A Surge in the Capital

Even as the US president said, “Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship,” a winner was already rising out of the skirmishes.

The combatants were three words. This was Washington English where the field of combat covers a bloodless maze of power in and around the nation’s capitol.

As soldiers gathered their kits and prepared for their trip into the deserts of Mesopotamia, leaders of the world’s strongest power were busy fighting inside the beltway – fighting fiercely over three simple terms: surge, escalate and augment.

Maybe they were thinking of Mark Twain’s caution, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

For even before the president marched out his 3,000-word speech, the three-word battle had been joined. It wasn’t over the phrasings his staff had prepared. Not, for instance, because he used the word, “new”, a heavy-handed 17 times, nor even because he closed with this odd construction: “trust that the Author of Liberty will guide us”.

The previous November, after the elections and before the January address that Pentagon officials had been quoted anonymously in the New York Times, talking about plans for 20,000 more troops. Then the term “surge option” appeared in the press, and it soon became, “the surge”.

Surge is a fine word meaning “a strong, wavelike, forward movement, rush, or sweep”. It’s a word with a built-in narrative,v larger, then smaller.

In military use a “surge force” might mean troops that come in quickly to do a job, then leave.

The president offered less dramatic phrases: “increasing American force levels” and “will be deployed”. These descriptions paled against the short and sexy “surge”, which sounds an awful lot like “urge” and was soon on everybody’s lips.

The secretary of defense tried to dispel the mojo that surge was exerting when he said, “The increase in military forces will be phased in. It will not unfold overnight; there will be no D-Day; it won’t look like the Gulf War.” But surge was still in the buzz.

[Thanks for taking this article from EnglishMojo.com.]

In fact, escalation was one of two words that would come into conflict the day after the president’s speech. It was then that one Nebraska senator, who is a veteran of the Vietnam war, questioned the secretary of state, who is a doctor of political science.

THE SENATOR: My question was the escalation of American troops in Iraq.

THE SECRETARY OF STATE: But I think you asked who was supporting it. … And they know that the augmentation of American forces is part of that plan.

Now, as to the question of escalation, I think that I don’t see it, and the president doesn’t see it, as an escalation. What he sees…

THE SENATOR: Putting 22,000 new troops, more troops in, is not an escalation?

THE SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I think, Senator, escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in. Escalation is also a question of, are you changing the strategic goal of what you’re trying to do? Are you escalating…

THE SENATOR: Would you call it a decrease, and billions of dollars more that you need…

THE SECRETARY OF STATE: I would call it, Senator, an augmentation…

There “escalation” and “augmentation” come in, both of them 50 cent words used where ten cent words would fit.

Escalate is an especially powerful word in America, with a history since it came to refer to the spiralling growth of the war in Vietnam.

Augment is the older, meaning to make larger in size, number, strength, or extent. But though it’s older, it has no widespread emotional import. If fact it’s the sort of low-impact word a lawyer might place in front of their clients.

A search of the news for the week after the president’s address to the nation showed surge mentioned with Iraq over 20,000 times. Escalate was mentioned in the same sense about 3,400 times. And augment surfaced with Iraq just 37 times.

War, it seems, is hell on words, as it is on people.

More from Joseph JK . . .