A cheery huzzah! goes out to Representative Elaine Luria and Representative Jack Bergman for championing the cause of plainspoken language at the Pentagon.
Stars & Stripes has the story of how U.S. House Armed Services Committee members grilled U.S. Navy leaders over the state of surface-fleet upkeep. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report took the sea service to task for maintenance shortcomings nigh on five years since the annus horribilis of 2017, when the U.S. Pacific Fleet saw four incidents at sea that resulted in the deaths of seventeen sailors. In 2020 a major combatant vessel burned to the waterline in its homeport owing to deficiencies in firefighting and damage-control prowess. Trouble lingers.
As Stars & Stripes sums up the GAO report, surface-fleet maintenance is still “plagued by insufficient staffing and equipment, inadequate training, low morale and missing data.”
During the hearing, Representatives Luria and Bergman reproached the vice chief of naval operations, Admiral William Lescher, and the Pacific Fleet surface-force commander, Vice Admiral Roy Kitchener, for failing to explain themselves clearly—and help lawmakers grasp the problems afflicting the surface navy and judge the efficacy of measures put in place to solve them. Bergman exhorted naval chieftains to “stop with the acronyms.” Luria remarked that “Reading your statement, hearing you speak, you seem to be choosing your words very carefully, but they don’t really sound like normal people in the Navy speak. They don’t sound like words the normal public would listen to.”
Unclear communication is a chronic failing in the U.S. military, and perhaps in armed forces in general. It’s an open secret that military folk has a habit of obscuring even simple, straightforward concepts in clouds of acronyms, buzzwords, and arcane jargon. Insider language befogs understanding of martial strategy and programs among key stakeholders in the defense enterprise, namely lawmakers and the American people. By extension, creating a secret society, wittingly or unwittingly, reduces the likelihood that the Defense Department will rally public support behind bigger defense budgets or newfangled programs and hardware. Officers, enlisted, and civilian officials should resolve to make themselves great communicators—or resign themselves to muddling through at best.
To get started they could do worse than read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946). It’s short, yet Orwell uses those few pages to teach a master class in clear use of the language. He frets in part about deliberate obfuscation, observing how deceitful use of metaphors and other abstruse devices lets public speakers or writers defend the indefensible. In the main, though, he seems worried about sloppy use of the language. He maintains that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer.” Decline is embedded within the larger culture and society. Worse, he says, “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.”
Orwell sees that baneful cycle bedeviling the English language. “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. But he espies good news: “the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”
Taking the necessary trouble would be worthwhile for Pentagon officialdom. Cleansing the language can be done. Take for example an important passage from strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz, known as a keen thinker but a dense writer. He’s commenting on the match between policy and strategy: “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”
Word salad, right? But it’s easy to simplify the concept for those not steeped in martial lore. All Clausewitz is saying is that rationality should reign even amid the chaos of war. How much you want something determines how much you’re prepared to pay for it by force of arms, and for how long. And if after awhile you decide you’re overspending on your goal, you should stop paying for it. That’s all. Stay rational with the national treasury just as you should with your personal finances.
This obscure-seeming concept lends itself to metaphors intelligible to nonspecialists. In basic physics, for example, it’s commonplace to measure the total amount of something in transition by the rate at which it changes state and the time it spends changing state. Rate * time = total. That’s what Clausewitz is saying. Magnitude is the rate at which a belligerent expends militarily relevant resources, and duration is the time it keeps up the expenditure. Rate * time = the total cost of the belligerent’s goal. If the leadership doesn’t care enough about its goal to pay the necessary price, it should abstain from the effort; if it undertakes the effort and the cost spirals out of control, or if the leadership stops caring about its goal enough to pay the price, it should exit the endeavor on the best terms it can.
If Orwellian magic works on a treatise from a long-dead Prussian, it can work on language explaining U.S. Navy maintenance woes and remedies. Better yet, it can help mariners explain themselves on a range of naval matters.
Banish acronyms and jargon.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone”