Commentary: War's second casualty | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: War's second casualty

Jul 30, 2008

This post first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 30, 2008 - To the extent that the first casualty of war is truth, it follows that its next victim is language. Words matter because they shape our perceptions of reality. Absurd speech both reflects and encourages absurd thought, which tends to produce equally absurd results.

I'm old enough to remember the doublespeak of Vietnam -- a conflict in which "pacification" entailed liberal doses of napalm and most of the heavy fighting took place in the "De-Militarized Zone."

That particular war began with a highly dubious recount of a nocturnal encounter at sea in the Gulf of Tonkin and ended with the escape of an overloaded helicopter from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. In between, we attempted to "win the hearts and minds" of the locals by killing them.

In the finest tradition of truly tortured speech, the White House announced last week that President George Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have agreed to a "time horizon" for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. I'm always suspect of political neologisms because they're usually coined to mask a state of affairs that one would rather not describe in common English.

The mixed metaphor of a time horizon is especially troublesome because we live on a globe and the horizon is forever unattainable. Every time you take a step toward it, it recedes by the same measure. Then again, you could argue that the concept is unwittingly appropriate given Mr. Bush's previous commitment to "stay the course."

Whatever its derivation, the important thing to remember is that the elusive time horizon is not an "arbitrary timeline" but an "aspirational goal." You can draw your own distinction between those terms but it's probably significant that the spell-check feature on my computer doesn't recognize "aspirational" as a word.

Vague and muddled language like this is usually the product of a.) confused thought, b.) lying or c.) some combination of the above. In this case, the democratically elected puppet government we installed in Iraq now wants us to go home. This development is embarrassing to Mr. Bush -- the self-appointed savior of the freedom-loving Iraqi people who's not about to let peace break out on his watch -- and to his aspirational successor, John McCain, who's made the much ballyhooed success of "the surge" the centerpiece of his election campaign. Hence, Maliki's original plain-spoken call for American departure has been transformed into the joint pursuit of a time horizon.

Of course, "the surge" itself is something of a misnomer. When the administration began to beat the war drums for the invasion of Iraq back in 2002, numerous military professionals expressed skepticism about the adequacy of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's battle plan.

Critics included Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, National Security Adviser and retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former CENTCOM Commander and hero of the first Gulf War Norman Schwarzkopf, former NATO Commander Wesley Clark and former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki. All these men agreed that an American force of at least 300,000 troops would be necessary to truly accomplish the mission of toppling Saddam and maintaining order in the aftermath of his fall. Their concerns were summarily dismissed and some were personally vilified as timid relics of a bygone era, ill-suited for Rumsfeld's bold vision.

Four years later, with the toll of squandered blood and treasure continuing to mount in Iraq, Republicans lost control of Congress. Bush subsequently fired his formerly celebrated defense secretary and sent additional brigades to Iraq. The increased troops presence, combined with a new program to pay off dissident Sunni tribal leaders rather than combat them, did yield a measure of progress.

While crediting Mr. Bush with political courage for acting in the face of public opinion polls showing opposition to his plan running at better than 2 to 1, his "surge" was little more than a belated admission that the generals had been right in the first place.

Of course, misadventures are predictable when you go to war lacking a defined enemy. Instead of targeting the actual perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida and its enablers in the Taliban, we declared a global "War on Terror," alternatively referred to as a global "War on Terrorism."

As "terror" is an emotion and "terrorism" is a methodology, we find ourselves locked in mortal combat with abstractions. The Zionists who founded the modern state of Israel and the Irish Republican Army both employed terrorist tactics to achieve their respective goals, though neither posed any threat whatsoever to the domestic security of the United States. And, it turns out, neither did Saddam.

Semantic imprecision notwithstanding, presidential contenders now debate how best to continue the campaign against terror, ignoring the problem that as presently conceived, the struggle is by definition endless. In the words of Arnold Glasow, "the trouble with ignorance is that it picks up confidence as it goes along."

M.W. Guzy is a regular contributor to the Beacon.