What the ‘End of the Beginning’ Means

I wrote in October, about drug policy, and quoted Churchill’s famous observation about the state of the Allied war effort after the British victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein (“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning….”)

It’s always been a mistake to describe drug policy as a war, as though some were combatants against their fellow citizens.  But Churchill’s oft-quoted description is a thoughtful one, not about time, but about resources and opportunity.

In that way, it affords a lesson not just about warfare, but about peaceful change, too.

In his speech on the victory, Britain’s prime minister was clear about what the end of the beginning meant.  It wasn’t a matter of time alone, as if the matter before him were somehow one-third completed: beginning, middle, and end, each of equal duration.  (In fact, that conflict was about half over when Churchill correctly sensed the end of the beginning).

Instead, the expression was a description of how the balance between parties to the conflict had changed: never again would one have superior arms, nearly-unchecked control of the skies, etc.

Time didn’t change the balance; a changing balance affected the phase of the conflict.

The real test for an emerging movement, for example, is whether it can reach a point where it, too, has an assured means to speak, and to challenge, existing conventions.  It’s a milestone when individuals or emerging groups are assured of a part of the public square.

The easiest – and least honorable – ways to win are to play alone, or to play a rigged game against others.  Even a duffer can win under those circumstances.

When that’s no longer possible, when new groups and new voices cannot be silenced peremptorily – when there’s developed a real contest – that’s when one may say that one has entered the ‘end of the beginning.’

Update, 6 PM – Someone asked if this post was meant to be optimistic or pessimistic. Optimistic – very much so.  When dark horses, underdogs, or emerging movements are able to take and hold a part of the field, against entrenched authority, good prospects for success – diligently sought – lie ahead.

Happy New Year, Whitewater – our best is before us.