Friday, July 10, 2009

Public service announcement

Having seen the expression used recently both in reference to McNamara's culpability for Vietnam and the cost of securing Blue Jays' ace Roy Halladay in a trade, I promise to never, ever, under any circumstances, utter or scribble or type the words "blood and treasure."

Never.

And to put my colleagues on notice, I promise to edit away any use of this phrase on the blog. Any.

Seriously, people, can't we stop recycling the same stale language all the time? Orwell knew what was up:
This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

18 comments:

  1. Thanks for the announcement, Gulliver. I was going to write a 200 word screed on that very term this weekend, but now I don't have to. I would also like to add to this list the following phrases: Islamofacist, fight them there or fight them here, boys and girls (when referring to members of the Armed Services), and cut and run. Oh, and bad COIN puns.

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  2. Can we still use 'Orwellian' or is that off the list of pre-approved words, too? ; )

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  3. Isn't the way we define "Orwellian" like the biggest slap in the face to that dude of all time? It's sort of like if we were to say "hey, let's call aggressive, expansionist Soviet actions 'Kennan-ific!'"

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  4. Well, I am a *terrible writer* (I tell people I am borderline dyslexic, which is kind of horrible, but, who knows, maybe I am?) so I kind of sympathize with people who use an occasional cliche.

    Also, forget political writing, our entire modern written world is awash with a kind of jargon-filled bureaucrat speak, it's astonishing. You do not want to know from my corner of the world. It's all a kind of medical education jargon, we have core competencies, and cultural competencies, and blah blah. The ideas are important, but the language is dead.

    *On a kind of unrelated note, what does this mean? From SWJ

    Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA)? Okay, I get it, but it is a very funny term to read when you are a 'lay person' outside the field.

    (If anyone around here came up with that term, then, I think it is fantastic. Seriously. Why be a hater? The world is a horrible place as it is, why add to i?.)

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  5. Er, please feel free to edit the purported dyslexic's comment above, as you read....

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  6. Madhu -- I completely agree on "VUCA." It fits with the military's desire to identify and quantify even the fluid and unquantifiable, and is representative of (like you said) a tendency to reduce language to meaninglessness through the use of jargon. You hear the same expressions over and over and over again at DoD; lazy speaking (/writing) is often an indicator of flabby thinking.

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  7. This is a very strange public service announcement, perhaps because it's so ill-informed and un-American.

    The phrase "blood and treasure" actually has a very fine pedigree. Its first reference is in both the Federalist Papers and in the post-revolutionary debates in Jefferson's Virginia about the future of the American nation.

    It has no prior root in European thought, perhaps because the confection of a democracy was such a radical event, a popular uprising that pushed the notion of the "people" as arbiters of their own destiny, unmoored from the dynastic rut of kings and queens and the trappings of history.

    Its use in Europe begins with the French Revolution, an outbreak inspired by America's popular uprising. It was then, and is now, a linguistic means to suggest that wars fought by America, or any popular democracy, are not waged in the name of a king, a cabal or anything like that.

    It's the commonsensical expression that says those who pay for a war in purse and flesh should determine where and when they go to war, and then live with the consequences of their decision.

    Because the very phrase became nearly sacred to the framers of our Constitution and those who guided the America in the wake of the revolution, you shall find it in Federalist Paper 6 and amongst those in Congress debating the declaration of war against Britain in 1812.

    It resurfaced in the Civil War, the anguished debate over Span-Am and WWI, US intervention in WWII and, later, the debacle in Vietnam.

    To now consider the term cliche is a shocking indictment of your own beliefs. Are we now a nation that fails to consider how blood shall be spilled? Or how much shall be exacted from the wallet of the taxpayer to fund the strife?

    Rather than an indicator of "flabby thinking," the use of "blood and treasure" by many of us is an homage to the seriousness that Hamilton and Jefferson alike intended it to be used.

    Rather than promise to never utter the phrase, you should honor its true meaning. It's not a cliche. It's an homage.

    What Orwell was discussing was the notion that corruption in language presaged (and spurred) corruption in politics. He was NOT suggesting that an honored phrase that was deliberately born from considered debate over the nature of violence and the necessity of preserving men sent to wasteful conflicts was off limits.

