29 August 2009

On Ridiculous Adjectives

Well, it's that time of the deployment—time to ensure all of the awards are written. There's a lot of unwritten rules which govern the writing of all Army awards (and evaluations, for that matter as well)—many of which were expressed with great insight in Robert Corham's excellent book about fighter pilot John Boyd, entitled Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.

Military writing seems to beg the use of superfluous adjectives, ill-concieved buzzwords and baffling grammatical constructions. I've never fully understood the military writing style, but I want to ensure that my Soldiers get awards and great evaluations, so I grumble, conform, and spell "82nd" as "82d".

Needless to say, I often have difficulty adapting from professional writing Starbuck to military writing Starbuck. If you read a lot, you tend to model your writing after the people you read. This is why I think I have such difficulty writing in the "Army style"-- after all, no one willingly spends time or money on collections of Army field manuals or memorandums, do they? In fact, some of the best military writing ever looks distinctly unlike anything you'd find in Army Regulation 25-50.

Anyway, here are some bizarre examples of Army writing that I've collected over the years:

  • Whenever you take part in an operation in which you shoot at the enemy, you need to add a superfluous adverb to make it sound awesome. For example, it's not enough to "engage the enemy"—you must "decisively engage the enemy". Decisively? As opposed to what, engaging the enemy indecisively?
  • We also tend to use the phrase "conducting [blank] operations" for damned near everything. We "conduct aviation operations", "conduct parachuting operations", you get the picture. But sometimes it goes too far. A safety-gram that we received before Halloween 2004 warned us that "children in the Fort Bragg area will be conducting trick-or-treating operations". Yes, it's time to read something other than the daily operations order.
  • Now, in a 21st Century military, we thrive on updating our tactics and our doctrine. Nevertheless, we also sometimes take the lazy route and simply change around our terminology so as to incorporate the military's latest buzzwords without actually changing anything else. Note that after September 11th, the Army seemed to change the names of all of its institutions to include the terms "warfighter" or "combat". For example, the US Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker changed its name to the US Army Aviation Warfighting Center, and the US Army Safety Center became the US Army Combat Readiness Center, despite the fact that they're still the same institutions (and often referred to by their old names). Do we really need to arbitrarily add "combat", "warrior" and "battle" to everything? Christ, it's getting to the point that you can't even shuffle paperwork without having to use a "battle stapler".
  • There's also a lot of buzz words we throw about for absolutely no reason. "Full-spectrum" is one of those terms. Try it—count the number of times you see the word "full-spectrum" thrown arbitrarily about in mission statements. Are we really operating across the "full spectrum" of combat? Hopefully not, because that means nuclear war, and baby, I don't do nuclear war.
  • There's also the Army's insistence on creating proper nouns out of thin air. The most blatant example of this occurred this year when, in an attempt to make the Army more appealing to families, the Army has decreed that the word "Family" is now a proper noun. I can imagine how the unveiling of this one played out. It must have been in a speech to Families, during which someone said, "Well, we're still trying to increase the amount of time Soldiers spend at home. Oh, but guess what—now, you're all proper nouns! Yeah, they capitalize 'Families' now. Okay, just the first letter."
  • Let's also not forget the perpetual confusion over which war we are in. Even though the current administration prefers the term "Overseas Contingency Operation", many feel this term isn't quite sexy enough, and regresses to the old term "Global War on Terror", despite the strategic difficulties which many feel accompany that particular term (In the eyes of many, to include David Kilcullen, lumping a number of movements together and aggrandizing them gives these groups a sense of legitimacy).
  • Finally, my all-time least favorite: abbreviating "82nd" as "82d" in official correspondence. Seriously, we've gotten to the point where I can't buy an 82nd (82d) Airborne Division bumper sticker because I'm afraid a 2nd grader will correct me and say that I forgot the "n" in 82nd. And he'd be right, too…

Christ, I hate writing awards.

Focus: Are there any more bizarre examples of Army writing that I'm missing? Feel free to chime in…


SWJED said...

Okay, as a young Lt in the Corps I had very serious problems with some of our Naval Correspondence requirements. For example, if I had to send out a letter requesting, say, three new sniper rifles, the request had to be written - …requesting three (3) new sniper rifles. Go figure.

Daniel Ford said...

I was an E-2 in France in 1957, so I still write 82nd. (I also write 'mike' instead of 'mic'. Indeed, when I learned to fly in later years, I would confuse the flight briefer by saying 'Baker' instead of 'Bravo', but I have now gotten over that.) I was glad to see your reference to Boyd and to know he is not yet forgotten. I'm writing my War Studies dissertation on how his thinking applies to, um, COIN. See War in the Modern World. Did you guys know that there's a whole profession of scholars theorizing on what you do? Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Daniel Ford said...

Oh, and by the way: the British don't say 'engage the Taliban'. They say 'smash the Taliban'. You might try that on and see if it fits.

J. said...

VA Sec and former General Shinseki is now writing articles about our Veterans (see Soldiers and Families discussion).

Love to see the term "deadly nerve agents," as opposed to the mild ones.

"think the unthinkable" - that someone might use a nuke. If lots of people are thinking the unthinkable, isnt that a contradiction?

Anonymous said...

Proofread those medal citations! And of course, everyone must end on how it reflects well on the soldier, his battalion, the division, and the Army.

My ETS award missed the first with "he is a great to himself" and up the chain.

Unknown said...

What's your take on how to pluralize acronyms? My battalion XO beat it into me that the pluralization is inherent in the acronym; thus, the Army Combat Uniform is ACU, but Army Combat Uniforms are also ACU. Weapons of Mass Destruction are WMD and never WMDs, etc etc.

Starbuck said...

Yeah, pluralizing acronyms and aircraft types are confusing. Some will say "F-16Cs", while others will say "F-16CS". (I fall into the first camp).

I could have sworn that there's something in an AP Style Guide book or something that covers plural acronyms.

Peter's Blog said...

I think your XO is wrong about all acronyms inherently being plural. I would refer him to owl.english.purdue.edu