And What War Would You Like Today, Sir?
By the end of World War 2, the most destructive war in history, the United Kingdom was spending over 50% of GDP on the military. The USA a little less as a percentage, but still over 40%. Contrast this with today, where most national military expenditure as a percentage of GDP seldom exceeds 3%.
These sorts of figures from the past can help portray the immense impact that being on a war footing can have on an economy and society. These figures, of course, do not include the disruption to everyday lives, nor the massive, and often tragic, personal and social costs of war.
And yet we persist on using war type analogies for so many issues. It is as if using this type of phraseology helps define both the problem and its solution.
- The War on Weeds – (Gorse, Old Man’s Beard, Wilding Pines) – every country no doubt has its share of unwanted plants.
- The War on Pests – (wasps, stoats, rats, ants) and so many others depending on where you are.
- The War on Poverty – this is a little mind-blowing that you can go to war over the problem of helping those less fortunate.
- The War on Homelessness
- The War on COVID – I don’t need to go into depth on that one
- The War on Obesity
- The War on Corruption
- The War on Drugs
And so many more. Seldom in the daily news is there not a mention of a war on some issue or another.
Why do we use this type of phraseology?
My take is we use this type of phraseology as we seek to simplify what can be complex problems. When you go to war you have the good guys (that’s us and the things we value), and the bad guys, that is, the others and the things we don’t value. Everything to do with that problem now becomes straightforward – there are good guys (us), and there are bad guys (the enemy or even merely, the others).
Of course, when you go to war, you are anticipating that one side, preferably yours, will be the victor and the other side will be the vanquished. Nice and tidy. Winners and losers.
Yet looking at the shortlist above, which of these “wars” has ever actually been won? What does winning even mean? Which ones are even possible to “win”.
None of them.
Every time we use “the war on xxxxx” I now think to myself one of several things. First is the thought that there will be no outcome from this “conflict”.
Second, undertaking “the war on xxxxx” will allow the diversion of resources possibly way better utilised elsewhere. After all “the war on xxxxx” has to be more important than other problems. Those who would question it can be put in their place by reinforcing that this is a war, don’t they know. Get with the cause!
Thirdly is the problem with the very use of this type of phraseology. Defining issues as a war style conflict limits our thinking around dialogue and the search for alternative solutions. The very act of describing a problem in warlike terms precludes research into those alternative solutions and narrows our focus.
Lastly, the use of terms such as “the war on xxxxx” harms society as a whole. It encourages us to pursue conflict rather than seek cooperation. It promotes an us versus them mentality. Daily our television screens are full of how this promotion of conflict plays out in real life.
Let’s do something radical. Let’s do away with all these wars, and instead expand our thinking to look for meaningful alternatives. Let us consign “the war on xxxxx” to history.