    SNLII

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  8. "Ill-informed and un-American"? "Shocking indictment of [my] own beliefs"? Come on.

    I recognize the provenance of the phrase. I've read Federalist 6. I've read Adams. (Are you pissed that we don't still write "Toil and Blood and Treasure"?) The expression's pedigree doesn't make it any less annoying when it's invoked repeatedly (and, I should say, often without the sort of consideration -- that you suggest is routine -- of its historical weight).

    Your argument about American exceptionalism rings a little hollow, too, when you consider the words of Hume:

    “Liberty is a blessing so inestimable, that, wherever there appears any probability of recovering it, a nation may willingly run many hazards, and ought not even to repine at the greatest effusion of blood or dissipation of treasure.”

    The "commonsensical expression" would be something like "the human and financial cost," or "the cost in lives and money." Blood and treasure, on the other hand, is an archaic expression that's entered the common lexicon largely because it seems to convey some sense of solemnity or seriousness, which as I said before is often entirely divorced from any awareness of its roots.

    It's simply absurd to suggest that "we [are] now a nation that fails to consider how blood shall be spilled... or how much shall be exacted from the wallet of the taxpayer to fund the strife" for the simple reason that we choose to use descriptive, simple, modern words rather than romantic flourished to describe our current conflicts.

    Yes, Orwell believed that the corruption of language presaged corruption in politics. He also believed that the intentional erosion of the meaning of words in political speech served to numb us to the real substance of our ideas; that is to say, that by senselessly repeating archaic expressions such as "blood and treasure," we fail to connect them to real human suffering.

    And so I'm going to assume you're either pulling my leg, or that this is the most hilariously ill-considered example of your contrarianism that I've yet witnessed.

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  9. Oh dear. Well, I certainly needed that reminder, SNLII.

    Now I wish I hadn't had fun with this post, but I often think that when I post at Abu M and the conversation becomes very serious. I often regret those comments.

    Are you being entirely fair, SNLII? I hesitate to write this after such a heartfelt commenet, but can't serious, well, even hallowed language become perverted? Isn't that the point of the post? Why should this phrase be any less corruptable than any other phrase used in the English language? In fact, given the hallowed pedigree, perhaps the point of the post is even stronger?

    Well. I don't know. I just don't know.

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  10. Hume's sentiment wasn't the distinctly American phrase that it inspired.

    It's not the stuff of "Common Sense" (thereby, commonsensical) nor the Federalists, nor Jefferson. There's all sorts of revisionistic notions about the phrase, but all concede that the iterations in other mouths or, even, in other languages is different from how it is used by the early American republicans.

    It's not an antiquity. It's a reference back to the nascent revolution and the deliberative considerations in its wake that informed AMerican decisions to go or abstain from warmaking.

    It appears in every wrenching decision to fight here and abroad since then. It is an honored phrase, even if some use it dishonorably or without consideration, as I suspect you've done.

    It's hardly contrarian -- nor is it "Orwellian" -- to return a phrase to its rightful roots, to honor it for what it meant then and continues to mean today, especially a phrase so protean and yet vital that it's been used for every war we've fought.

    That's hardly a cliche. It's an homage. There's a distinct difference, and, frankly, I think this blog was the one divorced from its roots.

    To Hamilton, there was no euphemism implied in blood. It was the most visceral of human words, and he employed it to remind us how important it was. Treasure also connotes something more important than money, instead the very foundations of our wealth.

    These are the natural words that would be employed by a young democracy to debate bloodletting and the potential great squandering of treasure. Combined, they lend seriousness to the decisions at hand.

    You might find them unserious. I disagree, and I would cite the very use of the terms throughout our nation's history.

    I suspect the real reason that you don't like it is because it forces people to strongly consider the wars that we fight, the tax on labor (blood labor at that) paid on the battlefields we choose to occupy, and the considerable tax on incomes and future prosperity (indeed, treasure) that comes with that commitment to a cause.

    And just so you know, "treasure" was not so archaic to the cosmopolitan Orwell that we refused to use it in reference to Marx: "'Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

    He stole it from the KJV of Matthew 6:21.

    He used blood often to describe all sorts of battles, including the one that put a bullet through this chest.

