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Escalation or surge: Those are fighting words

Story Highlights

• Politicians at war of what to call President Bush's troop increase for Iraq
• Some call it "augmentation"; critics prefer "escalation" and supporters "surge"
• Pentagon uses a word of its own: "plus-up"
• Linguist says, "Words shape perception for a while, but ultimately reality wins"
By Thom Patterson
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(CNN) -- Politicians know it's unwise to bring a knife to a gunfight, which is why they're choosing weapons carefully in the war of words over President Bush's new Iraq plan.

Bush's proposal to quell insurgent attacks and sectarian violence in Iraq by adding 21,500 U.S. troops to the war is so controversial that members of Congress can't agree on what to call it.

The Republican arsenal of words includes "surge" and "augmentation," while Democrats pull their triggers with terms such as "escalation." Meanwhile, the war planners at the Pentagon use a word of their own: "plus-up."

"The Democrats believe that the word surge was chosen by Republicans to imply the troop increase is temporary," said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider.

"Democrats prefer to call it an escalation, which implies a longer-term increase in troops. They believe that somebody somewhere was trying to hide the increase in troops as a long-term event by calling it a surge."

Bush has not said how long the additional troops would remain in Iraq, but he has said the U.S. commitment there isn't open-ended and the war's top general has said the increase could end as soon as this summer.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters on January 11 that the increase is "viewed as a temporary surge. But I think no one has a really clear idea of how long that might be."

'CSI' on the case

If Capitol Hill were a crime scene, Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, would be the equivalent of a crime scene investigator, examining the clues to determine how words do their damage.

"Words can shape the perception of reality for a while, but ultimately reality always wins," Nunberg said.

He explained why an opponent of Bush's plan might choose to call it an escalation. "Only bad things escalate," said the professor. "You talk about escalating crime rates and escalating house prices, but you don't talk about escalating rates of home ownership or escalating rates of minority college graduation."

Escalation, which carries ominous overtones from the Vietnam War, is the word of choice of Sen. Edward Kennedy, a leading opponent of the troop increase.

The Massachusetts Democrat used the word in a statement Tuesday after Bush's State of the Union address. "Iraq is the overarching issue of our time, yet tonight we heard very little from the president about it when in fact the burden of responsibility is on him to explain the mission behind his escalation of troops in Iraq," Kennedy said.

Is it a surge or augmentation?

Using surge to describe the Bush plan already has become so controversial, Schneider said, that many Republicans are holstering it for now, preferring to use an alternative -- augmentation.

According to Nunberg, "augmenting means to add resources to an existing effort, usually with a positive implication. It's usually used if there's some job that you're trying to get done and you're adding resources to get that job done."

Republicans Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Susan Collins of Maine, who have broken with Bush on the issue, chose augmentation in a nonbinding resolution opposing the troop increase.

"[T]his proposed level of troop augmentation far exceeds the expectations of many of us as to the reinforcements that would be necessary to implement the various options for a new strategy, and led many members to express outright opposition to augmenting our troops by 21,500." (Watch Warner compare public approval of Iraq war with Vietnam Video)

Washington's true weapon in the war of words, Nunberg said, is whatever message the different sides of a debate are trying to communicate.

"The battle for public opinion is always transacted by symbols of one sort or another, and these words are symbolic ways of framing the administration's policy," Nunberg said.

"The words aren't trivial. I'm always suspicious when people talk about 'mere semantics' because semantics have a lot to do with how people perceive these things."

What's a 'plus-up'?

Across the Potomac, Pentagon officials often forge their own words when the dictionary fails them.

"They use words with a very specific meaning for things," said CNN senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre. "In this case, they used plus-up because the military considers this to be a small additional number of troops --- what they call a plus-up."

Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, compared surge with plus-up during his testimony Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee.

"By a strict military definition of surge, a commander makes a conscious effort to mass his troops at a specific point and place and time in order to achieve a desired result," Conway said.

"But on the backside of that effort of a surge, there must be what we call a payback, and that is that you'll have less forces to employ at a later period in time because you've used them in some form or fashion. What I think I would term what we see happening right now is more a plus-up of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, not a surge."

According to Nunberg, plus-up began appearing as a verb in Washington-speak during the early 1990s: "Could you plus-up my program with additional federal funding, please?" Eventually the word morphed into an adjective before taking on noun status.

Do any of these verbal salvos mean anything outside the Beltway? Do voters care about the words? Do they matter?

"Nobody has done any polling on this issue," Schneider said. "I don't think voters are being deceived by the use of the words augmentation, surge, escalation -- they don't care what you call it -- all they know is that more troops are going to be in harm's way."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the troop increase in Iraq is "viewed as a temporary surge."


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


Augment: To make greater, more numerous, larger or more intense

Escalate: To increase in extent, volume, number, amount, intensity or scope

Surge: Swelling, rolling or sweeping forward

Plus-up: Small number of additional troops

Sources: CNN's Jamie McIntyre, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary


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