“you mean more soldiers.” Dick Cavett

113323784_9480c02344 "It’s like listening to someone speaking a language you only partly know. And who’s being paid by the syllable. You miss a lot. I guess a guy bearing up under such a chestload of hardware — and pretty ribbons in a variety of decorator colors — can’t be expected to speak like ordinary mortals, for example you and me. He should try once saying — instead of “ongoing process of high level engagements” — maybe something in colloquial English? Like: “fights” or “meetings” (or whatever the hell it’s supposed to mean).

I find it painful to watch this team of two straight men, straining on the potty of language. Only to deliver such . . . what? Such knobbed and lumpy artifacts of superfluous verbiage? (Sorry, now I’m doing it…)

But I must hand it to his generalship. He did say something quite clearly and admirably and I am grateful for his frankness. He told us that our gains are largely imaginary: that our alleged “progress” is “fragile and reversible.” (Quite an accomplishment in our sixth year of war.) This provides, of course, a bit of pre-emptive covering of the general’s hindquarters next time that, true to Murphy’s Law, things turn sour again."  Cavett


These two gents certainly were adrift in a semantical whitewater rafting expedition.

A lot of generals have learned to speak a specialized dialect in which they utter broken, incomplete, sentences, stumble over words and never fully express an answer to whatever it was they were asked.  This is a technique, acquired I suppose, from observing others who have "made it" to high rank.  If you talk that way, it is impossible to analyze transcripts or memory and assign blame for a trip "south" in whatever process the general may be engaged.

State Department guys do not usually resort to such rhetorical devices, preferring to express whatever it is, in a preppy imitation of actual culture and learning.  Crocker has spent a lot of time around the military and I believe he has family connections to the soldiery.  So, his style is a blend of the two.  In private he can be quite pointed and nasty.  Somehow all the duhs, uhs, etc. disappear on such occasions.

At a conference I was moderating a few months ago, I grew weary of listening to this kind of "burospeek"  and asked one man if by "kinetic exhaustion" he meant "tired of fighting."  He admitted that he did.  pl


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24 Responses to “you mean more soldiers.” Dick Cavett

  1. Paul says:

    What is even more obscene than Petraeus and Crocker are the panels of congressional imbeciles who accept the nonsense without question. One exception: Rep. Ackerman pointed out that Petraeus was pushing rocks uphill. Indeed, these two were “puffing” questionable accomplishments.
    It seemed to me that Petraeus has grown uncomfortable in his role as George Bush’s hod-carrier.
    The military should thin the book of approved terms. Getting rid of “warfighter” and “combatant commander” and such other “puffing” terms would be a good start.

  2. Dick Cavett has a blog? I didn’t even know he was still around. God bless him.
    And God bless blogs…

  3. Binh says:

    I think these fellows were much more articulate:
    How is it that they made it as far as they did in the ranks while Petraeus got farther?

  4. Binh says:

    OK I just posted the wrong link in my previous comment:

  5. Fred says:

    There is not a leader in Congress who can afford to be ‘soft’ on ‘terrorism’ or they won’t be in office after the next election.
    Since this post discusses language, we should look at the quite effective change from the traditional use of the term ‘citizen soldier’ to ‘warrior’. Now, thanks to our current leaders, we no longer have ‘citizen soldiers’, we have warriors. We ‘citizens’ need pay no price nor bear any burden, that is done by the ‘warriors’. We citizens can all safely go back to worrying about Natalie Holloway or any of the other tragedies on Fox or ‘bitter’ scandals on the Drudge report that so effectively distract the MSM from ensuring the US has an informed electorate.

  6. Walrus says:

    It’s not just the Generals the entire Bush Administration is guilty of double plus bad newspeak.
    To put it neatly, there is a credibility deficit.

  7. JohnH says:

    Crocker and Petraus do represent progress of sorts — they speak in code to obscure the facts, whereas their bosses simply lie.

