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Why We Can't "Win" Any War

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If you've read my previous blogs, you know that I explore beneath the surface of what people say and do in politics. Purposeful deceit does emerge, but more common are unexamined patterns of thinking. Socrates disparaged the unexamined life and spent much of his helping people discover their own limiting habits of thought. I'm putting on my blog philosopher hat for a few moments to endeavor to do the same.

If we're not alert to how language is used, how it shapes our thinking and thus our decisions, we make ourselves predictable, manageable and often wrong. We limit our options and close down any hope of creativity. Words are not harmless and using them as if they are is, at best, naive. They are shaped by thinking and shape thinking.

Words that work well in one context can also be borrowed for use in another where they actually do not belong (what modern philosopher Stephen Toulmin refers to in his book Return to Reason as language being "desituated" or "disembedded"). And that is what happens when the term "win' is applied without adequate forethought or for political advantage to the war in Iraq.

Consider this -- In the past, winning a war meant annihilating or in some fashion destroying by force an enemy's leadership and major forces. The defeated enemy's beleaguered followers were largely content to go home even if they harbored anger and disdain for the victors. That facilitated what could reasonably be called a "win." In short, a "win" was possible then. Many thousands of lives may have been lost, but a "win" of sorts could nevertheless be called, especially as the other side usually surrendered.

The enemies America has now, many in Iraq, most elsewhere, are bred from near infancy to hate. They are as committed to their cause as those who lead them. Terminate their leaders and others emerge to take their places. Living to go home is not high among their priorities - beleaguered or not. Dying a martyr is. We've seen how those who hate America and Israel (soon to more evidently hate Europe, Australia and other countries, many lying low in the false hope of being spared) are emboldened by both failures and successes of their enemies. Both can be used to foster recruitment to the cause.

Today's terrorist enemies also don't seek to win a war; they seek to change the world. Losses along the way are expected when the goal is so substantial. They come as no surprise and are planned for in advance. This is an enemy that might be contained, outmaneuvered, driven back, controlled, and managed, but not one against which it's even sensible to seek, especially in the short term, a definitive, final "win."

Yet, thousands of lives, countless dollars, and valuable resources have been diverted from increasing and improving national security and the development of much needed intelligence operations in order to achieve such a "win" in Iraq. Ingenious people who are capable of coming up with counterintuitive strategies of the "Greeks-bearing-gifts" type should be gathering in Washington, D.C. right now as guests of the White House, no matter their political leanings, working day and night to outsmart this enemy. But, instead, the Bush Administration and many members of Congress cling to a win scenario they can't even define, let alone achieve. Predictability is the kiss of death in negotiation, politics and war, and yet we're extremely predictable in our need for a "win." Once predictable, we're manageable. And that can't be good. A much more clever means of succeeding will be needed. But it won't be found until simple, limiting constructions (win or lose) no longer shape the thinking of those who could make a difference.

While most of us think that ideas shape language, we are inadequately trained to notice how language shapes ideas and therefore decisions. And as we've seen, it can be used to excuse inexcusable actions.

If we don't, as a country, pay closer attention to how this works to our disadvantage and locate the fallacies hidden in our unquestioned assumptions, there is good reason to believe that the road we take will have one very unacceptable result: a place in the history books for a president and vice president who supposedly "won" a war but lost everything else that mattered.