    SNLII

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  11. "Why should this phrase be any less corruptable than any other phrase used in the English language? "

    I suspect, Madhu, this blog's real problem with the phrase is who uses it the most in print. His name is Andrew Bacevich, and I can assure you that he not only understands the term's pedigree, but intends that the reader acknowledge it, too.

    The phrase closes the last page of "The Limits of Power." It has been used in the title of a Bacevich essay to challenge John Nagl's notions of counter-revolutionary theory. In February, he repeated the homage in "Afghanistan Surge Not Worth the COst in Blood and Treasure."

    In other words, when one attacks the phrase as Orwellian doublespeak, or antiquarian nonsense, one also implies that the thinking behind it is woolen, or fake, or unserious.

    Knowing Bacevich, I would suggest that this isn't so.

    But perhaps he understands just so the toll of war as it is paid in blood, because he sacrificed his son to the GWoT.

    Now, GWoT -- that's straight up propaganda. Or "COIN," the conjoined, silly phrase for "counter-insurgency," which was a rebranded phrase designed to sell the Vietnam War instead of the then more-favored "counter-revolutionary."

    "Blood and treasure" is exactly not what Gulliver says it is. It is NOT a melting of the concrete into the abstract. It is the very means of making concrete, both through historical allusion and commonsensical usage, the sacrifice a democracy makes when it goes to war.

    Bacevich's conscious and repeated use of it isn't because he can't grasp at another term to put to paper or utter at a CNAS function.

    It's a phrase he wields because it matters, to him, to a generation of veterans who fought in Vietnam, to those who have lost their sons in combat, and to Americans for two centuries who have used the words to remind ourselves of their importance on the eve of war and, later, in the wake of that which we wrought.

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  12. "Bacevich's conscious and repeated use of it isn't because he can't grasp at another term to put to paper or utter at a CNAS function."


    Wow. I get it now. It's almost the opposite of the point I was trying to make, isn't it? It is important to use the term, and use it repeatedly, because those words are the exact correct language. They mean something.

    The only problem is that I suspect 'blood and treasure' is used sloppily, and unthinkingly, by other writers and could pervert the phrase. You see it in print so much, you almost gloss over it, which is a dreadful thing to admit. (Although, how would I know that the authors are unthinking? I'd be cutting windows into souls to make that claim, wouldn't I? That's not a fair thing to do.)

    Apologies for my mispellings in the previous post.

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  13. SNLII - Your point about COL Bacevich's usage is valid (in regard to his meaning of it). But it doesn't grate you at all when senators and such use it? It just sounds trite.

    My problem with it is that, on top of being archaic(more on that in a second), it is too generic a term. Who's blood and who's treasure? It doesn't describe the "sacrifice a democracy makes when it goes to war". The sacrifice in limited war is cost to individuals, not the society as a whole - at least for the blood part. I would prefer "servicemember's blood and the taxpayers' money" or some such phrase that specifies who exactly owns what that's being lost.

    I'm also trying to understand this deal with terminology you've been beating us on. To say nothing of euphemism as a tool of public diplomacy, why is an older term better than a newer one? Where does that stop? I would like to know why you think counter-revolutionary more accurately depicts current conflicts instead of counter-insurgency. The former term, used with regard to the Maoist revolution in Vietnam, would hardly be applicable to Iraq or Afghanistan as I don't see those as revolutions. (I don't mean this an attack on your position, I'm genuinely curious).

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  14. To be honest, Bacevich's use of the term hadn't even occurred to me when I wrote the original post. I certainly have no interest in dismissing his sacrifice or the seriousness of his concern about needless involvement in wars; my disagreement with him is on the definition of "needless," and probably about which wars fit that definition.

    But no, put your suspicions to bed -- this was not a secret hit on Bacevich.

    Back to Hume, though:

    Hume's sentiment wasn't the distinctly American phrase that it inspired.

