When it comes to the successful mangling of the English language, I have long favored the U.S. Army as the most successful practitioner. It is capable of taking almost any concept or item of information and mangling it in such a way that virtually no one understands what is being discussed—including (sometimes) the briefer.
Back in 2001 (remember that year?) I recall attending a conference on Army Transformation (General Shinseki’s project) and failing to understand much of it—even though it was not innately complex). Eventually, I spoke to my neighbor, who I was to learn was a retired LTC and Vietnam combat veteran called Greg Wilcox (who was to become a good friend) and said: “Do you understand this?”
Greg looked a bit sheepish. “Er, no,” he replied. “Well, I understand some of it, but…”
It turned out there was nothing particularly complicated about Army Transformation except the communication of it—and some of the underlying assumptions. The trouble with clear communication is that it tends to expose flawed assumptions.
But why is this irrational practice allowed to continue? Let me offer a few thoughts on the matter. Am I being entirely serious? Given the number of military friends I have, perhaps not—but it is certainly true that clear communication is not one of the Army’s strengths. Mind you, you can probably say that about most large institutions short of dictatorships. You can criticize Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin every which way—but they certainly got their messages across.
- There is no relationship between the U.S. Army and rationality (and you can apply that statement to just about every army). War may at times be necessary—but it is never rational.
- Armies spend only a small amount of time actually fighting. Theoretically, they should train—but that’s expensive. As a consequence, for a great deal of time, they are a massive make-work machine. Confusion aids that task wonderfully.
- The U.S. Army loves acronyms—and one of the main purposes of an acronym (often the only purpose) is for the insider to understand (or pretend to) and the outsider to be confused. To use acronyms with ease shows that you are a member of the club.
- Officially (the real purpose may be otherwise) the whole idea of an Army briefing is to communicate yet it is politically impossible to admit that you don’t understand. Senior officers understand by definition which is why they are senior. More junior officers don’t want to admit ignorance for fear they will never be promoted to be senior.
- The Army operates on the basis on relatively short postings interrupted by training courses, exercises, and other distractions. As a consequence, no one is around long enough to really get to know anything—let alone each other. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but it is certainly true that the personnel churn is such that it can be an issue.
- Senior officers (by which I mainly mean generals) have a habit of becoming committed to projects independent of the underlying data. Projects then become positions they feel they have to defend. A major cause of such commitment is the fact that the officer concerned intends to retire to the supplier concerned. That is, of course, a clear conflict of interest—but it also common.
Well, I’ve kidded the Army enough—but actually it does have a serious communication problem—which is a theme I’ll pursue on another occasion. The good news is that the weaknesses of the institutional structure of the Army (the public relations aspect if you will) are more than compensated for by the courage and commitment of the Soldiers at the sharp end.
What prompted these thoughts was a radio segment discussing whether technology was making us more creative or less.
The findings were:
- The standard of writing is suffering since minimal effort is put into e-mails—and virtually none at all into texting.
- The standard of artistic expression is improving—as you would expect given the ever increasing emphasis on computer graphics.
Does one compensate for the other? All I know is that texting makes me very, very uneasy.