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Fighting the metaphor of war

By Melvin Maddocks / February 11, 1982



A document entitled ''Attacking the Competition'' has been brought to our attention by a colleague. On the cover a fighter jet is ominously caught in the cross hairs of a gun sight. On inside pages other miniature jets in silhouette are used as logos to set off gems of battle wisdom:

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''Identify which competitor to attack first.''

''Select the optimum combination of weapons and tactics for a specific battlefield.''

And so on.

We will spare you further suspense. This is not a top secret Pentagon document, smuggled to the press. It is the brochure for a business management seminar, describing itself as a ''Marketing War College.'' Faithful to a fault to its metaphor, the seminar begins with a session on ''Pre-Battle Preparation'' and concludes with a ''War Game Exercise.''

Each participant leaves with a ''War Manual,'' summing up what has been taught, as well as a free copy of the military classic of Klaus von Clausewitz, ''On War.''

Satisfied customers are quoted: ''The analogy between warfare and marketing battle was simple, clear-cut, and highly beneficial.

Is it?

Is it ''highly beneficial'' to think of business as a matter of setting up a ''priority 'hit list' '' rather than a question of service or excellence of product?

Beyond the confines of the ''Marketing War College,'' what does it do to all of us to melodramatize our lives as tooth-and-claw struggles for survival?

This, we are habitually told, is ''the way life is.'' Nice guys come in last.

Certainly the coach of the Winnipeg Jets was thinking in the metaphor of the ''Marketing War College'' when he sent his own fighter Jet, Jimmy Mann, out on the ice to punch Paul Gardner from behind during a pause in play. Gardner, the leading scorer of the Pittsburgh Penquins, had his jaw broken in two places.

The ''Priority' list' '' -- the retaliatory strike -- is so much a part of professional hockey that every club is supposed to have its ''enforcer,'' if not its ''goon squad,'' to intimidate the opposition when mere skating and scoring fail in this beautiful and graceful sport.

It was curiously heartening, not long after the Gardner incident, when the coach of the Los Angeles Kings ordered one of his ''hit men'' off the bench and into a brawl -- and Paul Mulvey hesitated to go. Paul Mulvey had been in all too many fights to be accused of ''turning yellow.'' But at the crucial instant the metaphor of war broke down, and, as he said afterwards, he suddenly wanted to be recognized (or not) for his skills rather than as a hatchet man.

The sports world tottered. What was this - a disobedient soldier? A pitcher who would not throw a brush-back pitch at a batter's head when his manager commanded? A tackle who refused to maul the other team's quarterback when the man on the sidelines cried ''Sic 'em!''? Where was that good old ''killer instinct''?

Mulvey was sent down to the minors for violating the life-is-war code. The publicity forced the league to wash its hands by suspending Mulvey's coach and fining the Kings -- mostly, perhaps, for being so blatant about ordering the ''hit.''

The insiders still assume this is ''the way life is'' -- the way it has to be. An awful lot of parents teach their children the same lesson -- long before marketing seminars, long before hockey training camps -- in order to prepare them for the jungle out there.

It would not seem inconsistent to instructors in the ''Faculty Strike Force'' at the marketing seminar -- or even hockey coaches -- to deplore violence in other areas of life. With too much single-mindedness we all tend to segregate our distaste. We deplore rape in the streets. We deplore the battering of wives and children in the home. We deplore the bashing of baby seals and rabbits. But we go get 'em, killer, everywhere else.

We refuse to see that it all comes together. Either we establish a cultural climate in which the civilized values of cooperation are prized and the goal is human excellence for everybody. Or else we accept the governing view of ourselves as animals in an eat-or-be-eaten world.

Trying to have it both ways, as public idealists and secret cynics, we lock ourselves into the contradiction of the gentle, perfect knight who will kill any infidel who says he isn't.

We have lived too long, splitting our metaphors between the olive branch and the big stick -- between love-your-neighbor and get-him-before-he-gets-you. In our metaphors -- which become our lives -- we will sooner or later have to make a choice.