It’s a war. I view it as a – in a sense – a wartime president.

– President Donald Trump, March 18, 2020

“It’s a war” is the mother of all metaphors when people talk about disease. Patients, doctors, and fundraisers for charities vow to fight an “invisible enemy.” Who is the enemy? Mosquitos and bacteria might qualify with diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, but the most potent killers in societies like ours are heart disease and cancer, and the enemy is us – our own clogged plumbing and cells gone haywire. With pop-up viruses like COVID-19 and flu, the “enemy” is a protein blob, not a living thing in the usual sense: more like a self-propagating chemical than a bug.

Might as well declare “war” on lime scale or rust.

The war metaphor is first declared in primary school, where children learn the immune system is an army that attacks invaders with an array of specialized weapons – white blood cells, fever, and a flood of fluids. In action, the immune system could just as well be compared to a mob of villagers with pitchforks, torches, and too many tankards of ale – sometimes killing the patient along with the germ.

In the context of a life-threatening disease, such as cancer, the war metaphor is meant to affirm the value of a human life. Never surrender. The “fight” is stubborn resistance – against the pain of scorched-earth treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Victory is a Korean standoff called remission.

In the context of a pandemic, “war” means casualties piling up in hallways and hospital staff under constant threat. Chaos and waste: 21st century diagnostic machines and not enough cotton swabs.

COVID-19 killed more Americans in three months than the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Korea. Throughout history, deaths from plague, smallpox, cholera, meningitis, and other diseases have far outrun military casualties. The “war against disease” is a tail wagging the dog.

Humans have the instinct for fight-or-flight, and we are fascinated by battle to the death, so the appeal of the war metaphor is understandable – even though most of our accomplishments and well-being arise from purposeful work: cleaning, patching, lacing, fencing, planting, pruning, digging, damming, etc. The cure for rust is preventive maintenance, not micro-ninja commandos equipped with tiny missiles.

Illustration: Immune system during flu season by Dan Page, Purdue University newsletter (January 15, 2020)

At night such a fire is weird and beautiful,…one sees the tongues of flame as they leap and dance…and, if the wind is high, blowing forward advance guards and pickets of sparks and flakes of burning grass.

– Norman Garstin, “In C-P-Railia,” The Art Journal (vol 54, 1892)

Fire is dazzling, dangerous, out of control at times. It’s hard to understand what fire is, compared to a substance such as water or even wind, as observed in a dust storm. Fire is visibly active, but what is it doing? Flames leap as if driven by spirits, make mad gestures like dancers in a frenzy. Flames are sometimes forked and darting, like a snake’s tongue (ancient enemy in the Bible).

In fire, Garstin sees the main body of an army crossing the prairie (domain of the Central Pacific Railroad). It hurls sparks forward, advancing at breathtaking speed. This ability to spread rapidly gave rise to “catch fire” as a marketing metaphor. In the 1960s, surfing caught fire, mini-skirts caught fire, Tiny Tim caught fire.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, catching fire gave way to “going viral.” In 2020, the year of coronavirus, we have reason to reconsider “viral” as a metaphor for success.

Illustration: “Chicago in Flames – The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge” by John R. Chapin in Harper’s Weekly (1871) via Wikimedia Commons

I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up.

– John Bolton to Fiona Hill (July 10, 2019)

In the most quoted metaphor from President Trump’s impeachment, John Bolton compared the dirt-for-aid trade to a street crime. Not white collar crime. Not mafia crime. Not a federal crime – which the Office of Management and Budget eventually decided did occur.

The thing about a drug deal is the parties can’t trust each other. The buyer is crazed with need. The seller is utterly lacking in humanity, and possibly short on business ethics. It’s a recipe for suspicion, betrayal, and violence. Thus in the 1990s “drug deal gone wrong” became a byword for street crimes that would never be solved but were no mystery.

In Bolton’s view, the Rudy Giuliani/Rick Mulvaney “drug deal” could go wrong in a hundred foreseeable ways. Making the same point in a further metaphor, Bolton said, “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” It remains to be seen whether the grenade will explode. Giuliani might be a dud.

Illustration: From a Thomas Nast cartoon (1872), via Wikimedia

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

– Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Blood on a soldier’s chest looks like a medal – if not for valor, then at least for being on the battlefield and not being a coward. The unhappy anti-hero in Red Badge of Courage wants desperately to avoid reproach. Any number of heroes might advise him to be careful what he wishes for.

Every day people wish for things that they shouldn’t, as moralized in the story of King Midas. Midas failed to anticipate the consequences of a golden touch, as Marilyn Monroe and others learned too late that stardom would come at a terrible cost in self-worth.

Self-loathing is rife in everyday life too. Ask anyone who wishes hopelessly not to be fat. It’s all the worse when you agree in your heart of hearts with your accusers: “All you have to do is not eat.” To avoid being a coward, all you have to do is not run away. And so forth.

The most extreme form of self-loathing is universal, with nearly every person alive at one time or another having thought: “I wish I were dead.”

That wish will be granted.

Illustration: store.doverpublications.com

He’s not hurt much; I just winged him.

– Jackson Gregory, “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch” (1917)

In fact, Judith “winged” Trevor a couple of times: in the right arm with her first shot; after the second, his “left arm hung limp like the other.” The obstreperous Trevor was escorted off the ranch, and Judith went on with her breakfast.

It’s hard to imagine a gunshot wound being so lightly dismissed, even if it was to a mere “wing.” For a bird, a limp wing would amount to a death sentence. For a cowboy, in the days before doctors washed their hands and gave antibiotics, an infection could mean the same thing.

