as I am aware, spoke no more of war. Religion encourages us to approach things from a deeper level within ourselves. That does not mean we ignore real life problems, such as the bushfires, but approach them in a different way. The late Tim Fischer AC, former Deputy Prime Minister, who I knew slightly and admired greatly, had a distinguished record in Vietnam. As far as I am aware he never mentioned this and did not approach politics as if it were a species of warfare. His own bravery at the end of his life with a fatal illness showed real spiritual courage, which is a different thing to battlefield or sporting courage. John Anderson AO, another former Deputy Prime Minister is someone else who strikes me as being morally centred - he is, like Tim, what I would term a genuine, believing and practicing Christian - who possesses the courage to speak out on important issues. We need more like them.

Edward Fido | 26 February 2020  

Was the headline a pun?

Greg Wilks | 26 February 2020  

Onward, Christian soldiers..., huh? Like it or not, our day to day language and words become misappropriated both in metaphor and misuse; I guess the reality is often those influencers with a platform are most likely to make their case using hyperbole and metaphor but the audience misinterpret as factual or appropriate to the cause. Our sophisticated moral society condemns racism but promotes primative tribalist competition in sport, often delineated by region, state and nation and few can be so naive to suggest that some of the players and audience aren't influenced to deplore the opponents. Many common words and expressions have military, seafaring and agricultural origins; as subsequent generations "own" the language the history may become obscured or lost. Perhaps the adaptations will be fads; you'd be decidedly out-of-order to use the term "groovy" for anything contemporary... and perhaps the war on words (and their misuse in extreme pleading) is similarly a passing phase but methinks nay.

ray | 26 February 2020  

Is it apt then to talk of “proper” wars?

Gerard | 27 February 2020  

Wonderful, thank you. The gardening metaphor for serious illness is particularly apt. Many people are uncomfortable with the conversion of Anzac day from a quiet reflective commemoration, into a chest-beating exhibition of Australian military exceptionalism, to say nothing of a procession of military figures as governors-general, and the selection of another military person to run the bushfire enquiry. There are better models for communities struggling with grave problems.

Llewellyn Davies | 27 February 2020  

The Australian war on refugees and men women and children who came by sea to seek protection from persecution has damaged my well being and pease of mind since 1992, with innocents taken political hostage and incarcerated in isolated immigration prisons, out it sight, out of mind. Freedom of the media curtailed and controlled. Whistleblowers , warriors for justice designated “ the enemy” Jesus wept.

Frederika STEEN | 27 February 2020  

And RELIGION's war metaphors, ye Soldiers of the Cross? When he was their all-time champion salesman, he invented the "Free Gift" foot-in-the-door scam, with its introductory lie "I'm not here to sell you anything, but to deliver a free gift from the Fuller Brush Company". His U.S. State Department funded CRUSADES used Josef Goebbels inspired torchlight rallies. To appeal especially to West Germans, under "expert advice" he chose as theme song "How Great Thou Art", its tune better known and loved in Germany as the Horst Wessel Lied, marching song of the Nazi S.A. Hitler and Goebbels described their "War against Bolchevism" as a Crusade. Their genocidal invasion of the USSR was named after the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick "Barbarossa" whose "foe of the True Faith" was the Russian Orthodox Church. U.S. Bible Belt lynch mobs were "doing it for Jesus". Romanian Fascists who derisively "kosher killed" thousands of Jews in an abattoir were "doing it for the Mother of God" to the "Christ-killers" who had caused her such agony. Stabat Mater dolorosa Juxta crucem lachrymosa Dum pendebat Filius, but we've learned so little.

james marchment | 27 February 2020  

Three (civilian) cheers for Andrew Hamilton! Militarese, as a plagiarised subset of managerial gobbledegook, has grated on me ever since I was a part of CSIRO twenty-five years ago. It is language whose basis was wonderfully exploded in Don Watson's "Death Sentence". The cringe-making clichés that are foisted on hapless employees as the Mission Statements are possibly the worst of the lot. Their relentless and inescapable banality, the well-intentioned aspiration of the managerialist mediocre to be "world's-best" is far from the brilliant irony of Orwell's "all animals are created equal but some are more equal than others".

Fred Green | 27 February 2020  

Another insightful article Andrew. I must say although I am on the left side of politics and thinking in general this military language was something that has escaped my attention. If 'escape' is the appropriate word. Your comment re the bushfires is also worthy of reflection and, as Professor Alexander ‘Sandy’ McFarlane recently said, "Have we in Australia fallen into the trap, which suits those who wants the ‘business as usual’ scenario to continue to overemphasise the need for acute assistance which doesn't really give due credence to the importance of the long-term response”. As our want for military metaphor would have it, 'win the battle and lose the war'.

Tom Kingston | 27 February 2020  

'Most sorts of diversion in men, children and other animals, are in imitation of fighting.' Jonathan Swift Perhaps you are right Fr Andrew. "a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,' Ecclesiastes 3.2 Ecclesiastes 3.8 There is a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace." A lot of indocrination occurs at school and in sporting teams where winning at all costs is the objective. Any coach who does not achieve the goals set by the management committee, soon finds himself herself on the scrapheap. Even Jesus went to war on the money lenders in the temple. So are military or illness metaphors overdone? It depends on the context. I recently lost a sister to cancer but she refused medical intervention and believed prayer alone would save her. That didnt work. During the holocaust the inmates of the death camps prayed, but God was notably missing in action. I suppose nothing is truer than the axiom that God helps those who help themselves. If you are up against a superior enemy their is no choice but to fight.

francis Armstrong | 27 February 2020  

And when did a cricket match, or any sporting competition, become a "clash"? Infuriating.

