As war evolves, so does language

`Mission accomplished' has now become synonymous with miscalculations


When Synthia Laura Molina tried to drum up clients for her health-management consulting firm, the reaction often was not what she anticipated. Did you consider changing the name of your business, customers would ask.

Eventually, Molina and her associates felt they had no choice but to do so.

Its former name: Mission Accomplished.

"When you told people the name, their initial reaction was `Oh, really.' It was clear that the company name had been eroded, the company brand had been eroded," said Molina, whose venture is known now as Central IQ. "My sense was it was so damaged, it may take a generation to lose that association.

"Maybe a political group would want to buy it?," she wondered.

"Mission accomplished," a military phrase, long ago became part of common jargon to describe a job well done. But the term took a turn for the worse after May 1, 2003.

That was the day President Bush declared an end to major fighting in Iraq. He did so in front of a red, white and blue banner that proclaimed "Mission Accomplished" on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the Southern California coast.

The power and authority of the phrase, at least in civilian usage, has since toppled like a dictator's statue in Baghdad.

On a long list of unintended consequences and significant costs of the Iraq war, the erosion of "mission accomplished" from a widely used term of affirmation to one of miscalculation isn't terribly significant. But it illustrates that vocabulary is shifting and organic and that overly declarative statements are probably best avoided, especially by presidents.

"Rhetoric invites you to be assertive, and sometimes it's our undoing," said Martin Medhurst, a communications professor at Baylor University who previously directed the study of presidential rhetoric at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. "It's like Nixon's proclamation, `I'm not a crook,' ultimately becomes the tagline for being a crook."

The term "mission accomplished" evolved in military use during World War II, usually in the context of a successful flight operation such as a strafing run or photo reconnaissance - technically a "mission," according to A. Marjorie Taylor's The Language of World War II in 1944. Eventually, its use became so common - and benign - it could be found on everything from plumbing tips to recipes.

But during the past three years, the term has all but vanished from non-political use, particularly in the U.S. media. A search of the electronic library LexisNexis showed that the phrase is now mostly confined to references on sports pages and occasionally in news stories unrelated to war and politics in publications outside the United States.

"The top references are jokes, blogs and insults. Ninety percent are negative or humorous," said Paul Payack, who runs the Global Language Monitor in San Diego. "It's a tagline that evokes not a smart thing to do, stepping into a trap, exactly what not to do at an apparent moment of triumph. Like `wardrobe malfunction,' it just has become part of the public consciousness."

Payack analyzes changes in the use of the words and phrases on the Internet - often, he said, for corporate clients and investors looking to track trends in the marketplace. With the use of algorithms, he has concluded, among other things, that the English language had 988,968 words as of last week and that "OK" is the most frequently spoken word on Earth.

But for all the unusual stuff that he comes across, he said he marveled at what has happened to "mission accomplished" in three years of its ricocheting around cyberspace.

In 2003, the year the Iraq war began, the term "mission accomplished" appeared 375,000 times on the Internet. In 2004, it appeared 500,000 times. By 2005, it was more than 1 million.

Are missions being accomplished twice as fast as before? Hardly. Payack said the phrase has assumed a new life in political reporting and elsewhere as shorthand for "grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory." A humor blog last fall read, "Bush declares `mission accomplished' in New Orleans."

The "mission accomplished" event has contributed to the president's plunge in popularity. In 2003, Bush's name was linked to the phrase on the Internet 30,000 times, Payack said. That rose to 50,000 in 2004, 75,000 in 2005 and 60,000 times in the first three months alone of 2006.

The president's father, George H.W. Bush, was himself ridiculed after overplaying his hand as president with "Read my lips: No new taxes," but that was before the rise of the commercial Internet, which sustains and amplifies the missteps, said Nancy Snow, a communications professor at California State University, Fullerton.

"`Mission accomplished' is so uniquely American, the sense of being overconfident," Snow said. "I can see why they took advantage of that day, but as I watched that play out, I just had a sinking feeling."

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