Word Wide Web: Escalating the 'Surge' Question

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, February 27, 2007

"From a marketing point of view, you don't roll out new products in August."

Andrew Card, White House chief of staff, explaining why the Bush administration waited until after Labor Day to sell the American people on the Iraq War. (The New York Times: Sept. 7, 2002)

The Bush Administration has always been much better at marketing its ideas than actually making them work, but even the brightest minds who remain within the foundering White House brain trust have had a tough time selling the American people on the need for a "troop surge" in order to turn the tide in Iraq.

Part of their problem is that the country no longer takes the Administration at face value but instead recognizes them for the liars they are. The folks who eased logging restrictions inside America's national forests under what they called the "Healthy Forests Restoration Act," and who offered up the "Clear Skies Act" as a more pollution-friendly alternative to the highly successful "Clean Air Act," now find very few takers for their latest political product to market - one that would be paid for in blood.

Though so far the Administration has done an effective job in defining the parameters of the issue, the media, as well as politicians on both sides of the question, continue to use the word "surge" and Americans are smart enough to recognize the strategy for what it is: An escalation of troop forces, not a surge.

After the Vietnam War, however, "escalation" is a third-rail word. It shouldn't be used, because it conjures up a variety of other hot-button words associated with that failed attempt at America's intervention - quagmire, body counts, Nixon.

"Surge," however, carries all sorts of positive connotations. For one thing, surge can be a verb as well as a noun, while escalation is just a noun. Surge is action! We're doing something! Escalation is a thing. A strategy. Strategy is always less exciting than action.

Moreover, a surge is temporary. It comes, then it's gone, which is why your surge protector at home only comes into occasional use with bad weather or a power failure. A military surge suggests the troop movement of 20,000 American citizens is only transitory.

Escalation, on the other hand, is more often permanent. An escalation of rhetoric - it means you're not backing down. An escalation in the cost of homes is the rule, not the exception.

Another way you can tell "surge" is the more user-friendly word is that its been attached to a commodity. "Surge" has already been a product, an overcaffeinated Mountain Dew knockoff from the Coca-Cola company; "Escalation" will never be a soft drink, or any kind of drink. It suggests calories.

The best product that could embrace "The Escalation" moniker would be a luxury car. But even then, the suggestion would be that you're not going back. You certainly don't aspire to be driving "The Escalation" with any plans at all to return to a Ford Focus.

Worst of all, the word "escalation" has become almost intrinsically linked to war, and the foolishness of war. uses the sentence "there was a gradual excalation of hostilities," for an example of its use. The American Heritage dictionary uses "During the Korean War, some Americans urged escalation of the war through bombing of the People's Republic of China."

As we've said in this space before, control the language and you control the mind. For about six years, the Bush Administration has been able to play the aggressor in any debate because it was able to direct the language of the argument. That's no longer the case.

Because the flip side of losing control of language, by perverting it into meaninglessness, is that if people catch on, they presume that everything you say is at best without meaning - and at worst a total fabrication.

Then you become a sad cliché. What's that old joke? How can you tell when a politician is lying? His lips move. Pardon me for escalation of hostilities.

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