James Holmes

The Military Needs a War on Jargon

“Plainspoken language conveys meaning; convoluted or vague language can disguise it.”

James R. Holmes

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.

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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.

James R. Holmes
Contributing Author

James R. Holmes

James R. Holmes is a defense analyst for The Diplomat and a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College where he specializes in U.S., Chinese and Indian maritime strategy and U.S. diplomatic and military history.

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