Clichés in the service of power

I have noticed that at some point when you try to point out to people that the wars they support (such as the US waging war all over the world or Israel unleashing assaults on Gaza) lead to the deaths of large numbers of innocent people, these people will sometimes resort to the cliché that “War is hell”.

This is said with a kind of world-weary attitude of condescension towards the opponents of war, as if the latter do not have the sophisticated understanding of the former and are naïve idealists who do not comprehend how the world works, and that one has to put up with some suffering for the greater good. But you will notice that the people who say such things are usually the people who are at the giving end of the hell, never the receiving end. In other words, hell is fine as long as other people, the ones who do not belong to your own tribe, are the ones consigned to it. I doubt that anyone one who has had loved ones blown to bits by drones, missiles, and land mines and the other tools of war console and resigns themselves for their loss by saying ‘war is hell’.

A similar phenomenon can be observed for that other cliché “life is unfair”. This is invariably brought out by people who are the beneficiaries of an unfair system and is meant to tell those at the losing end of it that they should stop complaining about unfairness and simply suck it up.

I am sure that there are other trite phrases that serve similar functions in the service of power and maybe readers can add them in the comments but these two are the ones that I hear the most often and they set my teeth on edge.


  1. Holms says

    ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’ and ‘good things come to those who wait’ strike me as great examples of trite nonsense aimed at keeping people from complaining about inequality and injustice.

  2. Kimpatsu says

    Personally, Mano, I find describing the victims of such atrocities as “innocent” to be trite, because to the aggressors, there is no such thing as an “innocent victim”. They are members of the wrong tribe, and thus deserving of such attacks. There are no innocents in Gaza; they are Palestinians. There are no innocents in Gitmo; they are terrorist sympathisers, etc. Dehumanization of the opposition is a standard technique of the evildoers.

  3. says

    My mother used to love the saying ‘life is unfair’ when we complained about something.

    When I was about twelve, I responded by looking at her and asking, ‘and you don’t see the problem with that?’

    Life is unfair
    War is hell

    Neither has to be true. For fuck’s sake, if we’d all grow up war wouldn’t even be necessary.

  4. aashiq says

    It is consoling to those on the giving end that this has been done before, that because “war is hell” and they are unleashing a war, that if it were not them it would be someone else. That it is naive to “imagine” as John Lennon did, that there would be peace. And, if war is inevitable that it is better for them to deliver hell than to be in it themselves.

    They are also generally delegating the action to others….foot-soldiers who are later traumatized. This allows the moral question to be an abstraction.

    The Israelis seem particularly adept at stirring up hysteria and fear, and with good reason: they keep expanding their (as yet undefined) borders, then wonder why the Palestinians don’t just quietly disappear.

  5. hyphenman says


    I have always seen these two phrases--war is hell and life isn’t fair--as challenges made by those in power to those out of power: if you don’t like the system, then take action.

    One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my personal heroes: Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, who once said that: Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.

    The larger context of Rickover’s dictum speaks to why those who assert that war is hell or that life isn’t fair are so often able to simply shut down protests:

    A good manager must have an unshakable determination and tenacity. Deciding what needs to be done is easy, getting it done is more difficult. Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience. Once implemented they can be easily overturned or subverted through apathy or lack of follow-up, so a continuous effort is required. Too often, important problems are recognized but no one is willing to sustain the effort needed to solve them.

    Until a sufficiently large enough body of people act, nothing changes.

    We are desperately in need of more courageous impatience.

    Do all you can to make today a better day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  6. Yasminazad says

    “Suffering builds character”, that’s one of the reasons why God allows a little child to have her limbs blown off or a whole village of people wiped out in tsunami.

  7. khms says

    #3 WithinThisMind

    Life is unfair
    War is hell

    Neither has to be true.

    There is no way to make it wrong.

    There is no way to make war that is not hell for at least some people. You can only avoid this by avoiding war. Conflict that is not hell, is not war.

    And there is no way to make life fair. That is because fair is a construction of the mind, not some inherent natural property, and not only are there conflicting definitions between humans, the non-human wold has no obligation whatsoever to behave fairly.

