Our words for counting the cost of war

As buzzwords go, 'blood and treasure' is more evocative than most.

Shiver me timbers! There's a phrase that's been swirling around Capitol Hill, and even the blogosphere, that sounds like something out of Robert Louis Stevenson.

At a time when so much Washington-speak – and public discourse in general – is jargon, euphemism, and obfuscation, this phrase is more richly emotive than most capital buzzwords.

The phrase is "blood and treasure." It refers, obviously, to lives lost or broken, and money. It seems to be our current term for counting the cost of war – or at least for pointing out that war has costs that must be paid, however much, at times, the math gets muddled – or oddly precise. For instance, Mother Jones magazine noted last week that the Defense Department told Congress in late July that the war in Afghanistan had cost $78.1 billion. Seventy-eight point one billion? As we used to ask on the playground: Huh?

A blogger at Newsweek has complained about "B&T" as "the Iraq war's go-to cliché," employed by politicians on both sides of the issue and the journalists who cover them. Republican senators who have used it recently include John McCain of Arizona, certainly one of the war's strongest supporters in Congress; Susan Collins of Maine, one of the questioners; and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a forceful critic.

You've got to feel for those senators and representatives at congressional hearings. Yes, surely, they've got lots of helpers as they prepare their questions and remarks for these events. But once the hearing is under way, they've got to think on their feet, respond to new developments in the testimony, and generally do their bit to provide the national diet of sound bites. No wonder it's easier to glom onto "blood and treasure" than retrieve from the file drawers of memory a number like $78.1 billion.

And yes, you can complain that the phrase has been overexposed, but in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle, it may be fair to say that anything that doesn't get overexposed probably wasn't of much interest in the first place.

Blood, used to mean "cost in human lives," is a word even young children know. This sturdy Anglo-Saxon monosyllable is also an example of something we know by a name that comes from Greek: metonymy. Metonymy means literally "change of name." Metonymy allows something to stand in for something else it is related to. That something else is therefore communicated indirectly – but by way of a helpfully concrete term such as "blood."

Treasure was originally wealth or riches in a collective sense or simply a supply of something valuable or useful; as a verb, it meant something like "to stockpile." Treasure as a verb meaning "to cherish" or "to prize" is a usage that goes back only about a century – but it's part of what makes "B&T" pack a bigger emotive punch when the phrase is used today.

"Blood and treasure" is part of the Monroe Doctrine, President James Monroe's 1823 statement (really the doing of Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams) that the United States would stay out of Europe's internal affairs and expected Europe to stay out of American affairs. The document refers to the establishment of the US government, "which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure."

There is a point when a cliché – which at one point may actually have been something really original – congeals into fixed idiom. "Blood and treasure" may be at that point. Forty years hence, when today's graduate students are the eminences their history departments, looking back at events of our day with a dispassion we cannot hope for now, "blood and treasure" may be a phrase that takes them back to 2007 and the efforts of Congress to nudge the administration on Iraq war policy, just as "quagmire" connects today's silverbeards with Vietnam, or "infamy" evokes in the minds of a still earlier generation the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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