A Disastrous Metaphor: Waging Domestic War

How the metaphor of war came to define US law and policy on drugs and other major social issues
J. Reed Brundage, Ph.D.

A review and summary of “The Model of War” (Journal of Political Theory, April 1, 2010; v. 38: pp. 214-242) by Jeremy Elkins, Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science of Bryn Mawr College.
Following the Spanish-American War the U.S. acquired the Philippines from Spain. At that time, opium addiction constituted a significant problem in the civilian population of the Philippines. It was also a significant and growing social problem in the continental United States, especially among immigrants of Chinese descent. (China had been forced to accept the importation of opium, which it previously banned, as the outcome of Britain’s “Opium Wars” in the mid-nineteenth century. Britain wanted to import opium into China to pay for its purchase of tea.)             
Charles Henry Brent, an American Episcopal bishop who served as Missionary Bishop of the Philippines, convened a Commission of Inquiry, known as the Brent Commission, for the purpose of examining alternatives to a licensing system for opium addicts. The Commission recommended that narcotics should be subject to international control. The recommendations of the Brent Commission were endorsed by the United States Department of State and in 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt  called for an international conference, which was held in Shanghai in February 1909. A second conference was held at The Hague in May 1911, and out of it came the first international drug control treaty, the International Opium Convention of 1912. (From: Wikipedia.org)
Following on these international actions, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 was passed in part to keep opium away from Chinese immigrants, marijuana from Mexican immigrants, and cocaine from Negroes. This law began the United States prohibition-centered ‘war on drugs’.  Nearly sixty years later, the administration of President Richard Nixon achieved the passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 and began the current battle in the ‘War on Drugs’.  In 1986, President Ronald Reagan instituted his own surge in this ‘War’.  (See America's CrusadeTime Magazine, 09.15.1986).  This ‘warcontinues unabated today. For Mexico, our next-door neighbor, it has become an actual, armed war.

The dire consequences of the application of the paradigm or metaphor of war to frame the drug issue is clearly stated in the introduction to After the War on Drugs, Blueprint for Regulation, published in 2009 by the London-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation:
"...the presentation of drugs as an existential ‘threat’ has generated a policy response within which (scientifically unsupported) and radical measures are justified. Drug policy has evolved within a context of ‘securitization’, characterized by increasing powers and resources for enforcement and state security apparatus. The outcomes of this strategy, framed as a drug ‘war’, include the legitimization of propaganda, and the suspension of many of the working principles that define more conventional social policy, health or legal interventions.

Given that the War on Drugs is predicated on ‘eradication’ of the ‘evil’ drug threat as a way of achieving a ‘drug free world’, it has effectively established a permanent state of war. This has led to a high level policy environment that ignores critical scientific thinking, and health and social policy norms. Fighting the threat becomes an end in itself and as such, it creates a largely self-referential and self-justifying rhetoric that makes meaningful evaluation, review and debate difficult, if not impossible.

One has to ask: How did the paradigm of ‘war’ gain such power, becoming the controlling framework for defining the issue of psychotropic drugs use and for determining government response to their use in the United States, and – through the United Nations’ Conventions on Drugs – in the world?  How did war become our world-view?

In his paper, “The Model of War” (Journal of Political Theory, April 1, 2010; v. 38: pp. 214-242), Professor Elkins addresses this question with great insight. He analyzes thpenchant of the United States presidents, over the past half-century, to apply the metaphor of ‘war’ not only to the drug issue but alsto othermajor social issues – cancer, poverty and crime – thereby defining their character and creating a paradigm that determines the policies and laws enacted to address them. The metaphor also establishes the media’s presentation and the public’s understanding of these issues.  (Professor Elkins also analyzes the domestic dimensions of the ‘War on Terror,’ a most serious matter, but not part of our focus here. An earlier version of the paper was entitled “The Metaphor of War.”)

In essence, Professor Elkins’ answer to the question, “Why ‘war’?” is: by applying the paradigm of war metaphorically to social problems, the government ‘constructs’ or transforms those problems into enemies external to the body politic – that is, to the government and the citizenry. This transformation frees the body politic of any responsibility for the problems and justifies strategies, actions and funding designed to counter-attack, conquer and eradicate these alien invaders from our land. This paper reviews and summarizes Professor Elkins’ analysis of how this transformation has been effected in each of the ‘metaphorical wars’ against cancer, poverty, crime and drugs.

