The Military Needs a War on Jargon
Image Credit: Department of Defense

The Military Needs a War on Jargon


My colleague and one-time professor Milan Vego, the hardest-working operational thinker around, pens an essay "On Military Creativity" over at Joint Force Quarterly. It's well worth your time if you're interested in how armed forces (and other big institutions) transact business and, sometimes, deliberately or unwittingly, hobble their capacity to adapt on the fly. Read the whole thing.

Milan zeroes in on certain unhealthy traits in military culture. Channeling George Orwell, for instance, he reproaches the U.S. military for abusing jargon, buzzwords, and, I would add, acronyms. Plainspoken language conveys meaning; convoluted or vague language can disguise it. In the best case, buzz phrases erect a barrier between insiders steeped in the language and outsiders — elected officials, ordinary citizens — to whom the institution is accountable. Officials and officers sometimes throw up a barrage of jargon when asked uncomfortable questions, much as World War II naval task forces threw up a hail of gunfire when they came under aerial assault.

Or, there's conformism, a habit reinforced by selection and promotion processes that reward those who execute established procedures to perfection. Milan points out that "doctrine can easily slide into dogma," degenerating into operational or strategic maxims bereft of thought. By no means is this a purely American thing. Corbett won no friends in the Royal Navy for writing that premising plans on maxims such as "the enemy's coast is our frontier" was like opening a campaign by singing Rule Britannia. Armies once hurled men against fire, sure in the belief that morale would triumph over fixed defenses.

Renegade thinkers — the best antidote to groupthink — may find themselves passed over at promotion time if they push outside-the-box ideas too vociferously. Not for nothing does Irving Janis, who literally wrote the book on groupthink, counsel senior leaders to appoint a devil's advocate to any team, and to evaluate that person's performance specifically by how well he combats orthodoxy within the group. That approach creates countervailing career incentives to offset conformism. Through such measures, wise leaders try to keep the institution's dogma from running over its karma.

My lone critique of the essay is that most of what Professor Vego says is true not just of military services but of all large, bureaucratic bodies. Singling out the armed forces obscures that fact. Militaries often stand accused of planning to fight the last war, but isn't that what all bureaucratic institutions do? They plan to execute the same routine tasks, the same way, over and over again. Indeed, that machine-like efficiency is the beauty of big organizations according to theorists like Max Weber, the 19th-century German sociologist who wrote so fluently on the topic.

Trouble is, sometimes the surroundings change around an organization, leaving it out of step with reality. Robert Komer, who oversaw civil pacification in Vietnam, accused the U.S. Army of fighting the war it was designed to in Indochina rather than the war it needed to. Bureaucracy, maintained Komer, did its thing. Writing in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Todd Greentree, who once taught in my department, opines that bureaucracy has done its thing again in Afghanistan, to similar malign effect.

Some battles, it seems, have to be fought again and again — and the internal ones are the toughest. Let's keep it nimble, commanders.

MAJ McCleish CNCS 2011
July 11, 2013 at 10:13

Try doing a JMO (had to) ommander’s intent with Milan and use IOT. “Vhat is this IOT?…say and write what you mean in words.” Lots of valid points for those who survived Vego to carry with them.

July 10, 2013 at 16:15

After reading just a few paragraphs of Vego's article and Professor Holmes' words I am questioning the loyalty and patriotism that Vego does or does not have. His words sound like a catalyst which promotes the authoritarian and bureaucratic red tape that the military must contend with, only to regurgitate military history and point out foreign countries tactics as better than ours yet offering no creative suggestions himself. He is playing the blame game.

War is equally an art, and a science not just in the technological meaning but in the parameters quoting Stephen Jay Gould "science is a procedure for testing and rejecting hypotheses, not a compendium of certain knowledge." Perhaps I would have liked to read an article that addresses the problems of the bureaucracy instead of blaming the military for Vego certainly gives many examples of strategic warfare. Possibly Vego is implying that "plain spoken language" should not be used when addressing bureaucratic institutions and that "convoluted and vague language that disguises" is a creative technique that should be deployed in usage when military commanders face stringent rules and regulations from authoritarian bureaucracies. Words are weapons. And the maxim "all is fair in love and war" comes to mind.

Morale is crucial not just for those in the military but for the citizens at large as well, Ghengis Kahn was aware of this; Hitler was not, or rather did not care, at least toward the end when he drove his soldiers in the ground tromping off to Russia. Vego sounds like a defeatist at best or worse an infiltrator to confuse and confound language that suits those in government working against our country's idealogical views. Those that criticize the military are not patriots they are infiltrators working from within to bring down morale or to corrupt in some form, especially when articles such as Vego's float around. His words are tantamount to conformism by belittlement. I have a better suggestion for this article, keep near the lavatory for proper usage.

"Bureaucratic institutions…plan to execute the same routine tasks, the same way, over and over again" is the very definition of insanity, doing the same thing expecting different results. Not to mention eviscerating the element of surprise because those we've fought before KNOW then our tactics and strategies and are full aware of the red tape that binds and restricts which is exactly what the authoritarian bureacracies desire. Just ridiculous! Perhaps this is one reason that recruiters have such difficulty in finding new enlists.

"…sometimes the surroundings change around an organization, leaving it out of step with reality." True, yet "circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power."~Benjamin Disraeli. SunTzu believed "supreme military skill lies in deriving victory from the changing circumstances." And, "the internal battles are the toughest" because we are struggling with the enemy with-in.

Perhaps it would have been better if Vego announced the reasons the bureaucracy has gained control over military command and suggested creative manuevers to untangle the red tape. Emphasis on certain words can create a chasm in the mind, distorting the true definition and supplanting meaning with subliminal suggestions-counterproductive I think is the right word.




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