    This is a curious objection. As if the precise formulation used first in Federalist 6 (to refer to Pericles, you'll remember, not to a "wrenching decision to fight here and abroad) differs so dramatically in sentiment or construction to Hume's words. We could offer another reference, too, from 1742 -- On the First Principles of Government:

    Right is of two kinds, right to POWER and right to PROPERTY. What prevalence opinion of the first kind has over mankind, may easily be understood, by observing the attachment which all nations have to their ancient government, and even to those names, which have had the sanction of antiquity. Antiquity always begets the opinion of right; and whatever disadvantageous sentiments we may entertain of mankind, they are always found to be prodigal both of blood and treasure in the maintenance of public justice. There is, indeed, no particular, in which, at first sight, there may appear a greater contradiction in the frame of the human mind than the present. When men act in a faction, they are apt, without shame or remorse, to neglect all the ties of honour and morality, in order to serve their party; and yet, when a faction is formed upon a point of right or principle, there is no occasion, where men discover a greater obstinacy, and a more determined sense of justice and equity. The same social disposition of mankind is the cause of these contradictory appearances.

    But perhaps Hamilton wasn't influenced, and simply created the expression out of whole cloth. Just like American democracy was "confected" free of the influence of pernicious European plutocracy and monarchism.

    I suspect the real reason that you don't like it is because it forces people to strongly consider the wars that we fight, the tax on labor (blood labor at that) paid on the battlefields we choose to occupy, and the considerable tax on incomes and future prosperity (indeed, treasure) that comes with that commitment to a cause.

    This strikes me as something of a personal shot, consistent with your recent habit of writing things to the effect of "I hate the term 'chickenhawk,' but [insert language accusing someone of chickenhawkery]."

    What reason have I or any of the other contributors here given you to believe that we don't "strongly consider the wars that we fight," or worse, that we would support engagement in those wars without a full and honest public dialogue about the costs? This is a bullshit claim, to be quite frank, and I'm just going to leave it at that.

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  15. Well, if one follows the current definition of "chickenhawk," then I suppose the author of Federalist 6 was one, too.

    It's not the argument I'm making. The one I'm making is that perhaps you haven't fully considered what you're saying. Shall you now only allow Bacevich to use the term? Does someone have to pass a test on its pedigree and dissect it in the most scholarly fashion before you might agree that the phrase not only has meant something important throughout our nation's history, but continues to do so today?

    The term has special resonance (not the Whiggish, Humian sort) in American politics and culture because, unlike that Britain or even the Britain of the Glorious Revolution, our anti-colonial struggle was mythologized as the very sacrifice of blood and treasure of a young nation.

    The Federalist Papers used the phrase distinctly, to remind Americans about the very recent slaughter of their civil war (people tend to forget that part of the anti-colonial struggle), and went on to illuminate the anti-colonial War of 1812 and, then, another American civil war from 1861-1865.

    The French imported not Hume's dry notion of its meaning in relation to the plumbling of politics, but rather the very real, visceral sense of the phrase for its own Levee en masse, which was a popular military, built atop universal conscription, engaged in the prospect of Enlightment and electrified with the revolutionary prospect of ridding Europe of divine monarchies and the laws that radiated from them.

    "Blood and treasure" is hardly a cliche, even if some people mindlessly blather it. I can name at least one scholar who employs it intentionally, repeatedly and correctly to convey exactly what he's arguing.

    He is making the abstract concrete with the phrase, which is the exact opposite of your claim.

    "I would prefer "servicemember's blood and the taxpayers' money" or some such phrase that specifies who exactly owns what that's being lost."

    I wonder what Orwell -- who used the apparently archaic noun "treasure" but not so often as he did "blood" -- would say about the needlessly elongated phrasing that claps 'servicemember' or 'taxpayer' onto 'blood' and 'money.'

    The very reason why the phrase had currency for two centuries is because everyone understood in this democracy that, obviously, it was some poor bastard's blood getting spilled in our name, and that it was some increasingly impoverished bastard who was getting the bill for it.

    For what reason would one add "taxpayer" or "service member" to the phrase? Unless someone seriously believes that today no one gets that?

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  16. The term has special resonance (not the Whiggish, Humian sort) in American politics and culture because, unlike that Britain or even the Britain of the Glorious Revolution, our anti-colonial struggle was mythologized as the very sacrifice of blood and treasure of a young nation.

    The Federalist Papers used the phrase distinctly, to remind Americans about the very recent slaughter of their civil war (people tend to forget that part of the anti-colonial struggle), and went on to illuminate the anti-colonial War of 1812 and, then, another American civil war from 1861-1865.

