Officership and the English Language

Essay: 100 Years of the Marine Corps Gazette

John Lejeune, Alfred Cunningham, Al Gray, and Robert Nell
John Lejeune, Alfred Cunningham, Al Gray, and Robert Neller / AP, Wikimedia Commons
• March 11, 2016 5:01 am


To speak of "the profession of arms" is to imply that military officers don’t just have jobs, but—like doctors, lawyers, and members of the clergy—are members of a community of learned practitioners. It follows that a good officer keeps up with the latest innovations in his field, follows a body of professional literature, and contributes to that literature as his career progresses. You wouldn’t want your heart surgeon simply applying by rote whatever he learned years ago in medical school. Technology and best practices evolve, and survival depends on how abreast the good doctor is of the state of the art. For quite similar reasons, the nation expects more than just rote performance from its infantry commanders, bomber pilots, and ships’ captains.

I have in front of me the 100th anniversary issue of the Marine Corps Gazette—the semi-official professional journal for Marines—in which the editors have reprinted the greatest hits from their first century. I admit to having spent a very pleasant chunk of my week reading through the thoughts of one Colonel John Lejeune on considerations for the mobile defense of advanced bases; Major Alfred Cunningham’s account of the early years of Marine aviation; General Al Gray’s observations on the art of command; a Lieutenant General Robert Neller’s response to the "Young Turks" who had been making trouble in these very pages; and more classic contributions besides.

For Marines, or for those who take an interest in the Marines, these pages constitute snapshots of the evolution of the Corps from (as the Gazette’s editor, retired Colonel Christopher Woodbridge, points out) a naval security force of 75 officers and 3,000 men in 1898 to the mighty national institution that exists today. Of particular note is how many principles of critical importance to the Corps were addressed and settled early. Lejeune emphasizes in 1916 that Marines must be trained and indoctrinated as infantrymen, regardless of their specific jobs, because the infantry "possesses in a superlative degree, the very highest military qualities." Later that year a Major John Russell (later the 16th Commandant) praises the quality of Prussian doctrine and staff culture. In 1920, Cunningham addresses the importance of integrating aviators into the broader culture of the Corps—and provides a defense for the failure to better accomplish this during the fast-paced days of World War One.

Rober Neller

Then-LtGen Robert Neller / AP

This is all well and good, but perusing these early contributions, something else stuck out that was of even greater interest: these guys could really write. Almost without exception, the articles from the first half of the 20th Century are composed in clear, elegant, precise language. Cliché is rare, as is undefined jargon. Any educated human with a basic knowledge of military affairs could follow and attempt to evaluate these pieces for himself. The prose offers little defilade for muddy thinking to hide.

Lejeune’s two articles stand out particularly in this regard, despite his occasional weakness for Georgian flourishes. ("Surely, this is a mission…which furnishes a spur to energetic effort and zealous labor in time of peace, so as to attain the true soldier’s Elysian state…") He has a gift for vivid metaphor. Artillery doesn’t fire, it "throw[s] its projectiles into the city…" Preparation for combat is important because "wars nowadays come with the suddenness of a magazine explosion…" Perhaps most importantly, terms of art are carefully defined: "I think there is some confusion…in the mind of the ordinary Marine officer like myself, as to the meaning of the term ‘Advance Base.’"

Cunningham, too, is a more than decent stylist. Though it may seem unimportant, I couldn’t help but notice the confidence of this simple transition:

Judging from the unfamiliarity of the average Marine officer with what has been accomplished by Marine aviation, we have failed woefully to advertise. A short résumé of what has been accomplished will perhaps be of interest.

Alfred Cunningham

Major Alfred Cunningham / Wikimedia Commons

Are Cunningham’s economy and precision in these two relatively unimportant sentences absolutely critical? No. But just as having well-rolled sleeves or carefully bloused boots are taken by officers to be signs of discipline, precise language, even when not essential, ought to be taken as a sign of clear thinking. And all the military discipline in an organization will be for naught if its leaders lack clear thinking on which to base their commands.

