Thursday, October 26, 2006

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.
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.
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.

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Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I think there are many ways to determine whether you are winning. It all depends on your goals. The most obvious one in this situation would be a reduced number of casualties over time. Even using this method, a sudden upsurge after a period of decline could be a sign that you are finally winning, since it could be a last-ditch effort on the part of your enemies. From your information about the graph of casualties, it doesn't sound like this is happening.

Another method would be to simply look at how much control is being passed over. When you don't compare it to a baseline (such as a realistic but ambitious goal), it's easy to say that you're winning when you pass over even minor control every now and then, as long as you don't have to retake any control that you've relinquished. This is probably one way that Bush is looking at it.

Another way that Bush might look at it is kind of a "king of the mountain" approach. I'm sure most people have played this game, where your goal is to be on top of the "mountain" (which could be anything) for a longer period of time than anyone else. As long as we're on top of the mountain, it could be at least literally true that we are winning in Iraq. I don't think there is any question that we are on top of the mountain, so to speak. And as long as we give up the mountain willingly and leave a viable non-tyrannical government in place behind us, it could be said that we won (but at what cost?).

So his claim that we are winning is at least a colorable claim, and not a lie. It may not be an entirely fair view of the situation, but what can you expect from a politician of any stripe?

10:29 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

In short you agree with me that Bush is lying because there is no reasonable interpretation of "winning" according to which we are winning the war.

3:17 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Well, I don't necessarily agree with you, but I don't necessarily disagree with you either. I wouldn't say he's lying, at least not by the literal meaning of that word. If he was to be sworn in to court and to testify that we were winning the war, I wouldn't say he's guilty of perjury. Likewise, if he were an attorney, and he submitted papers to a court which claim that we are winning the war, he wouldn't be guilty of an ethical violation (such as lying to a court or tribunal) and he would not be subject to sanctions for making representations to a court without any factual basis.

That said, I think that the way he must be looking at the war is probably not the most reasonable way to look at it, and the "king of the mountain" approach is probably unreasonable, although the control-relinquishment method seems quite reasonable to me (but I do think that some kind of baseline should be established). As far as whether or not we are winning or losing on that latter measure, I'm not well-informed enough to make a decision.

I don't think he's lying; I think he's giving some spin to things. As far as I can see, nobody is winning or losing this war. It seems to be a stalemate. But then I don't follow it that well.

So in short, while I do not agree with you, I also don't disagree with you. I think your belief that we aren't winning is probably more reasonable, but I think you overstate the case and use a word with moral implications ("liar" or "lying") when perhaps it's better not used.

4:44 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Get rid of the lawyerly concept of "literal truth." It is of little use in the real world. In fact, I am quite sure that you could trap in into either silence or an admission of lying if you got on the stand. It would be easy. Just ask him what he means by "winning the war." Then, if his answer is legitimate, then you get him to admit that he is lying by that standard. If his answer is highly literalistic and has little to do with actually winning the war, then you will force him to concede that these things he's calling "winning" aren't winning, but more like "not losing." He is lying through his teeth and his handlers won't allow him to be grilled on Meet the Press or other similar show because he would be shown to be a liar.

If you don't know he's lying you must be a member of that hard core part of the Republican Party that approves of his handling of the war. That is a continuingly diminishing number of people. He is losing his own party on this.

6:06 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I'm sure I could trap him into looking stupid on the issue, since I don't think he's very quick-thinking on his feet (how smart he is in general is an issue I'm not informed enough to discuss) but I don't think I could trap him into lying. He'd be prepared for any such questions by his lawyers, if they're worth anything at all, but even they probably can't come up with anything that sounds convincing in a situation where he would be forced to answer all questions truthfully.

I still don't think he's "lying", but I don't know enough about it. Literal truth is good enough to avoid government sanctions in most circumstances, and I think it should be this way.

Honestly, I'm not sure whether or not I approve of his handling of the war. I am in strong agreement with his position insofar as it rests on the idea that we should finish the job. However, I don't know if he's finishing the job in the best way possible. I don't follow it enough to know that. I doubt if he is, considering the sheer magnitude of criticism, but I don't know for sure.

I'm certainly not a hardline Republican, but I do lean to the conservative side.

As an aside, I ran across this blog post which makes something of a correlation between "smarter" states and Democratic-leaning states. I thought I posted a response to it criticizing it thoroughly, but it seems to have disappeared or never shown up. I didn't know if you'd find this interesting or not.

7:20 PM

Blogger Ripple said...

I'm not sure how Bush and his think tank define the word "winning", but if I was to take a guess at what he would describe a win, it would be as follows....to create a government that is Israel friendly number 1 and to decimate the country so much that the only thing Iraq can concentrate on in the future is rebuilding their country from the ground up. Winning will also entail having a major stake in controlling the amount of oil that comes out of Iraq, and provide a US friendly environment so that we can put a large Base their to pressure Iran.

8:48 PM


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