Ours is a uniquely demilitarised society. War and service are remote from everyday civilian experience. Perhaps in consequence, our language abounds in the crassest military metaphors. Take for instance “the war on x,” where x stands for an abstract entity. The original such war was Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, but the formula was later adapted to crime, drugs and, of course, terror. Britain and America are now engaged simultaneously in a number of these notional wars, many of them headed, bizarrely, by “tsars.”
Perhaps we decadents need military rhetoric to rouse us from our lethargy. But it is nonetheless dangerous. Wars—as opposed to, say, police operations—are fought in hope of a final, definitive victory, or at least a favourable truce. Nothing like this is possible in a war against drugs or terror. Victory here is an ever-receding target; there is always scope for one more push, one more curtailment of liberty. Perpetual war is, as George Orwell saw, the handmaiden of perpetual tyranny.
Another recently popular military metaphor is that of battling, as in “he battled bravely with cancer.” Here the error is one of misplaced voluntarism. Generally speaking, one does not battle with cancer; one dies of it. Mental resolve may help at the margins, but even the strongest will to live is powerless against the body’s decay. Victims should not be miscast as heroes.
Finally, there is the misuse of “courage” and its antonym, “cowardice.” Courage was once primarily a military virtue; now, detached from military life, its meaning has dissipated. Thus novelist Julie Myerson is said to show courage in writing about her son’s drug addiction, Madonna in masturbating in public. But brazen self-exposure is, as Aristotle pointed out, not courageous but shameless. This distinction has now all but vanished.
Meanwhile “coward” has undergone an even stranger transformation of meaning. IRA terrorists were conventionally called cowardly, because they refused to meet their enemies in open combat. This usage was then transferred, unthinkingly, to suicide bombers, who are of course anything but cowardly. No one protests at the solecism; it is as if we no longer expect political language to make any sense. Moral judgements have become what the philosopher AJ Ayer always said they were: meaningless grunts of approval or abuse.