  8. In the 60’s Sessue Hayakawa stating boldly (later in US Senate) its all about semantics. Next President would do US a real favor and pass over a whole bunch of the senior flag ranks as did Marshall and FDR and find out if anyone can talk straight in the lower ranks. Actually, someone quoted me a factoid not sure about but stated 20% of military would not have met qual standards a decade ago. Don’t know if its true but does appear to be so in the flag ranks. Where do we get such men (and women)?

  9. Jackie Shaw says:

    Leila, Dick Cavett blogs in the NYTimes Opinion section. Look off to the right or scroll down.

  10. Montag says:

    A modern Major General speaks: “Men, I chastise you for your overly exuberant exaltation of your commanding officer. A more pertinent application of your endeavors would be to fiercely engage the enemy forces as expediently as is prudent in these circumstances.”
    Gen. Phil Sheridan: “Damn you! Don’t cheer me–fight!”

  11. Pale Rider says:

    Actually, someone quoted me a factoid not sure about but stated 20% of military would not have met qual standards a decade ago. Don’t know if its true but does appear to be so in the flag ranks. Where do we get such men (and women)?
    People who failed to get into the military ten years ago can now sail through basic training and school without so much as a second glance. By easing up on the standards, in order to feed the machine and keep the recruiting numbers out of the papers, we hand the already exhausted force more dregs to deal with.
    Now, it’s pretty clear–education, past history and criminal record does not indicate whether or not someone can straighten out their life in the military. A few certainly do, so it’s not all bad that we let marginal candidates in. Those lucky few who have an awakening in their life, a small family to care for, or some other situation can reverse the course of their life in the military.
    What can happen is this–a marginal troop shows up at a unit, begins to have problems with authority, and then a violent incident or a drug offense occurs. The unit has to then focus an inordinate amount of time on this individual. If they’re not able to get the Brigade commander to sign off on a chapter, they have to continue to absorb the troublemaker. It used to be that a Company 1SG could confer with the Company Commander, draw up a chapter document for any of a number of different types (failure to adapt, etc.) and the Battalion commander would bless off on it. Case closed.
    By making it harder for the chain of command, we risk having a permanent underclass of lower ranking troops. You can stay in for about 8-12 years as an E-4 and I think the ceiling for an E-5 has been upped to nearly 20 years, if you do it right; and it’s kind of hard to build an Army around a malcontent that can’t get promoted, won’t meet the standards and who isn’t worth the endless hours of paperwork and paper shuffling that occurs when they get caught for the eleventh time doing something wrong.
    You can’t send this person to schools, and what has created our professionalized military are the NCO Academies and the vast number of schools and skill enhancements that are out there. You can’t expect someone who can’t read and write to get their degree, as many are able to do when they have the right assignment. Few other militaries can boast the number of enlisted men and women who have college degrees. More importantly, we used to have a vast number of NCOs who held two or three different MOSs, multiple skill identifiers, and a wide array of varied duty assignments.
    Now, one rotation through a heavy tactical unit and two tours to Iraq virtually breaks the soldiers down–they don’t get schools, they don’t get breaks, and they have PTSD and family problems on top of the physical toll of spending two of three years in Iraq.
    The progress of the military is for more technology, but the ability to find people with those skills gets harder and harder.
    Ten years from now, will we have an Army full of unskilled, leaderless, brokedick E-4s that can’t adapt? And will we be smart enough to kick them out, en masse, and start all over again, holding people to high standards?

  12. Ed says:

    In order to cure this burospeak isn’t the first step to kill all the lawyers?

  13. Grimgrin says:

    Actually, say what you will about lawyers, most of them use words in a remarkably exact way.
    Burospeak is what develops when people need to say nothing, but need to also convince other people they have answered their questions. Legalese is to Burospeak what a shark’s tooth is to a squid’s ink.