Yet the first OED example for “wing” in this sense is from a comedy, The Poor Gentleman (1802), by George Colman, in which the cantankerous Sir Charles complains about greenhorn hunters hitting everything but what they aim at: “What are the odds now, that he doesn’t wing me?”

Illustration: W. Herbert Dunton for “Judith of Blue Lake Ranch,” Everybody’s Magazine (vol. 37, 1917)

We had a leash of hares, which being skinned and cleaned were impaled on withers and placed at the fire to roast, where they looked like three martyrs flayed alive, and staked.

– Frank Marryat, Mountains and Molehills (1855)

MarryatThreeMartyrs

Marryat was an English gentleman who came to California for a year of hunting. He kept a journal and drew illustrations. A metaphor is a kind of illustration, using words to create a mental picture. In this case, the simile “like three martyrs” tells us how to see a picture in the picture – of three human beings burnt at the stake. For modern readers, who buy meat in packages at grocery stores, it is a shock to see the resemblance between a bunny and a man when hung up on a stick. It is a further shock to visualize, with a culinary eye, the cooking of Christians by other Christians (for the sake of differences interpreting biblical texts, written in languages that were native to no one on either side).

A hunter necessarily develops a sense of detachment from the animals he kills. Especially when the killing is for sport. And yet he may think imaginatively about his quarry, attributing courage or cunning to an animal fighting for its life. At one point, Marryat imagines four or five does awaiting the return of the buck he has killed. They go to the stream at dusk, as always, but the buck does not rejoin them. Marryat offers up a hunter’s truism, which seems to empathize but is likely just a hackneyed saying: that the real cruelty is to shoot at too long range and allow the fleeing animal to die slowly of a wound.

In hunting parlance, a leash is a set of three, especially three greyhounds, bucks, foxes, or hares. The withers of a horse or other animal is the area of the spine at the base of the neck. Impaling the hares at the withers forces them into an upright posture.

Got a rocket in your pocket. / Keep coolly cool, boy.

– “Cool,” West Side Story (1957), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

“Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” This quip is universally credited to Mae West, from as early as 1936, and there have been variations: pipe, rod, banana. As a device that emits, a pistol is metaphorically more descriptive than a banana. A man who is sterile is said to be firing blanks.

Arising from the same general shape and location, the rocket metaphor takes the penis beyond sex to other realms of male excitability. The Jets want revenge, and testosterone urges action. Hence the call to be cool (heat being a metaphor for emotion).

The timeliness of Sondheim’s rocket metaphor is noteworthy. The USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, and the rivalry for turf in outer space was on.

Most people call it razor wire.…The US military prefers a less menacing name: concertina wire.

– Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Communities on Border Seek to Lose Barbed Wire,” LA Times (March 24, 2019)

In fairness, the military has been calling it concertina wire since World War I – not for euphony but because a flat coil of wire stretches to a great length, like unfolding bellows of an accordion. In those days, barbed wire was sometimes compared to a prickly vine, such as blackberry. One of the major manufacturers was the Thorn Wire Hedge Company.

H. G. Wells called it “an ugly and vicious plant that trailed insidiously among its fellows” (The Wonderful Visit, 1895). In another Wells novel, a Mr. Benshaw uses barbed wire to discourage country walkers from taking shortcuts across his property. “But it was not a very satisfactory sort of barbed wire. He wanted barbed wire with extra spurs, like a fighting cock; he wanted barbed wire that would start out after nightfall and attack passers-by” (Bealby: A Holiday, 1915). Sixty years later came razor wire, designed to lacerate like a knife rather than puncture like a thorn.

There is an unforgettable image of barbed wire in All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). A French soldier, killed by nonstop machine-gun fire, falls into a “cradle” of wire: “His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.”

This was not the first occasion on which I had encountered those outbreaks of stupidity, hatred and credulousness, which social groups secrete like pus when they begin to be short of space.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

As an anthropologist, Levi-Strauss understood the underlying causes of friction between ethnic groups. As a Jew in France in 1941, he understood it was high time to get out of Europe. When a majority group feels deprived, minorities soon feel the pressure. Accusations, outrageous stories, and fear mongering spread like a rash across all zones of contact.

Migrants fleeing Europe – respectable citizens, who yesterday would have been welcomed as tourists – were treated as quasi-prisoners by border police, coming and going, at every port along the way. (Recall the opening of Casablanca, tracing complicated routes from Europe to Africa.) Even Levi-Strauss, a professor invited to teach at Columbia University, was detained at a camp in Puerto Rico for weeks and questioned by the FBI. They thought he might be a German spy. Stupidity, hatred, credulousness.

At every point in the loom, sovereigns were thrusting in their shuttles, carrying the strand of a son or a daughter, and these, whizzing back and forth, were the artificial fabric that created as many conflicting claims and hostilities as it did bonds.

–  Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

The fabric of society was once a fairly common expression, conveying the idea that the whole is something different from (and greater than) the sum of its parts – as with a soup or a Jaguar XKE or a well-told story. As pictured by the metaphor, a society gets its unity from an interlocking of crisscross strands, individuals each pursuing their own course of life.

Revisiting the metaphor, Tuchman reminds us that weaving has to be done at regular angles, in a pattern that makes sense, or the result is a tangle. The royal families of medieval England and France were marrying off their children to Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians in catch-as-catch-can strategies to gain territory, alliances, or claims to thrones. The result was the Hundred Years War.

In the 20th century, a morass of alliances, secret agreements, and royal interconnections turned the Serbian independence movement into the hairball known as World War I.

Photo: Adapted by Karl Stull