Used properly, an analogy can be a powerful rhetorical tool.
It can put a situation in a new light, illuminating it and making the true issues more clear. It can also be false, resulting in a misreading of an issue, and its corresponding solution.
There are two fundamental issues with an analogy. The first is whether or not it is, in some objective sense (to the degree that such a judgment can be correct) a "good" analogy. The other is the degree to which it is persuasive.
Any analysis of an analogy has to be broken down into these two separate factors. A good analogy will have a high number of factors that are both parallel and relevant to the situation at hand. Any analogy will have commonalities with it, and differences. The degree to which is valid will depend on not only the number of commonalities, but the degree to which they are relevant to determining its relevance.
Persuasiveness is a separate matter, and is a function of the level of knowledge of the target of persuasion.
Right now, of course, the focus of the American people is on the war, and the necessity for it (though the latter has become less relevant, since we are now embroiled in it, for better or worse, and our troops are at risk). My Fox News Views colleague, Radley Balko, had a recent column in which he usefully laid out some of the more extreme arguments both for and against the renewal of the war against Saddam Hussein's brutal regime.
One of the arguments that Radley pointed out was comparisons of Saddam with Adolf Hitler. I respect Radley, and generally agree with him, but I don't think that such a comparison is in any way "extreme." Of course, it could be because one of my own Weblog's stocks in trade is such comparisons, or to be more precise, parodies of how today's media would report World War II.
Saddam Hussein is not Hitler. He’s certainly not worse than Hitler (as Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens once said on the floor of the U.S. Senate). He’s likely every bit the moral midget Hitler was, but he hasn’t the means, the capacity, the wealth, the support or, frankly, the charisma Hitler had. Hitler was a threat to the world. He conquered most of Europe. He killed six million Jews.
Saddam Hussein is a threat to his own people, and, at most, a neighboring country or two.
So few words, so much ... misinformation.
He hasn't the "means, the capacity, the wealth"? What means and capacity and wealth are necessary to wreak havoc in the 21st century? Sadly, because of the nature of today's technologies of destruction, not much. He has billions of dollars from oil revenues that he's managed to divert to his foul ends despite sanctions and "inspections. But to focus on those features is to miss the point.
As I wrote above, in assessing the utility of an analogy, it is necessary to describe the similarities, the differences, and to determine which of them are critical to the issue at hand. In the case of the Hitler/Saddam analogy, it's first of all important to understand that the comparison is not to the Hitler of World War II, when he had already conquered much of Europe and murdered millions, but rather the Hitler of the late 1930s, who had only started to display his extreme anti-semitism and taste for world conquest. That is, the Hitler with whom then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought he had reached an accommodation over the Sudentenland, and came triumphantly back to London proclaiming "Peace for our time."
With that in mind, let us consider the important parallels.
Does Saddam harbor ambitions of world conquest? We know that he wants to be leader of the Arab world. He seems to view himself as this age's Saladin (though, Saladin was not an Arab, but a Kurd), who will defeat the new crusaders from the west, perhaps going on in time to eclipse him by actually conquering them. His attacks on Iran and Kuwait were only the first steps of fulfilling his ambitions. Let him have that "neighboring country or two," and his appetite would only be whetted for more, just as Hitler's was after Munich.
Does he have “support”? He seems quite adept at manipulating world opinion in his favor, as demonstrated by the way he has cunningly played the U.N. in the recent diplomatic fiasco there. All make pro forma verbal condemnations of him, but actions (or in this case, lack of actions) speak much louder than words. As to charisma, I cannot judge, and I don’t think that Radley can either. Whatever qualities he has in that department, it’s been sufficient to keep him in power for almost three decades, which was twice as long as the Third Reich (though largely because of our own fecklessness).
Has he killed six million Jews? Not yet, but is there really any doubt that he would, given the opportunity? And the opportunity is easily within Scud range — Israel has a population of about six million. The constant reference to the "Zionists" in the daily bombast from the Iraqi regime should provide little comfort to them, or those who care about them. Like Hitler, he is indifferent to human life, and in some ways, he may be worse, in that he seems to take personal sadistic pleasure from murder and torture. He certainly raised his sons that way, by all accounts.
The point of the Hitler analogy is that had the world recognized Hitler for what he was sufficiently early, tens of millions of lives lost in the nineteen forties might have been saved. Saddam has displayed enough similarities to indicate that a prophylactic action is both necessary and timely, even overdue. Thankfully, President Bush recognizes that, and when the liberated Iraqi people come out to tell their gruesome stories, perhaps the rest of the world will as well.
I got much more response than usual to last week's column on the use of precision weapons to save lives, most of it favorable.
Joel Morales writes:
Thank you for your article "Saving Lives With Space-Based Weapons" posted on Thursday, March 20, 2003. I am so tired of hearing small-minded citizens generalize their negative attitudes toward President Bush and the war in Iraq, by claiming (Republican) Americans are indiscriminately dropping bombs all over Iraq in order to flex its military muscle in the face of our global enemies. What nonsense!
Anyway, your article expresses the truth based on facts. This is, in my opinion, why so many Americans are tuning in to Fox. We want truthful, fair, and balanced journalism, and so far Fox is the only place I can confidently go to for this kind of news.
Sandra Pecora enthused:
Loved your article March 20 on the Fox News Channel, "Saving Lives With Space-Based Weapons". Great to hear the facts from someone who knows what he's talking about! Your article is a refreshing reprieve from the liberal fiction that CNN and MSNBC has been posting! Thanks Mr. Simberg!
Hmmm...seems to be a common theme here.
Stuary Sucher wondered:
Would it not stand to reason that our enemies understand what they have to lose if they attacked our satellite system. Meaning, if they neutralized our ability to use GPS guided weapons, we would be forced to resort to these far less sophisticated and bloody battlefield tactics such as carpet bombing or tactical nuclear strikes in order to achieve our military objectives. Wouldn't they fear that far more? However, I suppose that this argument would only work when dealing with a rational enemy.
Not all were pleased, though. One e-mailer sent me a contentless message with only a title calling me a rude name. An anonymous e-mailer writes:
I don't see the point of you article. I frustrated me and p****d me off. It was confusing and just plain nonsense. do you realize how many readers you are confusing. You should be writing fiction. I think you should state the facts and not confuse people with a headline that is b**l s**t. Report only the facts and do not lie to us even if it is to get readers attention. I am anavid reader and found your article to be quite annoying.
Well, I can see why he or she wouldn't want to attach a name to an illiterate diatribe like that.
A little more thoughtful was this one from Brian Cohn:
Precision munitions do not euphemistically "save lives." They kill fewer people. If you're proud of that, fine. Unlike the doctrine of the Air Force, which you seem to have wholeheartedly internalized, wars are not, and never will be, clean. The tanker, the cannoneer, and the machine gunner will still have to go in, and blow apart other people. You had better be completely sure it is to defend against an attack on our own country, otherwise those 155mm artillery Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (Pentagon for personnel shredder) will be raining down on people you don't mean to hit, and it will be civilians in another country. That is not the antiseptic, positive subject you make it out to be, and it certainly is no basis for advertising your pet industry.
Well, Brian, if people live who would otherwise die, because we have improved our weaponry, that's saving lives by any rational definition. I never claimed that war was antiseptic — just that it's much more humane than it used to be, which to the degree that it sometimes remains necessary, is a good thing.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.