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Barack Obama's Mixed Military Metaphors

The Merriam-Webster dictionary notes that the word “campaign” dates back to the mid-17th century and has two meanings. The first is “a connected series of military operations forming a distinct phase of a war;” the second is “a connecting series of operations designed to bring about a particular result.” In the case of the latter, it has defined the political realm. Politics abounds with military metaphors: “standard-bearers” who speak in “bullets” and plan their operations in “war rooms,” while “veteran strategists” identify “battleground states” and rely on “partisans.”

Earlier this year while trying to energize conservatives, former Governor Sarah Palin was criticized for suggesting “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” Yet, presidential candidate Obama faced no such criticism from the left when, in a 2008 campaign speech, he invoked Sean Connery’s Officer Malone of The Untouchables regarding “the Chicago Way”: “if they bring a knife, we bring a gun.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to armed conflict, the administration has been wary of military naming conventions. The Global War on Terror, for example, has been subsumed by the far more benign and amorphous Overseas Contingency Operations and officials are also loathe to admit that there is a common theme among the 9/11 attacks, and the attempts by Richard Reid, Umar Abdulmutallab, Faisal Shahzad or the shootings by Major Nidal Hassan and Abdulhakim Muhammed or the New Jersey men recently tied to Al-Shabaab. If avoiding Islamic terminology in order to appeal to Muslim nations was the goal, then recent polls in other countries suggest that has failed.

What is far more curious is why the President began his speech last night about on an environmental disaster with a series of military metaphors: “an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” “we will fight this spill,” “our battle plan,” and “there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done,” as well as terms. No one is underestimating the damage this oil spill has done and the effects on Gulf Coast citizens, but we shouldn’t abandon phrases and concepts that define national security realities and use them only when they meet campaign or political opportunities.


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