Words have meaning. When it comes to military language, some have more than one. Others, not so much.

Military Language on Display

In the late summer of 2005, I was in the final weeks of an assignment with the U.S. Army’s Battle Command Training Program, where I was part of a team running a proof of principle exercise in South Korea. After a year of organizing and training, we were finally demonstrating the value that a functional operations group could provide, assessing the performance of sustainment organizations during the annual Ulchi Focus Lens exercise. As the exercise progressed, units were reorganized as quickly as the situation evolved. During one such moment, a senior logistics commander ordered his staff to chop an organization from one command to another, something our operations group commander seized on.

“Hey, is chop a doctrinal term?’ he asked, looking in my direction. During much of the past year, I’d volunteered my time with several of the other operations groups, honing my skills as an observer/trainer. Along the way, I’d earned a reputation as the Doctrine Nazi, a derisive term reserved for someone who actually remembers what’s been documented in the Army’s seminal publications. In this case, the answer was pretty simple.

“No, sir,” I answered. “It’s not a doctrinal term.”

“Look it up, I want to be sure,” he replied.

“I’m telling you, sir, it’s not a doctrinal term. I don’t need to look it up. I know.”

“I don’t care,” he retorted. “Look it up anyway.”

I was never known for my patience, and I regretted my answer as soon as I said it. “How am I supposed to look something up that doesn’t exist? It’s not a doctrinal term.” Seeing his face start to change colors, I quickly added: “I’m sure he meant either OPCON or ATTACH. Let us check the order his staff issued to see how they interpreted it.” He stood there looking at me for a moment, mumbled something under his breath, and walked away.

Some Words Are Buzzwords and Some are Just Unique to Military Language

Chop is a unique military term. Not a doctrinal term. Not a buzzword. But a term that’s generally understood by those who use it, misunderstood by those who don’t, and applied incorrectly by everyone else. Our military lexicon is filled with such terms. They’re so ingrained in our language that we often don’t realize we even use them. For example, nothing conveys the Leeroy Jenkins approach to problem solving quite like hit the ground running. Just dive in headfirst without any planning or preparation. It does, however, have the benefit of forcing everyone else to play catch up. But there are more. Many more.  

Pentagonese Language

First, there’s what’s euphemistically known as Pentagonese, Think outside the box has long been a Pentagon standard. Clearly, since thinking inside the box is wrong-headed, everyone should think outside the box. Unless you work in a five-sided box, in which case you’re only allowed to think inside the box. Another great term is paradigm shift. This is typically used whenever what you’re currently doing is not working and you need to try something new without sounding like you’re making stuff up as you go. This usually only works once, at which point you need a term like pivot, which sounds impressive enough to the novice listener. At least until someone realizes that you really are making stuff up as you go. Another Pentagon favorite is bleeding edge. In Washington, being on the cutting edge isn’t good enough. You need to dip that Skilcraft pen in red ink and call it blood.

Semi-Tactical Terms

Then there are the semi-tactical terms. One such term is flex, a really cool sounding way of describing a combat maneuver when you’re not exactly sure why the enemy isn’t where you expected or how you’re going to . Another favorite is drive by, engaging the enemy without decisively engaging them. For the uninitiated, the meets both the destruction and bypass criteria established in the OPORD no one actually read. Then there’s technique, which has a very specific doctrinal meaning that is rarely used in practice. Typically used in the phrase, “That’s a technique,” it’s military shorthand for “That’s a really bad idea and will probably kill half your unit and destroy all your equipment. But, hey, you be you. Knock yourself out.” My personal favorite, though, is one just about every brigade commander in uniform uses: pound the shit out of. Roughly translated, it lies somewhere on the scale between disrupt and destroy and is noticeably more lethal than neutralize.

Staff Terminology

And then we come to tactical staff terminology, the language of the shared misery of cube farmers. Two good examples are direct approach – bypassing the entire chain of command and going straight to the commanding general for a decision – and indirect approach – cornering the commanding general for a decision in the gym, the PX or the latrine. An obstacle belt is also a staff norm, consisting of anyone and everyone who stands between you and the decision you need. Staffs are notorious for throwing around impressive-sounding terms like battlespace – similar to an area of operations, but used to describe the whiteboard in the SCIF – and conceptualize – the process of writing random, disorganized words on that white board and calling it guidance. As a planner, nothing topped the use of a hybrid course of action, which is the end result of planning when no one can agree on a course of action, so all of them are combined into a single chaotic mix of unparalleled insanity and confusion. Finally, there’s rearward passage of lines, when your hairline recedes beyond the point of a decent combover. This term is gender-neutral, by the way.

Military has a Language all its own

Frankly, this barely scratches the surface of our informal military taxonomy. In the time it took to scribble out a few hundred words – or to read them, for that matter – many more came to mind, some of which might be better left unsaid. We have a language all our own, that much is certain.

Related News

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.