Issue 180, page 1

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shocking, awful use of words

It is some weeks now since we last heard the phrase pre-emptive attack emanating from the Pentagon. Perhaps  someone finally got around to looking up the definition...

Pre-emptive attack, an attack launched in the belief that an enemy attack has already entered the executive phase, i.e. that the decision has already been made.

 - E. Luttwak Dictionary of Modern War, 1971.

Pre-emptive strike, armed attack motivated by the conviction that an enemy attack is under way or is irreversibly imminent. 

 - Schwarz & Hadik Strategic Terminology, 1966 

So, let's see then... technically... and we're just following the military experts here, an attack can be calledThe Roman army liberates a grateful nation. "pre-emptive" only if the attacker believes that an enemy strike is already under way. Apparently, invading a country in case it might have or develop the capacity to behave belligerently some time in the future doesn't quite make it. We're sure there must be some term which accurately describes that kind of behavior but, whatever it is, it's not pre-emptive attack.

An emptor is a purchaser, as in the Latin expression caveat emptor, "let the buyer beware".* Pre-emption, therefore, is literally "buying before" and once referred to the English king's insistence on first refusal when any choice properties came up for sale. The first use of pre-emptive to mean "preventive" or "forestalling" seems to have come from a tactic in the card-game of Auction Bridge...

A preŽmptive opening-bid in a major suit means that the bidder wants no information and wishes to play the hand at his own suit.

 - F. Irwin Auction High-Lights, 1913 

The word tactic is from the ancient Greek taktikos (literally "arrangement") from tassein "to set in order". By the late Middle Ages it had developed the meaning of "the arrangement of troops" on a battlefield. This was not its only use, though. The sense of "ordering" has persisted in specialized fields such as linguistics and mathematics which use tactic as an adjective.

In the 1600s, war was said to have two aspects, tactic and stratagematic, though we have since shortened the latter to strategic, from strategos, Greek for "general".  In military terms, the distinction is between local decisions made on the battlefield (tactics) and the overall conduct of the war (strategy).

Logistics is the organization of supplies, transport and lodging for the troops. It sounds like a cross between logic and tactics but it's not related to either. Surprisingly, it is the troops' "lodging" which is the crucial factor. The French logistique, is based on the Old French loge "summerhouse, hut". Ultimately it comes from the Late Latin laubia (or lobia), "hut" which is also the ancestor of lobby, lodge, loge (a double-wide seat at a theater) and the Italian loggia, "gallery, cloister".

* Roman marketplaces relied upon the principle of caveat emptor. That is, the buyer must satisfy himself as to the validity of the purchase before completing the bargain. Then, no matter how shoddy or fraudulent the goods, the seller bears no responsibility. Gullible rubes have never been in short supply, however, and the forum of ancient Rome celebrated this fact by having the words MUNDUS VULT DECIPI ("the world wishes to be deceived") inscribed in large letters above its gateway.

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