Academic journal article Military Review


Academic journal article Military Review


Article excerpt

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness. These endeavors of the imagination are not devoid of rationality; since they use metaphor, they employ imaginative rationality.

- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson1

DESPITE PRINCIPLED ATTEMPTS to prosecute "information operations" and "strategic communications," there is scant discussion in current military discourse about how people assign meaning to their perceptions. This essay investigates how the use of metaphor shapes understanding in an increasingly ambiguous world of meaning. Indeed, the rhetorical work of pundits, politicians, appointees, bloggers, academics, military doctrinaires, and flag officers (those I call "thought leaders") is largely the management of meaning. That is, thought leaders engage in persuading the naive, the obtuse, or those with different understandings to follow their narrative constructions, which are often riddled with metaphors.

In a world of vagueness and ambiguity, coupled with global interconnectedness, the range of possible meanings geometrically multiplies to unimaginable degrees. Some subscribe to the "information age" metaphor, suggest that objective "facts" are omnipresent, and wonder why the truth they see is not as clearly seen by everybody else. Yet global information media amplify the diversity of meanings and the expansion of useable metaphors. Without such a multiplicity, a greater shared understanding would be implausible; still, ever-changing expression creates frustration as well. Those aspiring leaders who seek to influence and indoctrinate others with their own sense of bringing verbal clarity have to be mindful of creating frustration and misapprehension. Wars, messy social problems, and disasters present ineffable complexities that metaphors only approximate. With the clever and often hidden use of metaphors, the most effective thought leaders indoctrinate others to grasp and communicate the intractable or inscrutable. This essay proposes a framework that can help military practitioners judge the appropriate use of metaphor and be more reflective about how indoctrination can work to shape their "sensemaking" in important ways.2

A Framework for Reflecting on Metaphor

The term metaphor is derived from the Greek word meta- which means "beyond," and -pherein, which means "to bear." Hence, metaphor takes us beyond surface textual meaning and serves as a substitute for literal or objective definitions of complicated matters. Non-Defense Department communities have often borrowed military words and phrases to convey meaning where otherwise impossible. For example, businesses and other public organizations borrow terms like "strategy" (from the Greek word for "generalship"); they declare "war" to "defeat" social problems like poverty, drugs, AIDS, and illegal immigration; and they employ "tactics" (from the Greek for "orders") for negotiating deals and winning against competitors. For centuries, the military community has perhaps unwittingly drawn on language from other communities to reduce the ambiguity it faces: center of gravity (from physics), operational art (from the design studio), and enemies that operate asymmetrically and as networks (from the biological sciences). Here are some others that may be familiar: mapping human terrain (the logic of cartography applied to sociology), mission creep (like a sneaky arachnid or "slow-river-rising" analogy), global war on terror (an ecumenical story of the dichotomy of good vs. evil). In short, thought leaders in various knowledge communities "manage meaning," that is, they employ metaphors as:

* Sensibility-on-loan (from other knowledge forms).

* Exemplars for the otherwise unfamiliar constituency (analogy is better than total ignorance).

* 'Bridges" from what they tacitly know but cannot say (mysteries) to others' quasi-comprehension. …

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