    An accident that kills a young child is, by most people’s definition, not fair. However, there is no way to make this impossible.

    You cannot make life fair. Expecting that to be possible is a direct road to much disappointment.

    People should be fair, not life in general. Of course, there is still the problem that everybody’s definition of fair is different, so you could argue even expecting people to behave according your personal ideas of fairness is bound to go unfulfilled, as well.

    Personally, I’m content as long as the people involved demonstrate “good faith”, that is, try to be constructive and honest at least in the critical points. This doesn’t always give happy results, but at least we tried. I cannot expect that sort of consideration from, for example, a tsunami. Nature is unfair and will always be unfair, and therefore life will also be unfair. But on the other hand, you can, and should, expect the consideration from people that you cannot from nature. People should at least try.

  8. says

    My response to “war is hell” is to say terrorism is hell. Terrorism is how the poor wage war, and war is how the rich wage terrorism. It takes the same mentality to justify the murder of civilians in Gaza that it does to justify the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks.

    “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.”
    -- Madeleine Albright on the mass murder of 500,000 Iraqi children by US sanctions

  9. md says

    Terrorism is how the poor wage war

    So true. Osama Bin Laden came from a poor family.

    The Nigerian Christmas bomber was so poor he had to study Mech. Engineering and Finance in London. Poor fella.

    As did Khalid Sheikh Muhammed study mech engineering, in the US.

    and Al Zawahiri studied medicine. As Mano said, life is unfair to some people. If only he had the opportunities others had.

    Cliches in the service of terrorism are hell.

  10. Ed says

    It depends on the context the phrases are used in.

    “War is Hell” can simply be a bitter complaint about the nature of war. I’ve mainly heard it used that way.

    On the other hand, yes I usually hear the saying “life isn’t fair” used as described above--a cynical justification of either the social power structure (as in, “yea, I have a lot more than you and that isn’t necessarily your fault, but so what; life is unfair”) or an expression of fatalism in the face of it (“sure I’m exploited, discriminated against and abused, but hey, life is unfair, nothing I can do”) .

    But I like to reverse and subvert this. Yes “life” as such is unfair or outside the realm of fairness in the sense that nature doesn’t give a damn about the suffering of any creature. No one can be reasonably judged for the unchosen starting point of their own lives--though past injustice is a big factor in creating that starting point.

    Then there is the whole list of problems like disease, earthquakes or storms which can be exacerbated by human activity but predate any social structure and even the species itself. But moral judgments can certainly be made about what a group of people does with the world that they inherit.

    Continue reflexively fighting wars or try to make peace? Provide adequate healthcare or not? Leave people to suffer and die in hurricanes or evacuate them? Take steps to narrow the gap between rich and poor, or let it continue to widen?

    Human activity can be fair even if “life” isn’t.

  11. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    The sense in which “war is hell” is so often used is not “war is a terrible thing to be avoided” but “terrible things are unavoidable in war.” The argument is that there is no point complaining about civilian casualties or mass destruction because these things are natural consequences of war. The death of soldiers is of course always morally acceptable, because they are disposable. That these are all reasons war is best avoided seems to escape people who use that phrase in this sense.

    Of course, life is unfair. The universe is out to get us and in the end succeeds in killing all of us, no matter how hard we fight to survive. But all of human existence is a struggle against the inherent unfairness of nature--an attempt to create fairness and balance where none exist so that a decent life for a brief time is possible for each of us. That nature so often favors the ruthless over the humane is no reason not to be humane and try to make a better world. To accept the unfairness of life is defeatism; to promote it is barbarism.

  12. atheistblog says

    “pragmatic” -- somehow keep bombing is the only realistic option in life
    “Centrist” -- somehow compassion, put yourself in the position of others, are all too fringe left wing
    “You can’t handle the truth” -- somehow a movie dialogue is revealing solution and if it’s convenient
    “If you don’t, your enemy will kill you” -- somehow you forgot that you created the enemy to begin with

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