  14. Fred says:

    Pale Rider,
    People who can sail into an enlistment contract don’t necessarily sail through basic training or AIT. All the instructors know that they might be in combat with their lives in the hands of these recruits. I can’t think of any drill instructors would pass someone who should be rejected and know a couple who took heat from junior officers more concerned with graduation numbers than real results. They never had to have a second talk with a second lieutenant when they were through teaching them the facts of life.
    I must disagree with your comments on career E-4’s that don’t or can’t conform. This is a leadership issue that will always be present. Some individuals are not fitted for military service due to personality or attitude. There are administrative ways to deal with them. There are plenty of effective 20 year veterans that make good sergeants, but wouldn’t be good platoon leaders or technical NCOs. Virtually all soldiers past their second tour know damn well that the military does not exist to care for a person’s soul but to fight wars. If you are looking to straighten out your life or generally get your act together joining the military is not the thing to do, now or ever. The fact is that enlisting for 4 years now means two tours in Iraq, a stop loss and another tour in Iraq. That is not going to change until the political leadership in the Whitehouse changes.

  15. Walter Lang says:

    The discussion about the quality of enlisted recruits is, of course, interesting, but the remarks in my post are about senior officers. pl

  16. Happy Jack says:

    This is a technique, acquired I suppose, from observing others who have “made it” to high rank.
    This type of behavior is to be expected from MBA-types. The question is, is this a function of recent leadership, or is it an ingrained culture dating back to the Whiz Kids?

  17. Pale Rider says:

    There are administrative ways to deal with them.
    As I outlined, those ways of dealing with them have been taken out of the hands of the leadership. No longer can a Company Commander get rid of the substandard troops–that has been kicked upstairs.
    Back on topic–I don’t see that there is any reward for a senior officer who speaks the actual truth. Wes Clark tried a few variations on that, and his candor (as well as his ability to get under the skin of people who were less talented than he is) cost him his job. Perhaps, at least in that example, he should have been rewarded for presenting a realistic assessment of what he needed to accomplish his mission. To hell with whether that was “political.” Take points away for the politics, reward points for “honest and detailed.”
    If there’s no reward, other than early retirement for a general officer who can speak clearly and plainly (we were beaten, our troops performed miserably, the equipment we have is shoddy, that plane is a death trap, etc.) then a system that rewards them for doublespeak perpetuates what we have now, and that’s a disturbing lack of candor from these people during a time of war.
    How do you build a system that gives points for clarity, candor and honesty? By the example of Col. HR McMaster? By the example of any of a number of junior officers who have stood up to their chain of command and said “no?” We live in a culture that has vilified the likes of Coach Bobby Knight for being an exacting and tough hardass and has exalted patriotism-doubting, sweet-talking incompetents who can’t keep us safe.
    Perhaps we need to return to the days when, in the Army at least, you couldn’t make rank unless you had a few Article 15s under your belt. No general officer should ever get to where he is without a few scrapes within an imperfect system.

  18. Mark K Logan says:

    It is no surprise that such language is used to
    conceal or mitigate uncomfortable thoughts, but why is it so prevalent in the ranks of leadership
    worldwide? Perhaps because generals are not people who can easily be laughed at?
    From “Doublespeak Detection” http://webserve.govst.edu/pa/Introduction/articles.htm
    “Ultimately, the most powerful weapons against doublespeak are belles lettres and humor. If Martin Luther was correct in his notion that “the best way to drive out the devil…is to jeer him and flaunt him, for he cannot bear scorn,” then perhaps the best way to expose and dispel doublespeak is through scornful laughter. Ironically, it is the devil himself—Mark Twain’s “mysterious stranger” in this case—who reminds us of our “one really effective weapon—laughter.” Laughter, he says, can blow “the colossal humbug…to rags and atoms at a blast, for against the assault of laughter nothing can stand”(164–65)—not even, we might add, the duplicity of language manipulation.”