Russell | 27 February 2020  

Thank you for a thought provoking reflection. I love the analogy from gardening. I will put that paragraph in my collection of quotes

Sheelah Egan | 27 February 2020  

Excellent article Andrew. Two other examples of poorly used military metaphors spring to mind. One is the use of “ground zero” for either the originating point of something (eg Wuhan for COVID 19) or the point of greatest activity (eg “These stores are ground zero for the Christmas sales”). Such use cheapens the fact that ground zero was the point on Earth’s surface directly below the aerial atomic bomb blasts of 1945. There were/ are no survivors at a ground zero. Recent months have seen occasional use of the phrase “the nuclear option” to describe a course of action that is big, dramatic, irrevocable. The possibility of a no-deal Brexit was so described. We must not do or say anything that would suggest that “the nuclear option” was, is or can ever be appropriate.

Gerard Hore | 27 February 2020  

Father Andrew, Brilliant, I was a Army conscript during the Vietnam years, so your essay reflects my feelings about inappropriate use of military terminology to describe every day events, particularly as applies to its use by our politicians. I absolutely detest its use in football matches on Anzac Day. Surely we are mature enough as a Nation for find more appropriate descriptors for every day 'battles' .

Gavin O'Brien | 27 February 2020  

I have long been saddened to hear over school loudspeakers children being encouraged to compose their sports teams "war cries". Thank you Father Andrew for highlighting this dreadful use of language and I accept it as a reminder to me to be more mindful of the way I speak.

Jo Ann | 27 February 2020  

Interesting how the military metaphor got into Christianity. Jesus was not a soldier. In fact, his country was occupied by the brutal Roman Empire, under which he suffered death. Jesus was also not a physical but a moral revolutionary. The nearest modern parallel to him I can see are those such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who were inspired by him to stand up for the ultimate truth, which is that God is the Greatest and no other authority is.

Edward Fido | 28 February 2020  

The military metaphor stands for unity in discipline and a brisk dedication to valour in the service of good. That is why that tripartite division of the Church that is on earth is 'Militant' and the saints go marching in.

roy chen yee | 29 February 2020  

Andrew H's point also has relevance to our country's problem of men on women violence. Here is what I recently left as feedback on the ABC website: "Dear Auntie, In the context of great national concern over domestic violence, following the family car burning death suicide, I draw the ABC's attention to its long-standing habit of using rhetorically violent language, gratuitously. The latest example was the report on ABC News, 9:00am, Thurs 27 Feb 20 where the news article was about Federal Parliamentarian Trent Zimmerman responding to critics of the Federal Government spending $10m (from memory) on upgrading a pool in his Sydney North Shore electorate - with money designated for regional and rural Australia. In stead of saying that Zimmerman "responded" or "replied" to the criticism his government was (rightly) receiving, the news article said Zimmerman "hit back" at his critics. I understand that "hit back" is more graphic, emotive and upbeat as a term, but it is also normalising violent behaviour and images. Another favourite I've noticed that ABC likes to use is "lashed out" when describing someone saying something with passion or justified anger over something (as Jackie Lambie is wont to do). Can I suggest, that given that we as a society are looking to marginalise violence in the home, that we also marginalise violence in our speech, as a good starting point. It has been observed in far-right white supremacist groups that their rhetorical violence often proceeds actual violence, and sets a favourable context for actual violence. Less gratuitous violent language please Auntie".

Rex Graham | 03 March 2020  

Perhaps the military metaphors are just part and parcel of the combative and aggressive culture that we seem to be developing, that starts with the verbal abuse by our politicians in parliament, is made manifest in our willingness to deploy armed forces rather than diplomacy, and ends in domestic and community violence.

Ginger Meggs | 03 March 2020  

“The military metaphor stands for unity in discipline and a brisk dedication to valour in the service of good.” No, roy, it stands, rather, for lots of things besides, like seeing enemies among your neighbours/fellow creatures and beating/crushing them. As far removed from Jesus’ message as you can get. “That is why that tripartite division of the Church that is on earth is 'Militant' and the saints go marching in.” No, roy, wrong again, the Church on earth is ‘militant’ because the coiners of the term (and the ecclesiology) wanted to express the Church and their programme as a weapon of conquest, not a relationship of humility and love. And no, if ‘saints’ (even in the Paulian sense) and sainthood mean anything worthwhile, the military metaphor and the image of serried ranks ill fit the reality of the kind of holiness we recognise universally and admire rather than tremble before.

smk | 03 March 2020  

smk: “it stands, rather, for lots of things besides….” Which goes back to how you want to see it. Both the Menin Gate and My Lai are real but one is the paradigm and the other a transitory episode of a fall from grace. Just as Anzac dawn services are the paradigm and the spitting on returned servicemen from Vietnam a transitory episode of a fall from grace. Paradigms continue to last and transitory falls from grace continue to recur. Which of these you prefer to see is a question of whether the bottle you bear is half full or half empty.

roy chen yee | 06 March 2020  

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