William K. Wolfrum over at Shakesville took another blogger to task for a metaphor he found pretty offensive. The blogger compared the war in Iraq to a rape—sort of. He said, in part:

A rapist was caught by a police officer, in flagrante delicto, and held up a hand calmly and authoritatively commanding: "Back off, officer, I'm going to need to be as careful getting out as I was careless getting in."
Now, let’s set aside for a moment any discussion of whether or not the metaphor is accurate (it isn't) or that the victim in his metaphor is invisible (it is) and that he's conflating the person who began the war (King George the Lesser) with the person likely tasked to end it (the next President). The question I have is “why use metaphors to describe something as horrific as war?”

I think that when we use metaphors in everyday speech and in writing, we do so because we’re trying to wrap our minds around a difficult concept, and so we use analogs to get a rough approximation to use as a starting point for further understanding. Sometimes we’ll use them as a way to limit the discourse when the underlying subject is so abstract and subjective that we need to set borders just to be able to know where to begin.

But if we have a concrete subject under discussion, then metaphor is less necessary, because we don’t need approximations—the reality is more powerful on its own than any metaphor could ever hope to be. War, if discussed honestly, is one of those subjects, I believe, and I think war poetry helps bear that out.

Let’s use one of the most famous war poems of the 20th century as a starting point—Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Owen’s description of the soldiers who “had lost their boots, / but limped on, blood-shod” is powerful precisely because it doesn’t try to compare them to anything—it simply describes them as they are, and that’s enough. Compare these two phases:
his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Which is more immediate? Certainly the description, because it requires less translation. It relies less on knowledge of devils and their relationship to sin and the Christian tradition in general. If you’re trying to accurately portray the horror of the aftermath of mustard gas attack, of the way it melts the unprotected lungs and causes the victim to drown in his own fluids, the description is far more effective than the metaphor (and that’s a pretty good metaphor in its own right).

In her poem “The Colonel,” Carolyn Forché deals with the limitations of metaphor as well. In fact, her poem is almost nothing but flat, plain description, and even when she uses a trope, it’s explanatory: “On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores.” That’s it for the comparisons.

So why treat her subject so bluntly? Forché says why, in her poem. “There is no other way to say this.” Indeed. To tell it in any other way would be to lie, and she says in the first line of the poem “What you have heard is true.”

Because in the end, a metaphor is always an approximation. That doesn’t preclude metaphors from being true, or even accurate, but they're never exact, even at their best, and some subjects are so powerful that to approximate them is to undercut the truth about them. No, war needs to be addressed directly, not with euphemism or witty rejoinder or cute example, but head-on, because unless we face the ugly realities of it, and refuse to soften its face with false comparisons, we'll never bring an end to it. And people will continue to suffer and die needlessly.

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