  19. Andy says:

    The discussion about the quality of enlisted recruits is, of course, interesting, but the remarks in my post are about senior officers.
    One major factor, if not the major factor relates to the effects of the drawdown in the 1990s. Most senior officers today achieved critical gateway ranks during this period that allowed them to pass to the most senior levels.
    As an enlisted man during the 1990’s I saw some very negative effects among both the officer and enlisted corps as a result of the reductions in force combined with new promotion requirements. The military was trying to shed personnel and because of the “up-or-out” promotion and retention policies, promotion became hyper competitive. I saw too many outstanding officers forced out because of the zero-defect mentality that existed at the time as well as superfluous requirements like the necessity for a joint tour. Deviation from an established “career path” and missing any “checks-in-the-box” along the way (like the joint tour) was usually a career killer.
    This environment created a flawed incentive structure that rewarded careerism over creative thinkers and risk-takers. Those who got promoted were often those who best understood this bureaucratic environment and those who were best able to exploit the system to the benefit of their careers.
    “Grade inflation” became a huge problem during this time as Commanders sought to protect their people and keep them competitive for promotion. The result of this grade inflation is that almost every person was evaluated at the top of whatever scale was used. IOW, an “A” became the standard and about 95% of officers got these top marks. This had important impacts on promotion as boards could no longer rely on such grades to differentiate between officers. Instead boards looked to see if officers had all the “checks” they should have and then focused on the written portion of evaluations. These written portions became so important that writing them became a high art and science that were arguably the single most important factor that determined if an individual officer got promoted or not. As a result, an officer’s chance for promotion was directly and heavily affected by their own and their superior’s writing skill. Many officers were (and still are) required to actually write their own evaluations – superiors then edit them into final form. It shouldn’t be any surprise that officers in certain assignments had clear advantages under such a system not to mention careerists and self-promoters in general.
    Finally, the system encouraged selfishness among both peers and subordinates. As an example, I was a watch NCO at a large intelligence production facility. Each morning would begin with a “mass gaggle” brief to the senior staff. The first watch officer I worked for had me do a lot of the briefing to “share the wealth” and to promote the professional development of his subordinates. His peers suggested this was foolish and that he was “wasting” valuable “face time.” My next watch officer insisted on briefing everything and, indeed, was one of those “hovering” officers that vied for the attention of his seniors whenever they appeared on the watch floor. He was, by common judgment among NCO’s, a micromanager, a yes man and an ass-kisser. My personal judgment as a mid-level NCO was that my first watch officer was superior in almost every way, yet his next evaluation was comparatively mediocre and so his chances for promotion became zero. Rather than wait for the inevitable promotion denial – a couple years away, he left the service. The ass-kisser got great evaluations, made major below-the-zone and, last I checked (in the late 1990’s), LTC.
    Such instances were not uncommon at the time, at least in the areas where I worked. Many excellent officers still got promoted, but the biases in the system on the whole tended to favor careerists and were rather merciless on those who didn’t fit into certain preconceived molds.
    It should be noted that my experience was mostly with the Navy, though from many discussions on this topic with others over the years it seems to me the other services had the same issues. I believe all the factors laid out above directly resulted in too many mediocre officers achieving senior rank – officers who were accustomed and trained to please superiors and work effectively within political bureaucracies to the detriment of military ethics and leadership.

  20. Tim says:

    The promotion system to flag rank is controlled by the current flag officers so they will tend to promote people like themselves. Would Louis Puller or Holland Smith be wearing stars today?

  21. Don Bacon says:

    Admiral Mullen, 11 Apr:
    Q So what we were told a few months ago, that there was a decline at least in [Iranian] weapons that people were finding, turns out to be not true.
    ADM. MULLEN: I haven’t made the specific comparison. But certainly we never said, to the best of my recollection, we never said, yes, we’re convinced that there really — their behavior is much better. This Basra time convinced me that actually it isn’t.

  22. different clue says:

    I should think anyone smart enough to learn fluent
    burocratese would be smart enough to know, or relearn, fluent plain english; if they knew they would not be punished for speaking in plain english.
    If that is true, how can we create for senior officers the conditions under which plain english would be rewarded and not punished?

  23. Richard Whitman says:

    The scientific community is no better. I refer you to:http://www.improbable.com/airchives/miniair/2008/mini2008-04.htm paragraph 2008-04-04

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