    The French imported not Hume's dry notion of its meaning in relation to the plumbling of politics, but rather the very real, visceral sense of the phrase for its own Levee en masse, which was a popular military, built atop universal conscription, engaged in the prospect of Enlightment and electrified with the revolutionary prospect of ridding Europe of divine monarchies and the laws that radiated from them.


    I'm sorry, but I'm just not buying this. Hume wasn't talking about the "plumbing of politics," but rather of the willingness of the masses to spend and die when called to do so in the name of liberty, or some other such ideal (perhaps "equality" and "fraternity," too?).

    It's interesting, too, that you should bring up a "popular military, built atop universal conscription." The "one scholar who today employs [the term] intentionally and repeatedly" does so in reference to a state which does not have a draft military, but rather a volunteer force made up of individuals who are motivated to service by individual reasons. It's insulting to their intelligence and their integrity to suggest that they only signed up to fire coastal artillery or repel invasion from Mexico.

    Gunslinger's point, too, is strengthened by your mention of France's conscript army: today's wars do not, in fact, demand "the very sacrifice of blood and treasure of a young nation," but rather the blood of a very specific subset of the nation and the wealth of generations to come. "Blood and treasure" simply does not have the same venerated historical meaning that was employed by Hume, or Hamilton, or Thucydides, or Adams, or even McGovern. As a purported realist, concerned with the defense of American interests (narrowly construed, in his case, as defense of the homeland), Bacevich should vehemently resist the proliferation of a term historically used to inspire the masses to collective action on behalf of ideal.

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  17. Oh, I see. A professional military somehow is different today from the, well, professional military of the one that fought in the War of 1812, when the term received popular currency?

    OK.

    It's not an either/or -- draft or no draft. It's simply a description of how the term, as used in French, conveys the same 1776-sort-of-meaning that it held to the early Americans.

    This, I think, really displays your problem with the term: You don't buy that the "blood" and the "treasure" expended today is that same sort of vitality expended then.

    Today, well, we have mercenary volunteers, and their blood already has been bought with our treasure. Moreover, the wars we find ourselves in today are paid through supplemental disbursements, no more than maybe 1 or 2 percent of GDP, so that doesn't really count as much as, say, WWII or the Civil War.

    As for how Hume used the terms "blood" and "treasure," they appear in other parts of his correspondence, including his aptly-named treatise "That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science" which, if nothing else does, most certainly implies how one turns politics into plumbing.

    That the very phrase you cherrypick occurs in the midst of Hume's discussion about the first principles of government might, perhaps, also suggest a certain turning of the phrase that's uniquely different from the way it is used in the Federalist Papers.

    "Blood and treasure" most certainly has the same venerated meaning for Bacevich, perhaps because he paid an Abrahamic tax through the sacrifice of his namesake and, back to his days in Vietnam, he most directly comprehends the wastage of life and cash in war.

    Are you seriously suggesting that Bacevich is intentionally trafficking in a phrase in order to render meaning to a subjec that no longer seems so important to us?

    Well, it does to him. It does to me. And it does to a great many scholars, senators and veterans who employ the phrase.

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  18. Are you seriously suggesting that Bacevich is intentionally trafficking in a phrase in order to render meaning to a subjec that no longer seems so important to us?

    No, I'm saying almost the precise opposite. I'm saying that Bacevich uses the term to try to draw contrast between wars of interest and wars of existential import, when the reality is that nearly all of those have been wars of interest as well. To say that our "blood and treasure" are wasted in wars for Iraqi freedom, or Afghan democracy, or an end to terror (as opposed to the infinitely more estimable American democracy, American freedom, American independence, etc. that we've been fighting for in previous instances of the term's invocation). But we know full well that these campaigns are waged to secure American economic and security interests in much the same way that every war ever has been, even if we disagree about their efficaciousness in securing those interests.

    All of which is basically peripheral to my original post, seeing as I didn't have any of this Bacevich stuff in mind. If what you're saying to me is that Bacevich keeps using "blood and treasure" to force a comparison betewen the worthy aims of past wars in which we've found such sacrifice necessary and the murky and uncertain gains to be had from victory in our present campaigns, then I will of course agree that this is intent while questioning whether or not such use is actually inspiring that comparison.

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