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Language Behaving Badly: Strategic Reachbacks, Service Members and Operation Nude On

Researching sticky bombs on my last deployment in Iraq, I went to the Counter-IED Operations Integration Center (COIC) website. Here is the old description of what they think they do (which has since been changed):

“The COIC was established in August 2006 and directly serves warfighters’ efforts to focus attacks on enemy networks employing IEDs. A vital Attack the Network initiative, the COIC is a disruptive change agent to energize the warfighter’s ability to gain access to seemingly disparate information and data sources to create vital, common operating pictures. The COIC also provides an avenue for strategic reachback to collaborative, fused, multi-source analysis and innovation across critical DoD, government, industry, and academic organizations and agencies.”

One question: what the hell were they talking about?

Between “vital Attack the Network initiatives” (great use of capitalization) and “common operating pictures”, these guys stopped writing English. My favorite phrase is “disruptive change agent”; I don’t even know what that means. Later, I read this description of the Virtual Battlespace 2 (an Army simulator), “The first of a new class of 3D collective tactical level knowledge transfer tools”. Knowledge transfer tool? I think they mean “video game.”

I’m not the first person to complain that the Army uses incomprehensible jargon. Or that the Pentagon speaks its own language. But really, can we have too many blog posts mocking the Army’s bureaucratic jargonese? I didn’t think so. Without further ado I present some of my least favorite Army buzzwords:
1. Counter-terrorism: How do you counter terrorism? Countering terror? And when did it become the opposite of counter-insurgency? Because of Vice President Biden?

We use “counter-terrorism” as a lexical stand in for “direct action”, a specific military term. Unfortunately, counter-terrorism will soon become our plan in Afghanistan, the way it did in Iraq, even though the military definition is so vague as to be useless.

(The old Army “dictionary”, called the inane “Operational Terms and Graphics” was very specific on what counter-terrorism means: offensive measures taken to prevent, deter and respond to terrorism. So what is terrorism? “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” Yep that barely helps.)

In the Army, counter-terrorism means, “fighting wars”.

2. Subject Matter Expert: I just want to point out that this term is directly synonymous with the word “expert”. There is no sentence that uses “subject matter expert,” or its abbreviation SME, that can’t use the word “expert”.

3. Network-Based Targeting: Ideally, the Army would have been attacking networks since day one in Iraq. Unfortunately, we never really attacked a network. We targeted individuals, and claimed to be wiping out networks. We have since started calling every organization in the Army a network to counter-terrorist networks.

In the Army, network means “organization”.

4. Take Back the Initiative: A reader might say, “Hey Michael C you used that yourself in this post title.” I can only apologize. Have sympathy for my co-blogger, who routinely edits my posts and says, “Michael, I don’t know what these words mean.”

I told him, “In the Army, take back the initiative means “start winning.”

5. Center of Excellence: If every organization in the Army is a “center of excellence,” then, by definition, none are excellent. Somewhere between the Joint Culinary Center for Excellence and the Contracting Center for Excellence, we lost sight of true excellence. Sorry, the law of averages wins this round.

(Eric C pointed out a few weeks back that West Point--thankfully--doesn’t have a “Counter-Terrorism Center of Excellence”, but the West Point Counter-Terrorism Center. I mean, it’s still “countering terror” but at least its not a center of excellence.)

In the Army, “center of excellence” means “school”.

6. Full Spectrum: Very rarely do military operations cover the “full-spectrum” of warfare. Full spectrum warfare encompasses humanitarian aid missions and nuclear war. Yep, we haven’t had that in our current wars. We fought counter-insurgencies that can seem very political and very violent at the same time, but they aren’t truly “full-spectrum”. And calling a platoon live fire exercise a “full-spectrum” operation is just abusing the term.

In the Army, “full spectrum” means “operation”.

7. Operation New Dawn: Not really that bad, but downrange we couldn’t stop saying it fast so it sounded like “Nude On”. So as soon as September 1st hit in 2010, we got our “Nude On” with a whole day of naked briefings.

(Not really. DADT hadn’t been repealed yet. [Kidding!])

8. Too Easy: This is a common Army phrase, but when I hear it, it means “I have no idea what I am doing.” I have heard too many officers or NCOs say, “Don’t worry, sir. I got this. Too easy.” And then they go ask someone what the hell is going on.

eight comments

And yes, I just started business school with its synergy, cross-functional teams, and streamlining change agents. Bureaucratic language just sucks.

When used as an anaphora (referencing something previously referenced) SME works just fine. And sometimes ‘expert’ alone doesn’t collocate very well. It’s not like there are many generic Galileo, Gaius Baltar-type experts running around out there to come running. You typically want an expert in something specific.

And yes, I was a linguistics minor.

@ Mateo – I see what you mean, but as we wrote—and as I’ve read too many times, SME becomes a synonym for expert. Maybe the new phrase has a meaning, but people abuse that meaning…it’s now no more than a synonym.

I also go with the Twain philosphy: a simpler word is better.

MC – Well said.

Mateo – A language expert like you should know the definition of expert: “a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority”

Today’s worst offender? The word “Decisive”, and its cousin, “Decisive Action”.

Army PAOs have tried to explain this to me on Twitter, but I still don’t get it.

Oh yeah, my “Center of Excellence” story:

The COG (Commander of Ops Group) of JMRC decided he would refer to JMRC as the UAV Center of Excellence for Europe. Keep in mind that there was nothing that really started to make it a “Center of Excellence”…they only had two O/Cs dedicated to UAVs, and we were just aviators pulling double duty.

So we started to refer to ourselves as the “Commandant” and the “Minion” (only one minion) of the UAS Center of Excellence. We put it on our PowerPoint slides and everything. I tried to get an OER bullet out of it too, but that never went through.

My personal pet peeve, and this goes far beyond the military, is “innovation.” The attempt to not only institutionalize the ineffable, but render an important concept utterly banal, is self-defeating. We seem to have taken two concepts, competence and flexibility, and wrapped them in a buzzword that merely feeds the bad idea fairy.

How about “Dynamic Retasking” – as an A/S3, I especially hated that one.