Missiles, Masculinity and Metaphors

Against the Current, No. 31, March/April 1991

Anne Finger

WHAT IS THE language that the media uses to talk about the war in the Persian Gulf? How does this language distance us from the realities of war? How does it shape our perceptions? What are the metaphors that are marshaled to describe this war, and what underlying relations of power do they call upon?

The War As Game

“War in the Persian GuIf,” a male voice intones, as the words woosh onto the screen, with graphics in the background of troops scurrying across the desert, tanks moving. “I hate” Ted Koppel says, “to talk about this as if it were a football game, but this is the point in the season where the coach says to his players….”

As we have discussed the war in the college classes I teach, many students, even those who are not antiwar, have commented on television’s portrayal of the war as a combination video game/miniseries. The eager tones: “Saddam’s SCUDS knocked out of the sky by Patriot missiles.” “The historic thunder and lightning of Operation Desert Storm….” Flashing lights on a map indicate nuclear power plants that have been “hit” The planes bombing Kuwait and Iran are “busy birds.”

Score is kept 41 Iraqi planes downed, 750 planes to go. Missiles send back video as they hone in on their target, with the video ending when the video camera, the missile, and the target are all destroyed.
Voices reporting the shooting down of an Iraqi plane, exult,

We got bandits
That’s affirmative
Both flash.

Language that we can imagine coming, computer generated, from the video game at our local hang out We can only wonder how long it will be—and my guess is that it won’t be long at all—before there is a video game at the corner arcade where we can drop in a quarter and play “War in the Persian Gulf.”

Along with the video game metaphor, we nave the sports metaphor Football seems to be the sport of choice, whether that’s because of the season or because of the violence inherent in the sport Experts talk about whether the “goal posts” are going to be moved; Koppel sees George Bush as the “coach,” and the U.S. public as the “players,” and the State of the Union address becomes the half-time talk. A recent headline in the Detroit Free Press referred to the allies “scor[ing] points.”

In fact, Topps, the manufacturer of bubblegum cards, has just come out with a line of Desert Storm trading cards. Cards will feature both human “players”—Colin Powell, General Schwartzkopf—and non-human ones—the Patriot missile, the Bradley tank.

These metaphors distance us from the reality of war, from the fact that this is not a game, that we have not dropped a quarter in the machine, that the game will not be over when a computer chip wipes the screen cleat Real human beings have been killed in these flashing points of light.

But they do more than that: they also marshal deeply embedded notions about masculinity. Video games and organized sports, although women can and do participate in them, are culturally coded as masculine activities. Implicit in all these metaphors is a depiction of war as a male activity, and a calling forth of more chauvinism to build support for the war.

Objectivity and Detachment

In stark contrast to the media’s boosterism, there is on the part of military spokesmen (and they are, almost always, men) a language of seeming “objectivity;” a masculine rationality that emphases order, control, distance: “masculine” reason unclouded by “feminine” emotion.

Major General Brandtner states in answer to a question about civilian casualties: “We are using the kind of ordinance necessary to destroy the target and the answer [is] that we do not target civilians so therefore the bomb doesn’t have an effect on that aspect” Language like: “The missiles that have impacted ‘collateral damage.'” Cohn Powell’s constant talk about the “tools” in his “toolbox” all serve to keep us from thinking about what war really is.

Allied operations are war Collateral damage is the death of civilians. Bombing sorties and missions—which sound almost religious, as if Iraq were being bombarded with Bibles or holy water sprinkled from the air—kill Iraqi soldiers, other Iraqi men, women and children. The `tools’ in Colin Powell’s “toolbox” include anti-personnel weapons, nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and a “fuel air explosive,” the descendant of napalm, which, according to a Detroit Free Press report of February 8, “scorch[edj jungle landscapes” in Vietnam. Conveniently forgotten are the people who lived in those jungle landscapes who were also “scorched.”

In this system of military language, only weapons are humanized: Patriot missiles are “smart” they have “eyes” and “brains.” Patriot missiles, you will recall, were developed as a part of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a program that would, Reagan promised, make nuclear weapons “impotent.”

The Rape of Kuwait

In his State of the Union address, Bush spoke of the “rape” of Kuwait. Kuwait thus becomes female, the victim of a rapacious Arab rapist, a man whose insatiable appetites must be checked. This implicitly portrays a man of color as a rapist (and George Bush knows well what tremendous weight that carries in the U.S. psyche), and draws upon the congruent image of the U.S. military as male defenders of the innocent ravaged female.

The week of February 12, the front page of the National Enquirer: read (under a masthead that bore an American flag and the legend ‘Support Our Troops”):

Saddam Hussein: His own bodyguard’s terrifying story
Saddam executes his young lovers
His evil sex life
His passion for “Little House on the Prairie.”

Inside, we learn that “Saddam Hussein sleeps with up to three women a night… .Several girls who shared Saddam’s bed were brutally murdered to ensure their silence. Hussein celebrated Arab holy days by having wild sex romps with three girls at a time—some as young as fifteen.”

While no one would claim that the National Enquirer is a serious, or even a believable, journal, it does offer us a unique view into the psyche of at least a portion of the U.S. public You may recall that after the U.S. invasion of Panama, it became absolutely essential for every U.S. citizen to know that Manuel Noriega kept pornography in his closet.

These images of rape and demonization allow two things to be ignored: As Susan Brownmiller amply documented in Against Our Will, real, not just metaphoric, women are subjected to rape in war: indeed, women become an integral part of the spoils of war. The demonization of Hussein keeps the public from asking some concrete questions: If the United States is attacking him because he is a dictator, then how does the government explain our warmth towards the Saudi royal family, the emir of Kuwait, the government of Syria, to name just a few of the non-democratic (or perhaps anti-democratic would be more accurate) regimes Washington is currently cozy with? Why was Hussein a “moderate” according to U.S. policy when he was sending his troops to slaughter and be slaughtered during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, worthy of weapons sales from the West and loans from the United States? Why didn’t Washington object when strikes were crushed, when Communists and other oppositionists were tortured to death and their bodies displayed on Iraqi TV?

The Gender Gap in War

I don’t mean to suggest that women are universally on the side of peace and men are testosterone-poisoned warriors, biologically predetermined to kill. Claudia Koonz, in her Mothers in the Fatherland. Women, the Family and Nazi Politics, has detailed how women and women’s “matemalism” were marshalled during the Nazi period on behalf of fascism and military.

To reject the notion of a universal, peaceful female, a giver of life who invariably stands against an eternally masculine warrior, is not to deny the powerful insights that a feminist analysis of the language of war can bring.

Nor is to deny that our experiences as women—as survivors of violence (frequently, although not alwaysperpetrated by men), of rape and other assaults, of birth, mothering, of caring for children, our experience of living up dose to the devastation wrought by the social policies of the last decades, our experiences of clearing up the messes of others, on a scale from the most humble on up—are factors that have shaped the current “gender gap” in support for the war The language of the media both shapes and is shaped by a broad social perception that war is masculine, and draws upon deeply embedded notions of gender support for this war.

March-April 1991, ATC 31