The Meaning of "Winning"
[I changed the title on realizing after the fact that it obscured, rather than enlightened readers as to the content of this blog.]
According to my morning paper, the Columbus Dispatch, George Bush says that we are winning the war in Iraq. The specific claim is
"We’re winning and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done," Bush said.Lest anyone fear that his "stay the course" position means that he and his military planners have rigidly adopted an Iraq plan, they need fear no longer
"Our goals are unchanging," the president said. "We are flexible in our methods to achieving those goals."As a linguist interested in understanding the meaning of words like "winning", I am not reassured.
The problem with Bush's claim that we are "winning" the war in Iraq is that while he has, I believe, said what his goal is for this war -- to establish a viable (preferably nontyrannical) government (formerly, "democracy") -- he cannot tell us how what is happening on the ground in Iraq gets us and the Iraqi people to this goal. And that is critical to evaluating the truth of his claim that we are winning.
In any nonstandard war in which the battlefield changes constantly and there are no clear "front lines" along which both sides are arrayed with their support elements behind them, the only way we can measure whether we are winning or losing is by measuring the level of violence (which pertains to the viability of the current government and measuring it against past levels) and by marking off as "reached" the various stepping stones that take us from where we are to a (preferably nontyrannical) government that can be said to viable.
There is winning, losing, and a state in which one is neither winning nor losing. Though we might concede that Bush's goal is clear and that he has laid out the general terms the stepping stones that must be reached, which pertain to passing over to Iraqi troops and police the job of protecting the Iraqi people from violence, he has never given us the details. We hear from time to time that the US has passed over control of a given area to the Iraqis. I have been reliably informed, however, that all this means in many cases is that we have passed over control to an Iraqi general but that American forces are standing right behind him propping him and his soldiers up. If this is true, then a critical stepping stone to victory -- the passing of military control to the Iraqis -- involves a linguistic sham, for it relies for its truth a literal rendering of the phrase "pass control," in which "control" means only 'command.' As for the progress made in policing Iraqi cities, I invite you to read The Telegraph, a conservative British paper's story titled " Night-time knock on door heralds secret assassins."
As for the level of violence, Forbes on-line magazine said on the 26th of October that
The number of American troops killed in Iraq in October reached the highest monthly total in nearly two years on Thursday after four Marines and a sailor died of wounds suffered while fighting in same Sunni insurgent stronghold.Not long ago, I saw on a TV news show (probably CNN but it could have been a network news show) a graph of American casualties over the course of the war that showed them to be moving inexorably upward.
During the Vietnam War, the grisly method of determining whether we were winning or losing that war was to measure the enemy "body count." The method used was so loosely defined that enemy bodies were counted more than once. I prefer measuring coalition casualties. Even better is to look at each face of those who have been killed. You can do that at CNN.com. I could be wrong, but I believe that a critical turning point in the attitude of Americans toward that war occured when Life magazine published the names of all of the American casualties to that point and, but more importantly, they also published a photograph along with the names.
I got a comment on a previous post saying how happy the person was that I had returned to discussing language rather than political issues. In fact, what I am doing in this blog is a linguistic exercise, an exercise in which I try to give meaning to the word "winning" as used by Bush in the quote at the top of this page and then evaluate the truth of his claim. In my opinion, if "winning" means to George Bush that we are gradually reaching the stepping stones that must be traversed to take us from where we were when we started this war to a viable (preferably nontyrannical) Iraqi government which does not need American support to be viable, then we are not winning.
There are three reasons to believe that Bush is lying. These are:
1. American causalities are increasing not decreasing.Ergo, Bush is lying when he says that we are "winning." All that can be said is that we cannot be forced to leave Iraq. At least not yet.
2. Claims made to the effect that we have passed over control of various areas of the country are linguistic shams since such claims mean by "passing over control," 'passing over command of military forces to Iraqi generals.'
3. Sectarian violence is increasing and the people, sadly, are more affraid now than they were when Saddam was in power. This is a clear sign that the Iraqi police are not getting the job done. One reason, of course, is that the Iraqi police are riddled with officers who participate in sectarian violence. At a CBS web site, it is reported that Iraq's Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, whose police forces have been accused of complicity in sectarian attacks, has fired 3,000 employees accused of corruption or rights abuses and will change top commanders, a spokesman said Saturday.