I’m not sure the genesis of the phrase, but for the last few years I’ve been hearing the term “setting conditions” used often and in many different contexts. At the small unit, tactical level, I’ve heard it a lot in the context of fire and maneuver.
“You have to ensure that you set the conditions with your support by fire to allow the maneuver element to move.”
I’ve also heard it used in preparation for meetings and briefings.
“Delete that slide. We want to make sure we’re setting the conditions for this course of action.”
I’ve also heard it – ad nauseum – at the operational and strategic level.
“Right now, we’re setting the conditions for the Afghans/Iraqis to take charge of their own security.”
A cursory search for the term in Army doctrine picked up a couple of paragraphs in reference to Airborne and Air Assault operations in Appendix C of the old FM 3-90 (Tactics). Other than that, nothing (doctrine nerds, please let me know if it exists elsewhere, other than speeches and Army social media).
It’s often said in that buzz-wordy way that implies that by simply uttering, the meaning is revealed. That is, it’s said a little more slowly than other words in the sentence, and usually strongly and clearly enunciated for emphasis.
It’s not necessarily a bad phrase, and in the three contexts cited, the phrase works and makes sense, although the speaker doesn’t really elaborate on what the conditions are and how exactly they are going to be set.
And that’s the problem with jargon; they often only imply what needs to be done without stating so directly.
In the first context, setting conditions likely means effectively suppressing the enemy so that the maneuver element can move without being fired upon. While that is implied by saying “set the conditions,” it is only understood if the implication has already been ingrained. I remember being a young, aggressive fire team leader during a Platoon Live Fire exercise. I was part of the Squad that would “knock out the bunker” and throw the grenade. I was also charged with calling for the shift fire and lift fires signals. I was of the mind that we should attempt to “shock” the enemy bunker by rapidly maneuvering on it, so I called for shift and life very quickly – the Weapons Squad hardly got in a burst.
At the AAR, I was told that I needed to exercise some “tactical patience” and “let the battle develop” (more Army buzz terms, by the way). Today, I would probably have been told that I needed to properly “set the conditions” for the bunker squad to move.
In the second context – and as an officer, I think I hear “setting conditions” in this regard more frequently – setting conditions is a means of gentle manipulation. A particular outcome is desired, and through some basic social psychology (in this case, deleting a slide from a PowerPoint presentation), the conditions are being set to effect the end result. There is nothing particularly ominous about this – subordinate leaders have always conspired among themselves to present data and ideas in a certain style of get the outcome they want (although Army officers, it has been revealed, are pathological liars).
What is interesting, is the way one might say we have to “set the conditions” in the same way one might say to a subordinate that he needs “acquire” a piece of lost gear before close of business, or face a statement of charges. The phrase is a wink and a nod towards deviousness and trickery.
In the third context, setting conditions is a kind of catch-all phrase that encompasses the entirety of things that need to happen to get to the next step. If the goal is winning a war or getting everyone home, then the way to do so is simply to “set the conditions.”
Everyone in the room nods, approvingly.