En Words

A place to talk about words - whether from books, stories, magazines, brochures, or matchbook covers.

Friday, May 04, 2007

What Does Winning Mean?

Sometimes national debates can make one reach for a dictionary. Again this week we've heard Bush and congressional leaders argue over how we're doing in Iraq. We’re winning. We’re losing. We’re not winning but we haven’t lost. If we send more soldiers, we can still win. If we’re not winning, they must be winning, though we don’t know exactly who “they” are. Our involvement in Iraq has become a ongoing sports contest where the players are unnamed and the rules unknown.

Americans look at the world through competition-tinted glasses all the time, which is to be expected. Not only does our species have millions of years of collective history of struggling just to survive, this country was borne of one conflict after another. Our mythos is that of the self-made person, sleeves rolled up, wanting only a fair fight.

However, not everything situation is a zero-sum game where one party is on top while the other loses. There is no winner when a farmer has a bad year. A concert pianist can give a great performance without taking the experience from someone or something else.

The national dialog on Iraq has employed the language of winning and losing. But what is success? Are we trying to find and eliminate weapons of mass destruction? Root out international terrorism? Give democracy to the people of Iraq? Ensure our continued access to oil? Overthrow a tyrant? Increase regional stability? Protect our soldiers? Patch up the results of our mistakes? All of these? Some of these? None of these?

Even as Congress and the President square off, there is too little discussion of what winning means. This is like a married couple riding in the car and arguing whether to turn right or left when neither one remembers their initial destination. (“Let’s go my way.” “No, we went your way before; I want to go my way.”) It no longer matters where the car heads because there is no place to go. Instead of discussing troop levels, budgets, and geopolitics, we’d do better considering more fundamental questions. Why are we in Iraq? What are we trying to accomplish? Who are we actually fighting? How will we know when we’ve achieved our objective? When can we know that our goals are obtainable or not? Until we can answer them, any decisions are navigation on a long drive to nowhere.

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