“A day without blood is like a day without sunshine!” – R. Lee Ermey
Early into my transition from three decades of military service to a new career in higher education, I was in the midst of a conversation with an academic administrator concerning a proposed initiative. The project itself – an effort to expand our executive education portfolio (think military professional development) – wasn’t especially complicated and involved three key components: content, participants, and money. We had the content, we had the money, but we had a lot of work ahead of us in terms of gaining paying participants. “That right there,” I said, “is going to be the long pole in the tent.”
My new colleague stared at me, confused.
“What?” I said.
“What does that mean? I don’t understand.”
It never occurred to me that a phrase as benign as “the long pole in the tent” might be foreign to someone with no military background. In fact, I learned the phrase from my father during camping trips, where the success or failure of the weekend seemed to depend on the triumph of raising the center pole. What didn’t occur to me then was that my father was also a veteran, and likely carried that phrase from his service during the Korean War. As I proceeded to explain the meaning to my colleague, he nodded sagely as he wrapped his mind around what I thought was a fairly common metaphor.
“You Army guys. You have your own language.”
He’s right. We do have our own language. But, so does every other profession, frankly. Have you ever been caught between a gaggle of doctors talking in med-speak? Or sidled up among a line of lawyers speaking legalese at a bar? Chatting with an engineer can make you want to stop on the side of road and “moo” at cattle in a vain search for meaningful conversation. The more we spend in our cloistered groups, the more we tend to default to our own particular language.
Our “language” is infused with everything from an array of confusing acronyms to an operational taxonomy that often serves as a subtle reminder of what we do for a living. Words such as “decisive”, “lethal”, and “asymmetric” roll off the tongue as fluidly for us as a Starbucks order for others. It’s a singular language for what many would say serves a singular purpose – to fight and win our nation’s wars (if it was only that simple). The internet is replete with list after list of the language of our trade, terms and phrases that range from “big voice” and “blue falcon” to “pop smoke” and “pull chocks.” Throw in the endless array of acronyms and our predilection for “colorful metaphors” you’ve got one incredible recipe for confusion.
So, it was with more than a little trepidation that I prepared to take on the world outside our own. I did my best to limit my “mil-speak.” I stopped using acronyms altogether. Hell, I didn’t even swear as much. I made every effort to seek out and engage members of the civilian community, lavishing them with my newfound non-military speaking skills. But, try as I might, purging my vocabulary of the remnants of nearly thirty years of military service proved to be a greater challenge than I had expected. The “long pole in the tent” gave way to “breaking it down Barney-style”, “check your six”, and, finally, “soup sandwich.” Just when I thought I’d finally made the transition to the civilian world, my past swooped in like a black chinook in the night.
Everything hit home one day during a meeting between some of my new colleagues and members of another organization, an especially long meeting that rambled on like a bad staff update. After about thirty minutes, one of my colleagues leaned over and whispered, “This meeting is a total goat f@#$.” Even as my mouth hung open, she continued, saying, “Is that right? Did I say it right?”
My work here is done.