The Long History of ‘Metaphorical Wars
Elkins relates the use of the metaphor of war to define social issues and set social policy and law to the US victory in World War II and the onset of the Cold War. However, such use actually goes back more than a century, to just after the end of the Civil War.  The beginning of the Women´s Christian Temperance Union, in 1873, lay in ‘Women’s Crusades’— protest demonstrations held at saloons and stores that sold liquor. This crusade ‘achieved victory’ with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920. The Harrison Act of 1914 was passed in this context. After World War I, the WCTU declared a ‘world war on liquor, seeking to expand prohibition of liquor sales world-wide. Prohibition led to a virtual real war against the rum runners. When Prohibition ended in 1933, J. Edgar Hoover, director of what was to become the FBI, launched a war on crime, against bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde.

The Cold War against communism, which dominated government policy and the public consciousness for forty years, served as the context for the use of the metaphor of war in the second half of the twentieth century. It also served as a model for attacking citizens of the United States who were perceived as internal enemies.

The Psychological and Political Function of Metaphor: Transforming political problems into alien enemies
Metaphors, together with symbols, are the language of what Sigmund Freud called ‘primary process, as differentiated from the ‘secondary process of rational thought. They are the language of the emotional part of our minds. Felt emotions are the outcomes of our unconscious, instinctive and instantaneous evaluations of aspects of the world as supportive of (good) or dangerous (bad) for our personal well-being, that is, for our survival. When this evaluation assesses something as dangerous, our instinctive reaction is one of ‘fight or flight’.  To use the metaphor of war to define a reality in our world as an ‘enemy’, to be fought via an attack’,connects our perception of that reality directly to this instinctive, primal emotional reaction.

Elkins analyzes the political functions of using the emotionally charged metaphor of ‘war, to define social and political problems. Through the metaphor of ‘war’, the government constructs or transforms domestic issues into alien ‘othersforeign enemies perceived as invading forces. This expulsion of problems from the body politic and their projection onto external enemies enables both politicians and citizens to:
i)                 Deny the problems’ origins within the political and economic system of the nation and thus deny any responsibility for their existence.
ii)                Maintain the illusion that the nation and its citizens are healthy, whole and good.
iii)              Take actions justified as necessary to ‘defend the citizens who are defined as ‘victims’ of the ‘attacks’ of the ‘enemy’.

As these ‘enemies – poverty, crime and drugs – are, in reality, abstractions that cannot actually be ‘attacked, the target of such attacks readily becomes people perceived as carriers or purveyors of the enemy danger, most specifically, the poor, African-Americans and others perceived as outcasts from the body politic.
The following analysis of the wars on cancer, crime and drugs is abstracted from Professor Elkins’ paper.

The ‘War on Cancer’:  Making the internal into the external
Elkins sets the stage: Cancer is a disease characterized by the inability of the body to regulate the abnormal growth of cells. It can also be approached as a public health issue when environmental causes are considered. However, when President Nixon declared a war on cancerdescribing it as one of mankind’s deadliest and most elusive enemies,” and Congress passed the National Cancer Act of 1971 to “advance the national attack upon cancer,” cancer became defined in terms of an external enemy.

This definition of cancer as an external enemy made it possible for the government and government funding to avoid addressing what Dr. Samuel Epstein, a leading cancer researcher and critic of the ‘war’ model, described as, “a strong body of scientific evidence point[ing] to the role of run-away industrial technologies [as] the predominant cause of the modern cancer epidemic.

Thus, as Elkins writes, “The declaration of war asserts that cancer is... not even partly of our making.…  The nation [is], in its true essence, innocent of cancer and thus always and only a victim and a defender of the health of the nation.

The ‘War on Poverty’:  Making victims into the enemy             
Initially, the ‘War on Poverty, as defined by President Johnson...was an attack on poverty’s causes, seen at least partly as lying in the failures of the body politic. However, attacking these causes would have required major political confrontations with national, state and local government political powers, structures and laws that benefited the middle and upper classes. Therefore, Elkins deduces, “The Johnson administration…framed (the anti-poverty program) in a way that did not threaten the interests of middle class voters. [It] largely avoided taking on directly federal, state, and local policies that benefited various segments of the middle class.”

Subsequently, poverty was described by Johnson as “the most ancient of mankind’s enemies,” now to “be driven from the land; hence, the war on poverty came to be fought not as though it were a remedy for a defect of the body politic, but as though it were aimed at a condition that was not our own.

Elkins sums up:  As the ‘war on poverty’ “…came to be fought as though poverty were a foreign enemy, [it] increasingly came to treat the poor themselves… as an entity outside of the body politic. The shadow of the alien ‘enemy easily fell upon those who…lived outside of the mainstream of American society. The ‘war’ became a…means for pacifying the black, urban ghettoes.

The ‘War on Crime’:  War becomes a Moral Crusade
Elkins: “…The war on crime presents crime not as a consequence...of any general failure of the body politic, but, again, as something that comes wholly upon the nation from without.” [Emphasis added]

Elkins continues: “Significantly different from the other two ‘wars, the externalization of crime from the nation relies…on an act of moral judgment.... The nation´s perceived character is defined not by its reality, including whatever it may have done to help create conditions of crime. In the ‘war on crime, the nation´s character is defined by its moral stance against crime.

“Citizens and their political leaders are united precisely by perceiving themselves as identical with the moral ideal, the conscience, of its members.… They sharethe collective fantasy that the nation, by identifying itself with what it would like to be, does not consist in what it does. Consequently, what is ‘outside’ the nation is determined by moral disapproval.  [I]n condemning crime, the nation … distinguishes itself from [crime]… casting off whatever aspects of social life run against the moral law as foreign to it.  [Emphasis added]

“The nation and its members, identified with the morally good, are then perceived solely as victims of crime.… Every criminal act…against a member is thus(transformed into) an act of war against the ideal that binds the nation. Therefore, the war on crime (is presented as a) defensive war by that nation in the name of that ideal.” Such a war is a crusade.
Elkins continues:  “On the other side of the moral law stand those who commit acts of crime.  Particular criminal acts, and those who commit them, are defined as...external to the body politic and as an invasion of it.  These hostile persons are… an alien entity living in the body politic, but not really of it. 

The language of war also encourages the idea that individual acts of crime are part of a collective criminal force, an enemy army arrayed against the nation.… Reagan’s first Attorney General, Edwin Meese … described that war in no uncertain terms: as part of a centuries-old attempt to maintain ‘Western Civilization against a barbarian- typeinvasion. Criminals...are distinguished from citizens, and…made into an organized enemy…no longer individual citizens, but an ‘element’.

Elkins concludes: “The metaphor of a war on crime also may easily, and …more chillingly, lead... to the conception of certain classes of persons as criminal-types. The war on crime…has notoriously been fought as a war against the ghettoes, and it has increasing been fought with the use of military-style tactics. Racial profiling has targeted whole classes of persons as criminally disposed.”

The ‘War on Drugs’: The metaphor creates a real war
By applying the metaphor of ‘war’ to the issue of psychotropic drug use, the government has defined the problem as one of ‘enemy’ drugs themselves and their supply, rather than one of the physiological, psychological and social forces that lead to drug use. The response, therefore, has been one prohibiting the supplying, sale and use of these drugs. Police, courts, prisons and military actions have been the primary instruments funded and used to ‘wage the war.

As Elkins writes, “The war on drugs … has differed from... the rest of the war on crime in an important respect. The war on crime has …been primarily associated with aggressive or violent street crimes … [In contrast] the war on drugs has included prominently in the enemy camp non-violent drug users—by far the largest category of drug arrestees.

Elkins goes on to say, “From the beginning…, the kinds of users… targeted by the war on drugs were also identified with groups… that were conceived as dangerous to the body politic independent of any criminal activity and independent of any threat to the individual bodies of othersInitially these ‘enemy groups were identified as the ‘counter-culture’.”
President Nixon, in private, but recorded, comments to his aides, directly tied these groups to the Cold War:  
Homosexuality, dope, immorality in general, these are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff;they’re trying to destroy us.

As Elkins points out, “Since the Reagan administration’s escalation on the war on drugs, the primary target has been not the left or a counter-culture... [The target is] a racialized underclass. The common image of the drug user during the years of the Reagan and first Bush administration was the black, ghetto crack addict, and the war on drugs has particularly targeted poorer African-Americans.… The war on drugs thus further fused [three] categories of outsider: the poor, blacks and the criminal, conceived as alien to the nation and its constitutive morality, hostile to it, and as needing to be contained.

Elkins adds, “The main argument for the drug war is the effect that drugs have on the character of their users and on the social fabric. William J. Bennett, the first President Bush’s first ‘drug czar’, argued:
The simple fact is that drug use is wrong. And the moral argument, in the end, is the most compelling argument[Emphasis addedcitizen in a drug-induced haze… is not what the founding fathers meant by the ‘pursuit of happiness’....  [O]ur nation’s notion of liberty is rooted in the ideal of a self-reliant citizenry’. The war against drugs is primarily motivated…by the intrinsically destructive nature of drugs and the toll they exact from our society.

