We do bad things to bad people: Oversimplification in the Military

The other day I noticed another soldier building a “smart book.” A “smart book” is informal military terminology meaning a book that contains lots of information, allowing the soldier who wields it to be “smart.” People in the military like to pare things down to their basic elements so that they’re most easily understood – that’s a good thing.

What caught me with this was that the title of the actual book that was printed on the cover was “smart book.” I thought about it for a moment and remembered back to learning about the book, and the jokey way it was introduced to me. The term “smart book” has been used so much that it has become the actual thing and not the thing it represents. People don’t build a book containing lots of information for a specific reason, they build a “smart book.” The whole process has evolved, and I don’t know if it’s for the better.

I suppose I see this most with the way language is used in the military. A few years ago, before I came back in, I remember this story about the Marine veteran being heckled at a town hall meeting at Columbia University about the potential return of ROTC (I wrote about it here). People started laughing at him when he says this [audio]:

“It doesn’t matter how you feel about war, it doesn’t matter how you feel about fighting, other parts of the country – or, other parts of the world, are plotting to kill you right now, when you go to bed. [laughter] It’s not a joke! There are a lot of tough men out there willing to do bad things to bad people to keep you safe. These people are trying to kill you. They hate America, and they hate you. [heckling]. It’s true, and I’m not lying about it, because I’ve been there, I’ve seen it. I know these people. So when you think that war is evil, it’s true, I believe you [more heckling] war is evil, but it’s not a choice that you have, and it’s not a choice that I have.”

The proximate reason I think he was heckled was because of the simple language he used to describe the reason for the military’s existence (people out there trying to kill you when you go to bed, bad things to bad people, etc.) To an audience of college students, that’s a gross simplification. Maschek, the Marine student-veteran, was informed by years of military service where NCOs and Officers stood in front of formations and said those same things “bad things to bad people” because it was a simple way of generating enthusiasm among the men (and women).

What works in the military for cheep hooahs and oorahs doesn’t translate into the civilian world. Worse, I think it might dumb us down from tackling problems in a thoughtful way.

There’s more to this phenomenon than I understand right now. Maybe I’ll write about it again later – I’m not even sure what to call it. Just some thoughts.

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