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Oh My God! The Sky is Falling!

When, after 2004, the notion of a “troop surge” started to become something of a cliché, and the verb surge began to appear in more and more places, I had a shadowy, antagonistic response every time I came across it. But, like an itch that needs scratching but isn’t intense enough to force its way into your consciousness, troop surges remained at the periphery of my attention. And, until this morning, I never investigated if the prickly intuition I had about the phrase — that its unthinking repetition and proliferation in the media masks something more significant than just another shift in news-cycle language — were true. But, since I am somewhat without anything to do today — no announcements to copyedit, no desire to pound out several more pages on Arendt — I went to LexisNexis and looked into the use of “troop surge.”

From 1999 to 2003, a search for the phrase turns up nothing. The first article in the last 10 years to contain both “surge” and “troop,” “Relax, It’s Only a Surge,” occurs on February 05, 2004, in Washington Outlook. In it, the then chief of Central Command, John Abizaid, discusses the novel way that troops will be deployed in conflicts of the future:

I would prefer [that a commander] should feel free to go to the secretary of Defense and say, ‘Look, we’re going to need a brigade here for probably 60 days for a certain operation.’ I think this concept of [employing] a combination of a base force in the region plus surge forces — to use things as you need them, and for all of the combatant commanders to have less ownership — is pretty important. You [can then] use surge forces to deal with specific military problems.”

The motivation appears to increase the efficiency of the armed forces. Strategists develop a plan and ask for the specific amount of forces they would need to achieve it. A sudden increase in the number of troops being sent to a location, then, is nothing remarkable — nothing to use to indicate any great change in policy or fortune in war. The article continues,

Nor should anyone overreact to these changes in numbers. “Whenever we throw in extra forces, it’s ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling,’” Abizaid said. “Or when we take out forces, they’re leaving too soon and the place is going to fall apart.” So, seers will now have to look elsewhere for predictions of disaster or success.

Abizaid, apparently concerned with the flexible application of military resources, also has an interest in stopping observers from reflecting on what exactly that application entails. Surges, for the general, are as useful as smokescreens to distract we Chicken Littles, who pessimistically eye the sky, as they are for achieving military objectives. No longer are troop levels a meaningful indicator of impending “disaster or success” for the public; they just indicate a sudden increase or decrease as requested by commanders who, apparently, are just “going to need a brigade… for a certain operation.” The contemporary usage of surge is then set: a rapid increase in troop levels, per the advise of military experts, to achieve determinate ends, which is meaningless as an indicator, to observers or citizens, about anything other than efficiently meeting military objectives.

After the Outlook article, there is a gap in the LexisNexis database for major publications and news wire stories until September 17, 2004, when a piece written by William Safire, “A Hot Word for a Heated Campaign,” appeared in the International Herald Tribune. During the six months in between the two pieces, the presidential campaigns of Bush and Kerry performed the macabre kabuki routines that make up US electoral politics, and used the notion of a “surge” as a set piece. Saphire’s article looks at the rhetorical posturing of the political actors, noting that one party’s “surge” in momentum is merely an electoral “bounce” to its opponents, and running through the latin root of surge. By the time he wrote the article, George Bush had already begun speaking about the rapid redeployment of troops from Europe in terms of a “surge”; it seems that the novel Pentagon strategy had been taken up and adopted by the president and his handlers. Soon, there would be a debate about a “surge” in Iraq.

Categories: Notes.

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