Seamans: Parsing The Meaning

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(HOST) Commentator Bill Seamans has been listening closely to the most recent policy statements about the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he’s still not sure that what he heard – is what was meant.

(SEAMANS) The political discourse concerning Afghanistan and Iraq is driving me into another siege of that brain-scrambling dilemma called "parsing."  We seem to be constantly looking for the "meaning" of the latest official statements which sound like a clamor of caveats.  Today’s words of the moment are "combat mission."  We’re told that our combat mission has ended in Iraq but that a small army of 50,000 combat ready troops will remain as "advisory and assistance brigades" instead of "brigade combat teams."  Just change the name.  While advising Iraqi troops we will accompany them on combat missions and our Special Forces will still hunt down Iraqi terrorist groups in what’s called "high intensity operations."  Parsing that means we can expect casualties in Iraq even though our combat mission there is officially over.

We have heard it said that our forces are maintaining "momentum" in Afghanistan, another candidate for parsing which implies some movement forward.  Yet the facts say otherwise as the Taliban gets stronger and our casualties rise.  Parsing "momentum" seems to bear on the word, "realistic" used to define the actual situation on the ground.  Our commander, Gen. David Petraeus, added to my parsing dilemma when he was asked to describe "momentum" and he said, "We are in the process of determining what’s realistic."

I’ve noticed that our top brass lately are using the word "drawdown" more and more instead of "withdrawal."  Parsing that one could imply that the Pentagon is saying that our troops are being pulled out when they are not.  Drawdown means easing somewhat, like lowering the level of a lake but not emptying it, whereas withdrawal suggests we’re pulling out completely.  Therefore, I parse Iraq as a drawdown, not a withdrawal.

Sometimes parsing might sound like criticism when it’s not intended.  For example, Gen. Petraeus has said our military operation in Afghanistan is "fundamentally sound" which clashes somewhat with his acknowledgment that he is in the "process of determining what’s realistic."  I’m not criticizing – just suffering from caveat cramps.

If there is a lesson it might be that ambiguity in military-speak has become systemic and that a clear cut statement is elusive.  Gen. McChrystal made one when he said in plain language that we are losing the war in Afghanistan, and look what happened to him.

This parsing game might sound frivolous but it’s serious if we believe that the official use of words imply something that they do not actually mean.  This dangerously clouds the reality that we the people need to make our political decisions.  In a word, it’s called propaganda.

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