Elkins concludes: “What makes [particular drugs – and not others, like alcohol and cigarettes]...the object of a...war… is that their use [is seen as] corrupt[ing] not merely the body and person of the user, but the body and character of the nation itself. The individual user thus appears not... as victim, but as aggressor: for in attacking her own body, she attacks the nation.… The enemy [resides] … in classes of users who threaten to do to the nation what they have done to themselves. [Thus], the ‘War on Drugs is a defensive battle for the soul of the nation.”

World War III (or IV): The Internationalization of the War on Drugs
Because many of the drugs whose use is problematic come from other countries, the United States has, since the 1970’s, used the United Nations to pressure other nations to adopt the same paradigm of a ‘War on Drugs. Through a series of UN Conventions, an international mandate has been created that extends this War on Drugs around the world.
In 1998 a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) was held to evaluate the effectiveness of the current repressive drug control regime. Mexico was the country that originally called for the 1998 UNGASS, aspiring to convene a forum for in-depth evaluation of global drug control policy. [Emphasis addedHowever, during the preparatory phase at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), an annual council of UN member nations, the effort at evaluation backfired and the UNGASS was reoriented towards an affirmation of prohibitionism, despite the obvious failure of current drug control policies. The General Assembly, in their consequent political declaration, gave the UN International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) the mandate "...to develop strategies with a view to eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008".  (From 2003 and 2005 papers by Martin Jelsma, Co-ordinator, Transnational Institute Drugs & DemocracyProgramme)

The self-defense argument described by Elkins is reflected in the United Nations’ World Drug Report of 2009Antonio Maria CostaExecutive Director of theUnited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (note the official merger of the two ‘wars’), writes in the Preface to the Executive Summary:

The end of the first century of drug control (it all started in Shanghai in 1909) coincided with the closing of the …decade launched in 1998 by a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. These anniversaries stimulated reflection on the effectiveness, and the limitations, of drug policy. The review resulted in the reaffirmation that illicit drugs continue to pose a health danger to humanity. That’s why drugs are, and should remain, controlled. With this sanction in mind, Member States confirmed unequivocal support for the UN Conventions that have established the world drug control system.  [Emphasis added]

Mr. Costa goes on to state, “Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled – they are controlled because they are harmful.” [Emphasis added]  And further, he links the international ‘war on drugs’ to the international ‘war on crime(It was Mr. Acosta who achieved the merger of the UN Office on Crime with his Office on Drugs.)

The most serious issue concerns organized crime. All market activity controlled by …authority generates parallel, illegal transactions. Drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro-economic dimensions that uses violence and corruption to mediate between demand and supply. The UNODC is well aware of the threats posed by international drug mafias. … we have highlighted the security menace posed by organized crime. --…Having started this drugs/crime debate, and having pondered it extensively, we have concluded that these drug-related, organized crime arguments are valid. They must be addressed. I urge governments to recalibrate the policy mix, without delay, in the direction of more controls on crime, without fewer controls on drugs. [Emphasis added]

The War Becomes Real in Mexico
Mexico is one of the nations from which or through which the prohibited drugs are supplied to the United States, the largest market in the world. This is, in part, because the ‘War on Drugs shut down supply routes from South America that passed through Florida.

Mexican President Calderon, upon his inauguration in 2006, initiated a literal War on Drugs, using the Mexican army and Federal police to attack the cartels that had grown up in the 1990’s to meet US demand. The United States, through the Merida Initiative, and its own domestic programs in the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Justice, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, politically and economically supports President Calderon and the Mexican government in this war. The US illegal drug market supplies the Mexican cartels with billions of dollars per year to fund their side of thar.

This War has cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. It furtherthe corruption of the Mexican government. It sows fear in the Mexican people and undermines the social fabric.

Given that the War on Drugs is predicated on ‘eradication’ of the ‘evil’ drug threat as a way of achieving a ‘drug free world’, it has effectively established a permanent state of war. This has led to a high level policy environment that ignores critical scientific thinking, and health and social policy norms. Fighting the threat becomes an end in itself and as such, it creates a largely self-referential and self-justifying rhetoric that makes meaningful evaluation, review and debate difficult, if not impossible.
Transform Drug Policy Foundation
All by way of a metaphor.