Sunday, January 23, 2011

The importance of language to military culture

While I was highly amused by Gulliver's recent posts on Pentagonese, I've been noticing a trend recently in the blogosphere: denigrating military jargon, both its existence and forms. Some of it, like Gulliver's as best I can tell, has seemed to be in the spirit of the thing and others have been downright condemning of it. I hope Gulliver keeps his series going (I'm sure it's quite informative to many of you), but I think military jargon gets way too much flack for no discernible reason. Well, maybe one reason, but we'll get to that.

Firstly, I question how much Pentagonese comes from the Pentagon. Other than referring to itself as "The Building", it seems that the preponderance of the offending terms are actually military terms that migrate to the Pentagon from the field. I couldn't be sure of that (wouldn't that be an interesting study), but I can navigate the Pentagon language-wise because I know the lingo. And I've never served a day there - I learned it in the field. I suggest that Pentagonese is military jargon come home to roost because, while certainly the head of the U.S. military, the Pentagon is hardly the heart of the nation's warrior class. I couldn't imagine a cavalry lieutenant colonel fresh out of G-3/5/7 just waiting to try out his new cool-kid words on his new cav squadron. Soldiers, unlike civilians, don't usually think anything cool comes out of the Pentagon. The Pentagon is where things go to die.

No, I don't think most of that language comes from the Pentagon, I think it comes from the operational forces. And I think that's a good thing. Every technically challenging trade has its own jargon; doctors, lawyers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, business types: they all have their own jargon that other probably think is just plain weird. But it's part of their culture, it helps each member of that culture identify others like them, it gives them a simple thing to bond over. The military is no different, except it might be exacerbated more because of the physical concentrations of military posts and combat zones. In small towns throughout the world, the local military facility is probably the biggest thing around and is therefore the dominant culture. Cultural attributes, such as language, thrive in such settings. Combat zones probably compound the use of vernacular - troops from units who would never have otherwise met each other - are exposed to new jargon and it spreads like wildfire.

It gives me a sense of belonging when I can talk to another tanker and talk about the John Wayne Pass, bitch plates, turret rides, or FMs; or talk to Iraq vets about gimlers (GMLRS), MIRC, the 3ID bridge, or Ambush Alley. To say nothing of the many "verbed" and other mangled terms that U.S. Army loves so, so much (kinetic, non-concur, transition, etc) and the even more dear alphabet soup of acronyms. These terms are expressions of our common experiences and hardships. They are things we shared and we (almost) always understand each other - it isn't important that outsiders do understand it.

Which I think gets to my final points here. Firstly, the one reason I imagine people hate this lingo is because they are on the outside and it seems foreign to them. Learn it or don't - it doesn't much matter to me. To give these types some perspective, I don't come to your place of business and bitch that I can't understand your acronyms or colloquialisms. Because they are yours. Secondly, when military types do talk to outsiders, they should stow the vernacular. It's just plain rude to speak that way and certainly not helpful if you're trying to explain to others what it is you are doing. Translate it into the common tongue, please. Thirdly, and finally, I think the biggest problem with Pentagonese isn't that you hear a different language - people would forgive a uniformed person with it. It's hearing the civilians in The Building mimicking the uniforms that is unnerving, as they are peripheral, if important, members of military culture. But it still sounds unseemly and probably why the Pentagon gets blamed for the military's torturing of the English language. All of this is to say, mock it if you will (even I do sometimes), but don't forget it's inherent to military culture. And there's nothing wrong with that.


  1. Despite the disclaimer, I feel compelled to defend myself. (Where else do you see the "trend" of "denigrating military jargon"?) While I certainly agree that specialized language can be important to professional culture, both as a mark of identity and a useful mechanism for communicating technical (and sometimes very specific) concepts, I think your well-intentioned defense is misdirected. I don't think people are complaining about bitch plates and Ambush Alley, but rather about the proliferation of nearly meaningless cliches and idiomatic expressions in military speech. When friends and acquaintances use obscure technical jargon or nicknames for terms and concepts with which I'm not acquainted, it doesn't bother me one whit (and I'm not really sure who it would bother, or why). But when you hear "long pole in the tent" or "pin the rose" or "tip over the apple cart" or "scratch the itch," I think a lot of people have cause to reflect on whether any meaningful information is being conveyed. It's not like calling the floor a deck, or saying "welcome aboard" a base that's on land, or calling every installation a "post." Those things may be inherent to military culture, but the useless cliches aren't. I think it's a meaningful exercise when we highlight that goofiness, because it's an impediment to clear communication -- if only because those things are a distraction to many people. Hell, just last Friday we had a perfect example: in Dave Barno's really quite good guest piece for Tom Ricks in which he outlines ten priorities for the next Chief of Staff of the Army, I counted no less (and this is a very, very conservative tally) than 14 intances of low-value metaphor, unnecessary jargon, and cliches or idiomatic expressions.

    There may be "nothing wrong with that," but the better question might be "what's right with that?"

  2. Oh dear. I've gently poked at the acronym thing at SWJ and at Schmedlap's old place.

    I never thought about the bonding point, Jason. What a good point and what a good reminder to be respectful of the profession of others. Thank you.

    I sure do find all kinds of ways to put my foot in my mouth, don't I? Perhaps I should give up on the milblogs and read up on Miss Manners or Emily Post or something.

    On jargon:

    It depends. Such language is meant as a verbal shortcut between professionals in working environments. If the jargon impedes understanding then it loses its reason for being.

    Take the example of the word lesion. Lesion is medical jargon, or terminology, and has many perfectly good uses.

    In my working world, however, it is widely overused. Biopsy requistions for the lab come in with the word lesion on them (under the clinical information section) and nothing else. While the information I need for an accurate diagnosis may be elsewhere in the electronic medical record, I find that the overuse of the word has eroded resident and student understanding of disease processes. Or, at least, it has made them intellectually lazy at times.

    If you describe a lesion as "a brown spot the size of a quarter," well, that is meaningful to a diagnostician. It is a description that leads me to think of an entire differential diagnosis. It might be a mole, a melanoma, a seborrheic keratosis (a common benign skin lesion), or something else.

    See what I did there? Lesion is useful in some settings and less useful in others. If I said "the patient has a lesion" it's more jargon-y but less meaningful.

    At any rate, you don't want jargon to stop you thinking. That's the problem with seeing it be reproduced everywhere. You might gloss over the very first steps of understanding if you go right for the acronym.

    So, it is setting dependent.

    Just make sure that you don't gloss over an important point or make an assumption because you chose jargon over spelling things out. Jargon can make you intellectually lazy if you are not careful :)

    Good post!

  3. @ Gulliver - Most of this wasn't directed at you. I've noticed comments growing in the comments sections at other blogs. As for useless and vapid metaphors, I still stand by my post. It is ridiculous language that doesn't help anyone understand what is being said, but those types of sayings are still dominant within the culture. In my uneducated opinion on this topic, it has a lot to do with Southern influence on military culture. I also stand by the statement I made that it's fine to talk like that amongst other military types, but not so much to the outside world. We both know, alas, that that doesn't happen.

    @ Madhu - you're absolutely right. Culture or not, jargon still needs to be clear and not a substitute for lazy thinking or speaking. That is certainly often the case with military language.

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