COLUMN: Wartime metaphors can hide the truth


Ian Palacios

Ian Palacios, Columnist

Russia has recently invaded Ukraine. And though the world might seem peaceful given our high standards of living and relatively tranquil lives in the US, the world–and more specifically people–are often more dangerous than we might like to think.

With this in mind, I’d like to consider some of the ways people use language to deceive us, specifically in the context of war.

Metaphors can hide the true actors in military conflict. Consider my first sentence, ‘Russia has recently invaded Ukraine.’ Taken literally, this cannot be true, since Russia is a country, and countries cannot act. A more accurate translation would be ‘Putin commanded his military to invade Ukraine, and Russia’s military followed Putin’s orders.’ Though this sentence is unnecessarily long, it preserves something the first sentence doesn’t: the true actor.

When we say, “Russia invaded Ukraine,” we use a metaphor called metonymy whereby we substitute a referent with a commonly associated attribute of that referent. In this case we substitute ‘Putin’ with ‘Russia.’ Thus, Russia invaded Ukraine.

And despite the metaphor’s brevity, the cost is twofold. First, it hides that Putin commanded the military invasion–Putin furthered the conflict, not Russia–and second, the metaphor asserts that Russia as a whole invaded Ukraine, implying a kind of unity across the country, whereas many Russians (and possibly most) may not want to engage in military conflict.

This is important because if we accept these claims at face value, we become susceptible to subtle manipulation, which we use to form our beliefs and guide our actions. Furthermore, we may forget that Putin is responsible–not Russia and not the Russian people.

People die in war. Someone’s sister, people’s fathers, thousands of humans are ordered to be killed in war. We shouldn’t pretend a country did it.

A second form of linguistic manipulation comes in overstated metaphors. Former US Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich tweeted on Feb. 21, “The Biden administration talks and Putin acts. This is such a clear replay of Chamberlain trying to deal with Hitler that it is more than a little frightening.”

Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict is not literally a replay of Chamberlain dealing with Hitler, we have to see what this metaphor is trying to assert.

Gingrich’s tweet asserts that the situation between the Biden administration and Putin is the situation between former UK Prime Minister Chamberlain and Hitler. And since we don’t take this literally, we are supposed to see a strong similarity between the two.

However, we ought to be critical of how close the similarities really are. In hindsight, we can tell that military conflict was necessary to stop Nazi Germany. So, if we assume Gingrich’s claim is true, we infer that we ought to respond to Russia in the same way we ought to have responded to Germany. But this is false: we should not respond to Russia as if they were Nazi Germany.

Be on the lookout for metaphors. They’re often sneaky.

Ian Palacios is an English and philosophy major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]