There are many fine articles here published after World War Two—the 1989 piece from a group led by William Lind on so-called "fourth generation" warfare is well nigh prophetic—and there are some nicely written ones, too. Neller’s response to quarrelsome young officers is as clear as anyone could ask. But it can’t be denied that, in general, the quality of the prose during the Gazette’s second half-century declines, judging by these examples.

The main culprit is compulsive overreliance on unnecessary technical language—jargon and acronyms—which, again based on these examples, officers like Lejeune seemed to get by without. The problem manifests in earnest with a committee report on the organization of the infantry division in 1957, and metastasizes during the following decades. I could present many dozens of acute examples as evidence, but for space’s sake will stick to a single illustrative moment from a piece devoted to the Marine invasion of southern Afghanistan in 2001:

In keeping with the notion that problem identification constitutes only half of the process, a few recommendations are offered. A good place to start is with the 35th Commandant’s stated priorities, which tell us to "aggressively experiment with and implement new capabilities and organizations" designed to "succeed in distributed operations and increasingly complex environments"…

In fairness to the author, the prose that is really objectionable here is not what he has produced, but the document that he quotes. Some of the jargon is forgivable: "distributed operations," for example, has a specific meaning—small units using modern communications to operate while dispersed very widely on the battlefield. As ever with technical terms, it is easy to see the convenience of relying on shorthand that one expects to be understood by fellow professionals.

But here’s the problem with jargon. It begins as a simple convenience, but in time encrusts your language, and thus your thinking, with barnacles of hidden and no-longer examined assumptions. Even more dangerous, and perfectly illustrated by this example, is that it dulls the mind of the reader to the point where it is possible to slip in a word or phrase that obscure much more than they reveal, often at critical junctures. Here, the guilty party is "increasingly complex environments," a suicide bomber concealed in a crowd of technical terms, perfectly placed to murder years of subsequent planning and derivative thought.

To say that today’s battlefield is "increasingly complex" may be true, but what purpose does it serve when paired with the imperative to "experiment with and implement new capabilities and organizations"? (Don’t forget to do so aggressively!) My answer: the phrase's purpose, likely unconscious, is to punt. It is banal and obvious to say that a battalion commander’s world is more complicated today than it was in 1916. So what "capabilities and organizations" are officers meant to design to deal with the undefined blob of the newly "complex" battlefield? Is it desirable or even possible that Marine units be prepared to deal with every potential aspect of 21st century warfare? How much useful planning can be done without defining possible operating environments more narrowly than "increasingly complex"? Does this imperative require the Corps to cut back on experimenting with better ways to conduct operations in noncomplex environments? After all, a Marine expeditionary force conducted a highly conventional campaign as recently as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Tough questions. Important questions. But rather than point to them, the faux-sophisticated language of my example obscures them. The combination of forgivable technical shorthand and borderline-meaningless terms presents the appearance of depth and careful thought, when it is actually shallow and careless. Lejeune, judging from his own careful prose, wouldn’t have stood for it.

Now, this is all very hard on one short passage ripped from its context, not to say a quote within that passage entirely ripped from its own surroundings, itself the product of much committee work. The Corps has given more thought to "complexity" than this single passage—as has, indeed, the rest of the Department of Defense, where "complexity" currently reigns as a kind of all-purpose totem that many more seem to worship than understand. But even if this one example is slightly unfair, officers know that language of this nature is generally the norm in official communications and professional writing, and not just in the Marines.

That’s an enormous problem for the profession of arms—one not entirely of its own making, but surely related to the declining quality of secondary and higher education in America. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the military is dependent on the clear thinking of its leaders, the safety of the republic depends upon the effectiveness of the military, and the whole rules-based international order depends upon the leadership of this great country. So, all hail the Marine Corps Gazette! May its centennial issue serve both as an inspiration, and as a warning.