One long-ago editorial about storm sewers in Wisconsin, to be precise -- a fragment of which has become a minor star in the writing and editing workshops I lead for journalists every now and again.
The particulars of this sewer system weren’t what set my synapses alight as I listened to Gen. Petraeus -- no cheap analogies to policies or lives or dollars going down the drain. No, what made the connection for me was the wording.
Lots of language, and not much information.
The storm-sewer editorial pondered the system’s failure to do what it was supposed to do when the rains came, and the various arguments pro and con about whether the problem was with the sewer district’s managers, or with the system’s original -- and now inadequate -- design.
And then the key phrase:
“For the most part, we tend to lean toward that viewpoint…”
In my workshops, I’d throw the words up there on the big screen and open fire. “Talk about taking a stand!” I’d say. “Not ‘We have that viewpoint.’ Not even ‘We lean toward that viewpoint.’ But ‘We tend to lean toward that viewpoint.’
“’For the most part.’”
It was language so thoroughly hedged, so totally conditioned, that it practically disappeared right there on the page!
Which is exactly what I thought listening to David Petraeus talk about when the troops might come home.
He was impressive, as he always is, offering his latest progress report. Progress, absolutely, but also continuing peril. Positive signs, certainly, but no lights at the end of tunnels.
And then the key sentences:
“After weighing these factors, I recommended to my chain of command that we continue the drawdown of the surge combat forces and that, upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions.”
So when do more troops come home? When -- after the last surge brigade combat team leaves in July, that is -- might other troops be drawn down?
Well, it won’t be for at least 45 days after whatever date in July starts the clock running -- we know that. And then?
Not yet. When the 45 days of “consolidation and evaluation” are over, “We will commence a process of assessment…”
And what will the “process of assessment” do? The “process of assessment” will “examine conditions on the ground.”
Fair enough. You don’t want to pull troops out without examining “conditions on the ground.” And then? Then can they come home?
Not yet. The general and his staff will not only examine “conditions on the ground,” but -- “over time” -- they’ll “determine when” they can make “recommendations for further reductions.”
Enough steps in there? And after those first 45 days, there isn’t a time certain attached to a single one of them.
Which may be the perfectly prudent course of action (or inaction): further reductions as -- but only as -- conditions permit. Although you’re free to wonder whether the people at the very top of this chain of command will ever admit that conditions permit. Our current commander in chief is much better at stubbornness than he is at strategery.
Here’s what will happen, says David Petraeus.
Don’t hold your breath, say David Petraeus’s words.
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Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist.