Nonplussed

by | January 24, 2007

by Geoffrey Nunberg

Now it's a "plus-up" in Iraq. Over recent weeks, the term has been popping up in stories in The Atlantic and Time and on Fox News and CNN, as well as in remarks by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace and Tony Snow:

Our local commander believes that a couple additional U.S. battalions, basically a plus-up -- net plus-up of about 4,000 would enhance our ability to help the Iraqi forces there exploit the opportunity.
Granted, "plus up" is a long ways from driving surge to the sidelines. But it's clearly a comer. "Plus up" actually goes back to the early 1990s as a bit of military-industrial lingo. It can be used as both a noun and verb to refer to adding a supplementary appropriation not provided for in the original budget (as in "Congress has plussed up the administration's funding"), or more generally, to any increase in funding or resources. But until recently, it was an item you were more likely to run into in Aviation Week than on CNN. True, surge also has roots in military usage, where it can be both a noun and a transitive verb (in a 1997 briefing, Sandy Berger talked about "the ability to surge troops into an area of trouble"). But in the public's ear, surge is simply an ordinary word that conveys a rapid--and presumably brief--increase in force. (On Google,"brief surge" gets around 30,000 reported hits, while "long surge" gets only 800, once you eliminate references to Iraq, and most of those are in phrases like "week-long surge," where long is what linguists would call a measure classifier.) Hence the Democrats' preference for avoiding the term in favor of escalation, a word which not only evokes a monitory association with Vietnam but usually implies a negative development--we're a lot more likely to talk about escalating medical costs or murder rates than about escalating rates of college graduation or minority home ownership. (Some Republicans have recently been trying to split the difference by speaking of an "augmentation": "I think that I don't see it, and the president doesn't see it, as an escalation," Condi Rice told Senator Hagel a few weeks ago; "I would call it, senator, an augmentation"). Whereas the jargony "plus up" doesn't immediately seem like an effort to give a political spin to the troop increase. On the contrary, it suggests that it's a maneuver that ought to be evaluated in strategic terms and consigned to military expertise. Take the way Robert Kaplan defends the administration's approach in a piece that appeared yesterday in The Atlantic online:

[Neoconservatives] have stated that if the United States were to markedly improve its strategic position in the Middle East, and thus be able to talk to Syria and Iran from a position of strength, dialogue with Iraq's neighbors might at some juncture be justified. That is exactly what the administration seems to be doing: the troop plus-up in Greater Baghdad, coupled with a more powerful naval and air presence in the Persian Gulf, is designed to prepare a more favorable context for eventual negotiations.
The point of jargon is to claim a privileged role for specialized expertise in defining a certain corner of reality. Sometimes jargon is necessary because the thing it denotes is unfamiliar to ordinary experience, like the details of the appropriation process, and sometimes because our common-sense understanding of the world is apt to oversimplify its complexities. But as we academics understand better than anyone, groups also use jargon to claim exclusive authority for a concept that should properly be referred to the judgment of the wider public. Calling the troop increases a "plus-up" is a way of implying it's a strategy best left to the experts to evaluate. But the experts haven't exactly come out of this business covered with glory up to now.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/open-university/nonplussed