Who’s a Winner?

Why candidates still talk about "winning" wars

In last Thursday’s Boston Globe, historian Howard Zinn wrote about the presidential candidates’ misleading uses of the word “win” when speaking about the military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan:

For someone like myself, who fought in World War II, and since then has protested against war, I must ask: Have our political leaders gone mad? Have they learned nothing from recent history? Have they not learned that no one “wins” in a war, but that hundreds of thousands of humans die, most of them civilians, many of them children?

He’s right, of course. The term “victory” in relation to recent armed conflicts seems almost non sequitur, not only because of the irreparable human costs associated with war but, more immediately, because of the changing schema of the conflicts. As Vietnam taught us, and as we are learning yet again in Afghanistan and Iraq, the concept of victory has become much less definable. In that sense Zinn makes a valid semantic point.

But to the candidates, the word “win” is rhetorically significant insofar as to not use the word—to speak more cautiously about such things as victories—is a campaign killjoy that could quickly become political suicide.

Take the comment made by McCain’s foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, in a recent conference call with reporters: “We cannot afford to replace one administration that refused for too long to acknowledge failure in Iraq with a candidate that refuses to acknowledge success in Iraq.” (TPM noted this earlier in the week.) Way to identify the losers! Scheunemann lumps the current loser (Bush) with the candidate who can’t possibly be a winner in the future because he won’t “acknowledge success.”

In our American Culture of Winning (throw in baseball stat reference here), it probably is political suicide to imply that a war—or anything, for that matter—cannot be won. For the candidates to inspire confidence in voters, they must cast themselves as positive harbingers of what is in store for our country. When Reinhold Niebuhr cautioned against using absolutist language in forming foreign policy, I wonder if his thoughts also turned to voter confidence. Given the hair-splitting attention accorded to policy speeches (wherein positions have been debated on the head of a syntactic pin), it’s no wonder that the candidates want to come out on top, linguistically speaking.

The verb “to win” comes from the Old English winnan, to struggle. But the noun “winner” in our cultural vocabulary (and in Merriam-Webster) is not only “one who wins” but also “one who wins admiration.” Last week, McCain said, “I know how to win wars,” and Obama called the Afghanistan conflict “a war we have to win.” The (somewhat debatable) beauty of sound bites like these is that they allow both candidates to project their versions of a robust confidence about our country’s prospects abroad—and (at least theoretically) look like a winner at the same time. Both candidates, it seems, know how to use the word to earn double points.

Winning a war in the traditional sense of the word may have gone the way of nation-states, as Zinn suggests. But the rhetorical power of the word “win” may be too strong for the candidates to avoid. Zinn, in the meantime, can always turn his attention to Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party’s presidential candidate, who favors immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and a titling switch—instead of the Department of State, a Department of Peace. Now those are some fighting words.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.