Clichés are useful, but dangerous when they stop
arguments and stifle thought, so we should demand that people at least
think about our clichés.
Start with thinking about them literally.
The Washington Post had
an editorial headlined, "Mr. Obama punts" (27 Sept. 2009). The
editorial attacked the Obama administration on a decision on detaining
terrorism suspects at the US base at Guantanamo, and I agree with the Post.
There's a problem, though, if people assume that punting is necessarily
a bad idea; if you think that you're not thinking enough about
football, where a punt may never be heroic but is often the only
Similarly there was a Congressional to-do over the line, "cowards cut
and run, Marines never do." Back when the expression had the most
meaning, literal cutting and running wasn't a decision for a Marine but
for a naval commanding officer.
If you commanded a modest American frigate on a solo mission during the
War of 1812, and you were at anchor in a small bay and looked out and
saw the fog clearing to reveal a rapidly approaching, not-so-modest
British squadron —any one ship of which had you outgunned — then, sir,
it would have been your duty to order cut the ropes that held the sails
furled and also your anchor cable(s). And then you would run, perhaps
before the wind, perhaps not, depending on which way the wind was
blowing, because your duty, sir, was to get the hell out of there before
your ship was sunk or captured.
In football, sometimes you punt; in naval warfare, sometimes you cut
and run. And in ground warfare, "Come back with your shield or on it"
meant, "Don't throw away your shield and run off," not "never retreat."
Infantry have to know how to retreat, sometimes at high speed.
And if you can't stand the heat do get out of the kitchen, unless
there's some important reason for being in the kitchen.
American politicians, pundits, and standard-issue citizens are going to
have to debate continued US military action in Iraq and, more
pressingly, Afghanistan. And we will use clichés, including the macho
clichés. Just ask yourself some literal questions and work out their
Where is the ball in Afghanistan? How do you get a first down? Where,
and, what are the goals? Alternatively, is this a "kitchen" we belong
in? Is the meal worth the effort, and the cost? If politicians and
pundits talk figuratively of heat and kitchens, we should also ask just
who is sweating in the Afghan "kitchen." It's Afghans and NATO military
people (primarily American troops), not politicians or pundits.
And so forth.
There is nothing unmanly about getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan if
that's the right and reasonable thing to do: men are the second-most
common variety of human beings, and humans are, in theory, uniquely
ethical animals, capable of reason.