I suspect that anyone who serves, or has served, in the armed forces will accept, I think, that they exist or have existed in an acronym-rich environment.
I first became aware of this as a very junior subaltern, and was moved to write a whimsical piece for my regimental magazine which incorporated as many of the then current acronyms in everyday use that I could think of.
It was indeed a foreign language to everybody else.
This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
The author, Stuart Crawford, was a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford attended both the British and US staff colleges and undertook a Defence Fellowship at Glasgow University.
More recently I was reminded of this phenomenon when compiling the glossary for a military themed book I have just completed. It runs to at least four and a half pages of mostly acronyms. Although most would probably understood by the military reader, a civilian would most likely be mystified by the bulk of them. We military and ex-military people do speak a different language at times, which is probably not altogether a good thing.
More recently, however, I have been alerted to the growing concern over what can only be described as military gobbledy-gook being spouted by, in some cases, the higher echelons of our military hierarchy. The first example I took any note of was when a commander of some nameless organisation asserted that his unit’s mission was to “deliver effects”. What on earth does that mean? It sounded to me like he was in charge of a white van delivery service.
Whatever has happened to “defeat the enemy”?
I noted that there was a groundswell of opinion on the topic from others on this particular topic, so I decided, as one does in these enlightened times, to turn to the wonderful world of social media to ask my fellow travellers for examples with which I might further illustrate this article. Some of the responses are listed below and need no additional comment from me.
Some of the views expressed were:
“Pieces written at the senior level could come straight out of a business management lecture from the 1980’s, hosted by David Brent. The ability to write so many words and yet say so little make politicians look like amateurs.”
“It’s awful in some places. Some of my favourites so far: ‘Unpacking a problem’ ‘Get after it’ ‘Opera-cise’ ‘Federated Sprints’ ‘Set piece back briefs’ ‘Leadership acumen’ ‘Talking to space’ ‘Information is lethal’ ‘Blue light matrix’. The list goes on and on.”
“If only real English were used in grammatically normal sentences then it would at least be understandable. The lazy careerist adoption of ‘vogue’ phraseology is an area I would seek adjustment. ‘Get after’, ‘piece’ and countless short-hand phrases our allies don’t recognise.”
“Some recent examples: ‘delivery’ for anything from projects to security but not of supplies; ‘migration’ meaning change; ‘stepping up to plates’; ‘victim operated devices’ (mines); ‘interface’ (boundary); ‘game-changer’; & the worst alongside ‘delivery’ is ‘kinetic’ for lethal.”
“‘Getting after’ has made its way into the Navy too. I don’t think it’s going away any time soon as CDS and the other 4*s use it all the time … any unscripted address or Q&A session with a senior officer seems to include a few ‘getting after’s’ these days. Absolute nonsense.”
“When did parachuting become ‘Joint Theatre Entry’? Why? It’s just total rubbish.”
And some examples from official published sources:
“Today, all operations are a combined effort. Pulling together every component of the army, including those engaged in activities in cyberspace, to create an irresistible effect. All elements in an orchestra, operating in harmony.”
“Air-to-air sniping is about as challenging as it gets. The seam between the air and ground domains is complex, the RAF Regiment brings focus and intellectual rigour to understanding this environment.”
And finally a heartfelt plea from a civilian organisation on the prospect of moving away from such mumbo-jumbo:
“That would be super useful for those of us who work with the MoD as a client who aren’t military ourselves.”
Now, these quotes are merely the result of a random straw poll on Twitter and cannot be taken as hard scientific evidence of the extent of the plague that currently besets military language. Nor am I the best qualified to draw attention to these matters, in fact some would say that I am hardly qualified at all. For those who might to delve deeper into the lack of plain English in current military discourse may I draw your attention to the splendid article ‘It is time to kill our darlings‘ by the wonderful and expert Merryn Walters in the online blog The Wavell Room?
I won’t spoil it for you but must just feature one particular quote here:
“There is no easy way to put this: until leaders turn their backs on buzzword-laden homilies that are an inspiration to no man and, instead, find some respect for a skill mastered by few but instinctively admired by many … we will carry on shooting ourselves in the foot. It is only a matter of time before that will lead, directly, to someone getting shot in the head (if it hasn’t already).”
And in passing I must just ask; has anybody hired Ms Walters to teach our senior officers how to write and speak in plain English and, if not, why not?
The other question I need to ask is why people do this? Why do they employ obscure and convoluted language to express themselves when there are easier ways to get their ideas across? I think there may be a number of inter-related answers to this one. The first is perhaps acceptance, or the need not to be seen to be different from the current paradigm. If CDS, for example, is championing this sort of gibberish then best just to go with the flow and not stand out. Might not be good for future advancement, know what I mean? It’s very easy to fall prey to what others have called “the tyranny of the prevailing orthodoxy”, although maybe I’m in danger of going down the same path with that one!
Next might come what I call entry into the brotherhood of the cognoscenti, a sort of closed, quasi-masonic sect, without having to go through all the hassle of rolling up your trouser leg and jumping over the goat’s back, or whatever they do. Using the convoluted language and expressions of modern military-speak brings admittance to an exclusive club where everyone can speak complete codswallop without fear or criticism or ridicule because all the other members express themselves in the same manner. Safety and security from the outrageous arrows of fortune in the form of the mirth of others is provided by the exclusive language cult.
Closely related is the overwhelming desire to be regarded as clever and smarter that one’s direct competitors and peer group. In their minds using esoteric language signals their higher intelligence and greater knowledge, gaining entry to the brotherhood of like-minded souls who, clearly, are a superior breed. The reality is, of course, is that it tends to do exactly the opposite and make those who espouse the new military-speak the objects of amusement and ridicule. Plus most folk don’t have a Scooby-doo what they’re talking about.
So, a plea from me and many, many others. Let’s get back to using plain, simple English in our written and spoken communications. As the army diminishes in size and accordingly becomes even more distanced from everyday society, being understood by both the soldiers under command and the population at large becomes ever more important. If they don’t understand, they are less likely to be supportive. How could they be? They don’t know what’s going on.
I finish with some words of advice from George Orwell, who I think most would agree was quite good at writing:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word when a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Orwell’s fifth rule above seems to me to be particularly apposite, and I commend it to you. Senior officers and their drafting staff take heed!