War. What is it good for? A lot of bad analogies.

War. What is it good for?

When Edwin Starr sang those words nearly forty years ago, he was referring to a real war – the war in Vietnam.

But I think the same question could be asked about the many “unreal” wars, too – as when “war” is used as an analogy for really difficult problems.

And my answer would be be the same: absolutely nothing.

Obviously “war” gets invoked as a way to talk about a lot of things that have nothing to do with real armies trying to overcome one another with weapons. Think of the “War on Poverty,” for example.

But I think it gets invoked way too often and too loosely, causing us lots of problems. It’s an example of hyperbolic language that obscures what’s going on.

I’ve written before about the “war on terrorism.” I think this was a horrible analogy for what could have been better conceived as a policing struggle – or maybe even an intelligence struggle – against extremists.

I’ve written before about how ridiculous it is that the Republicans are trying to say that President Obama has declared a war on the rich.

And now again this morning we have an example of the loose use of “war” that really doesn’t do us any good.

Steven Pearlstein writes in today’s Washington Post about how he thinks politicians are insufficiently focused on economy and concludes this way:

What we are facing is the economic equivalent of a war — a war that caught us by surprise and threatens much of what we have taken for granted. It’s a war we can win, but only if we have leaders and opinion makers who commit to difficult sacrifices, a sustained effort and serious changes in the way things are done.

I get his point. We have really bad times going on right now, and we all have to focus on the important stuff and get down to business.

But “war?” That’s more than overstating it. We have a series of economic technical issues that we have to resolve (household indebtedness, currently insolvent banking system, crashing real economy), and we have a series of political problems to resolve (re-ordering power away from the financial services sector, developing new regulations, rebalancing income and wealth inequality).

None of these is simple. But I certainly do not think anything is helped by referring to this difficult mess as a “war.” Who are the armies? What capitols are we trying to conquer?

This ending is even stranger given the paragraph right before it:

Too often, the media have accepted uncritically all manner of hyperbole and misinformation peddled by people talking about their trading books, wielding partisan axes or pursuing ideological agendas. While there are plenty of reasons for populist outrage at the behavior of major financial institutions, the titillating focus on bonuses and boondoggles has been way out of proportion. And thanks to the media, much of what now passes for conventional wisdom about the government’s response to the crisis amounts to little more than a childish disappointment that officials have been unable to wave a magic wand, throw a couple of hundred billion dollars worth of fairy dust in the air and make the whole thing disappear.

That paragraph alone has enough “hyperbole and misinformation” of its own, but it’s just downright ironic given that he goes on to talk about “economic war.”

I say enough. Enough war-talk. It’s a bad analogy that’s more destructive than constructive.

And let’s not strip the word of its power. Let’s save it for the real deal – that ugly enterprise in which people fight and die.

(Cross-posted to dailykos.)

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