Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The tip of a really idiotic iceberg

Over time, working in or around the defense bureaucracy inures you to stupidity, contradiction, and doublespeak. That's the only explanation I can give for not having already written about the proposed "empowerment" of the National Guard Bureau (by elevating its chief to membership in the Joint Chiefs of Staff), an idea so prosaically and unremarkably dumb that until last night -- when Twitter started throwing a collective wobbly about the whole thing -- it never even occurred to me to try to explain its fundamental bankruptcy. And maybe I'll get to that at some point, but for right now I want to talk about something that's way more important: the Defense Department can't even decide on the appropriate acronym for its own name.

It's possible that there are people in the world who identify me as marginally overconcerned with taxonomy and the doctrinal lexicon (which is a totally separate condition from typography nerd-ism, with which I am also afflicted). If you don't know what that means, I'll tell you in clearer terms: I like to whine about people using words and acronyms incorrectly. And I'm a particularly careful observer of the strange brand of pseudo-English spoken in the Pentagon. So when my friend Jon Rue asked this morning if I could clarify whether "DOD" or "DoD" is the appropriate form, I was happy to answer. The only problem is that there isn't a good answer, and that's where my desensitization apologia above comes in: somehow, this seems totally normal to me.

You might not have known this, but the U.S. military has its own dictionary. It's called Joint Publication (JP) 1-02, the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. The simplest way to explain it is this: JP 1-02 takes all the terms and acronyms included in the various joint doctrinal publications and puts them in one place. If you're conversant in such things, you'll know from the title that the dictionary itself is a joint doctrinal manual; that means it's authoritative.

The preface of the manual lays out its scope and purpose: it "sets forth standard US military and associated terminology to encompass the joint activity of the Armed Forces of the United States," and the terms included "constitute approved Department of Defense (DOD) terminology for general use by all DOD components." To be even more clear:
This publication applies to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Services, the Joint Staff, combatant commands, DOD agencies, and all other DOD components. It is the primary terminology source when preparing correspondence, to include policy, strategy, doctrine, and planning documents. [Emphasis mine.]
That seems to just about settle it, right? JP 1-02 applies to everyone, and it's your primary source document for pretty much all writing, right? If you need to know the Department's position on the meaning of a specific term or acronym, you go to the dictionary: JP 1-02.

So what does 1-02 have to say about abbreviating the Department's name? Check out page A-45: it's DOD. This makes a lot of sense, seeing as the Pentagon refers to other Departments using the same format: DOS, DOJ, etc. (Curiously, the Department of the Navy is referred to as DON, while the Department of the Army is just DA. Don't ask me. Perhaps avoidance of "DOA" is self-explanatory.) So there you have it: DOD, simple as.

Oh, but not so fast, my friends. Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI/DODI) 5025.12, which is LULZily titled "Standardization of Military and Associated Terminology," uses "DoD" throughout. So does every other Department of Defense issuance (ppt) -- all other DoDIs and DoD Directives (DoDDs), plus Pubs, Manuals, Administrative Instructions, and Memorandums (sic; yep, that's correct DoD usage, too). You know what else uses "DoD"? DoD 5110.04-M, the "DoD Manual for Written Material."

THE DOD MANUAL FOR WRITTEN MATERIAL AND THE DOD INSTRUCTION ON STANDARDIZATION OF MILITARY AND ASSOCIATED TERMINOLOGY BOTH USE A DIFFERENT FORM THAN THE DOD DICTIONARY OF MILITARY AND ASSOCIATED TERMS. YA RLY.

Want to hear something even more awesome? The "Writing Style Guide and Preferred Usage for DoD Issuances" document (pdf), hosted on "The Official Department of Defense Web Site [sic] for DoD Issuances" and based on a memo from Bob Gates's executive secretary that Spencer Ackerman wrote about earlier this year (in a post called "Pentagon Issues Bitchy Acronym Memo (PIBAM)"), and which is a good quick-reference if you slept through 8th grade language arts, completely elides the whole dispute, noting only that "the acronyms 'DoD,' 'OSD,' and 'U.S.' do not need to be established upon first use." (The document also features a lowercase-o "DoD" in the ALL CAPS TITLE on the first page, not to mention specifying use of "website" in spite of the inclusion of "Web Site" in the header of the website/web site/Web Site on which it is hosted.)

But here's the absolute best part:
3. RESOURCES FOR WRITING DoD ISSUANCES. Use the resources in priority order below when you have questions on English usage, writing style, format, content, and organization of DoD issuances.
a. The Issuance Process
(1) Format, content, and organization Standards for each type of issuance.
(2) Frequently Asked Questions. [on the host website]
(3) Common Mistakes. [on the host website]
(4) DoD 5110.4-M, “DoD Manual for Written Material.”
(5) JP 1-02.
That's right, the authoritative "primary terminology source" that is codified in joint doctrine, the Department's dictionary -- JP 1-02 -- is only to be consulted if a conclusive answer cannot be found in a different DoD/DOD issuance... which in this case happens to offer a contradictory answer.

As if all of that wasn't bad enough, an older version of the usage guide included this provision:
The following acronyms and abbreviations may be used as adjectives only: U.S., DoD, POTUS, SecDef, DepSecDef, CJCS, VCJCS, DJS, VDJS, JCS, JS. Spell the terms out when using them as nouns.
So "DoD issuances" but "documents issued by the Department of Defense." (Or something.) The current version has eliminated that bit; now it only applies to "United States/U.S."

If you're still reading, quit. You've already thought about this for ten minutes longer than anyone else in the Pentagon. Which, in case you're wondering, seems like a safe substitute ("Pentagon," that is) for any of the various titles, acronyms, initialisms, or other forms of address used to collectively refer to the organizations and personnel who work in, around, beneath, or in connection with that building, and which/who seem incapable of conclusively deciding on what to call themselves.

Wait, I've got one last acronym for you: FML.

4 comments:

  1. Great post. I have to ask though, was calling 'FML' an acronym supposed to be ironic? Quite clearly it is an initalism, not an acronym.

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  2. Gulliver. Doctrine. And DOD.

    mene mene tekel upharsin.

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  3. I have to ask though, was calling 'FML' an acronym supposed to be ironic? Quite clearly it is an initalism, not an acronym.

    Oh, how I enjoy having this pointed out to me by a non-native speaker of English! God, this fills me with self-loathing at my own ineptitude in other tongues.

    But seriously, DoD (or DOD) doesn't recognize the distinction between acronyms and initialisms, so I probably just confused things by even mentioning that in the closing. Everything is an "acronym" to DOD. Which is sort of a simultaneously depressing and funny illustration of what I'm talking about here, because they've got it exactly backwards: all acronyms are initialisms, but not all initialisms are acronyms, and certainly not all of those things the DOD calls "acronyms" actually are.

    (Having said all of that, you could ask 100 native speakers of English the difference between an acronym and an initialism and I'd be surprised if you found two who could tell you. Not that this matters to a nit like me, of course.)

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  4. bdoran -- It's not clear to me what you're getting at, but your invocation of a symbolic phrase that's employed idiomatically rather than literally is noted with amusement.

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