In the military, it’s hard to say “I don’t know”

Disrupting enemy activity

In the dozens of daily interactions military personnel have with one another, the phrase “I don’t know” is rarely heard.

It’s not that everyone in the military is so smart or well-read, it’s mostly a fear of admitting that one doesn’t know what he or she thinks she is supposed to know.

I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Standing in a hallway with a colleague talking about an upcoming training event or plan, I’ve nodded dutifully to a barrage of acronyms or concepts that I’m hardly familiar with.

Military terminology is so laden with jargon, acronyms, clichés, and buzzwords it is a small miracle when any information gets passed along at all.

Most officers can attest to a time some piece of information came across on a radio transmission or a phone call on speaker, and instead of responding immediately looks up to those around him mouthing “What did he say?”

We don’t want to admit ignorance to a subordinate because by virtue of our positional authority we are expected to know more.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our peers because we are supposed to be of equal knowledge, experience, and ability.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our superiors out of fear of seeming incompetent and losing trust.

The paradox of this fear is that in most instances it is refreshing to all parties to admit “I don’t know” or to ask the question “Wait, what does the mean?”

Asking a subordinate to clarify an elusive idea or concept gives him the opportunity to explain it in full to his boss. He gets the practice in unpacking the idea and the boss gains better understanding.

Stopping a peer from a barrage of acronyms to get clarification allows her to demonstrate mastery of memorizing another military acronym – a small military feat. That acronym, though, might be the one key to understanding the idea of what is being communicated. The peer will likely enjoy the small kick in dopamine for clearly knowing just a little bit more.

Seeking clarification from a superior on his insistence in hammering a clichĂ© or buzzword allows him to explain exactly what he wants while demonstrating that you -the subordinate- are actually interested in understanding. While it might not be true in all cases, most bosses don’t want blind compliance after a brief; they want true understanding and buy-in. Initial concepts might come out dry and loaded with military-speak. Saying that you don’t understand and seeking clarification gives the speaker the opportunity to try again in regular language, outside of the scope of formal speech.

Admitting “I don’t know” has a powerful effect in an organization. Once one person starts doing it, the doors are opened towards others admitting they don’t know either. Instead of a room full of automatons complying with an order they don’t understand, it becomes acceptable to admit ignorance and subsequently gain understanding.

It’s actually a wonderfully refreshing thing to see someone you respect in your organization admit they don’t know what an acronym means or the concept behind a oft-said piece of jargon. As hard as it might be, try it out next time.

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Army Buzzwords: “Setting Conditions”

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 lift 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.

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A note on Blue Falcons

From *Mewberries @ deviantART
From *Mewberries @ deviantART

While in basic training, I became quickly aware that the Army had its own specialized language. Special words and phrases flowed freely from the drill sergeants to be quickly appropriated by us privates and used liberally like we had only ever spoken them.

“Good job, that’s squared away.”

“Well would you look at this muldoon!”

“Go wash your booger pickers and get ready for chow.”

“Don’t be a buddy f@!%er!”

That last one was especially important in basic training where the group was often punished for the sins of the individual. If someone messed up, brining the wrath of the drill sergeants upon us, he would often be deemed a “buddy f@!%er.”

Not once through basic training or Airborne School do I remember hearing the term blue falcon as another way to say buddy f@!%er without being as vulgar.

And then I was assigned to 3d Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment (Blue Falcons). 1st Battalion was the Red Falcons and 2nd Battalion was the White Falcons. We were the Blue Falcons.

It still didn’t register with me because I had never heard the term before. Then, one day while waiting in line at the Blue Falcon Dining Facility, someone explained it to me. I was completely dumbfounded. I wondered how long the term had been in use and when our Regiment chose its naming convention.

Today, I hear the term Blue Falcon used all the time. People are having fun with it. 3/325 AIR has since been re-designated 2/508 PIR (this occuring during realignment in the mid-2000s).

Still, whenever I hear someone throw around ‘blue falcon,’ I use it as an opportunity to give them a quick history lesson on what was once a deadly airborne infantry formation.

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