Small Wars Journal

Building Another Tower of Babel

Tue, 05/07/2013 - 3:30am

With nearly two decades of military service, I find that instead of being able to masterfully navigate through my profession’s language and knowledge base, I continue to struggle amid a blizzard of confusing, often contradictory acronyms. We speak a foreign language called ‘jargon-ese.’ Although the innocuous acronym is alone hardly a threat or worth writing an article over, how we misuse the concept and torture our shared understanding is becoming an increasing threat to our ability to communicate within and outside our military organizations. Confronting our addiction to acronyms is hard because as a military, we tend to hold onto bad habits once they become part of our culture. “This means institutions may persist even when…they have lost their original functionality or practicality…” [1]

The military, like most other professions, enjoys a specialized knowledge base, complete with unique language, customs, and procedures that those outside the profession have a difficult time grasping.[2] One particular linguistic aspect of our profession is the widespread use of acronyms. We litter our military lexicon with a blizzard of acronyms, many times re-using the same ones to create rival definitions, and constantly inventing new ones seemingly the moment enough of our population grasps the old terminology.  Granted, such a topic comes so naturally to our military that we rarely give it a second thought.[3] Why question the acronym usage when there are so many other strategic and tactical issues to contemplate? Yet critical thinking and reflection functions by challenging and improving our logic, or how we make sense of the world and orchestrate military action to accomplish our goals.[4] Yes, even the military acronym is not beyond the usefulness of reflexivity. By ‘reflexivity’, I mean when we seek to frame a situation, we must include ourselves as a factor that impacts how the system transforms.[5] We change things as we attempt to make sense of them. This is not only a discussion about acronyms, it is a discussion on complexity and how our military attempts to understand the world.

When we identify something that was once efficient but now misused by the institution, we owe it to the better self-improvement to explore why this happened, and how we might improve our processes and avoid greater friction. Reflexive practice often becomes increasingly difficult when the institution either is unaware or holds the process under examination as a cherished tenet.[6] In this case, let’s take a critical look at the acronym and whether we are helping or hurting collective understanding within our organization.

The acronym, conceptually speaking, exists to increase the speed of communication among a profession or within a subset of that profession. Similar to the slang process in many languages, acronyms are taught throughout a particular group so that they are no longer required to communicate a longer, more cumbersome term or group of words. The interest of transmission versus shared understanding generates some costs we will explore shortly. Once ‘coined’ and introduced into the military lexicon, acronyms become part of our bureaucratic and administrative structure, which generates doctrine in a centralized process with the justification to increase organizational uniformity and reliability.[7]

Thus, organizations prosper in communication when acronyms increase their efficiency, while we hamper organizations when the acronym process breaks down this linguistic efficiency for a variety of reasons.[8] I propose that the military is suffering from a growing communication ailment where our misuse of acronyms have decreased our performance, alienated other government branches and associated organizations that are essential to military performance, and created fractions and fissures within our own organizations. We have constructed a ‘Tower of Babel’, and in today’s high-paced technological age of increased complexity, our acronym compulsion actually inhibits how we talk to others as well as ourselves. Paradoxically, they now serve the opposite purpose of their purported design. Consider the following observations:

  • We now speak in ‘jargon-ese’ that is essentially a foreign language to those outside the military.
  • Many of our acronyms have multiple meanings or are confusing.
  • There are too many acronyms in our current military lexicon, and our desire to compartmentalize and favor technology drives us to make more.
  • The rate of acronym creation exceeds our own editing rate for reduction.
  • More acronyms are shared by the few instead of the many.
  • Self-interest and self-marketing of products and ideas spawns even more acronyms that are in competition with rival products and concepts that also feature acronyms.

Further, our own institutionalisms that constructed this dangerous ‘Tower of Babel’ are resistant to change, and many of our processes remain unaware despite these deficiencies occurring in plain sight.[9] Treating our acronym compulsion will hardly solve any of the larger problems facing the military, however incremental change through critical queries, regardless of the scale or content, do lead to an increased appreciation of why critical thinking is vital.[10] We may start with talking about acronyms, but trigger subsequent discussions on deeper institutionalisms afoot in our military.

To reflect critically about acronyms and the military, I introduce in this article a combination of several design management concepts, social science approaches on systems appreciation, with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s collaborative concept of ‘social knowledge construction’ to help frame military thinking. Specifically, we seek to address how the military thinks about language, but more importantly how we think about thinking about language as a military.[11]  This is why reflexivity is essential for challenging institutionalisms that continue to burden us organizationally.

 ‘Of Jargon Epidemics and Rice Bowls’

We tend to function as a military hierarchy that centralizes decision-making and relies on doctrine, repetition, and categorization to drive uniformity in performance.[12] However, many of these strengths paradoxically become weaknesses by inhibiting creativity, adaptation, experimentation, and critical reflection. Consider that repetition is often the antithesis of creativity in that the former seeks controlled standardization while the latter avoids repetition and desires novel value. [13]

Of all of these, critical reflection is most relevant in that when we prevent ourselves from considering what processes we perform poorly, or we protect cherished actions or concepts, we insulate ourselves from adaptation.[14] In other words, if the naked king refuses to listen to anyone but those that admire his magical clothes, his royal bum will continue to streak down the castle hallways, while those that benefit from this will continue to compliment his wardrobe.[15]

At all levels of our military policy making from our top decision makers at the Pentagon down to tactical commanders, we share responsibility in how acronym usage went from increased efficiency into confusing, marginalizing, and preventing groups from communicating about concepts and actions. Acronym confusion permeates our organizations, although often we become tolerant of it due to other cultural and institutional forces that seek self-relevance at the expense of shared understanding.

One anecdote from my own experiences occurred regarding Company Intelligence Support Teams, or ‘CoISTs’. While most, but not our entire tactical unit shared understanding on what CoIST meant, my unit was a Cavalry unit and called a company a ‘troop’ as a concerted reflection of our military lineage. Thus, when one unit promoted their new CoIST standard operating procedures, or CoIST SOP, they changed ‘Company’ to ‘Troop’ in the acronym. Thus, ‘CoIST’ became ‘TIST’, which caused a great deal of confusion within our organization while we attempted to discuss the new manual produced by one of the squadrons.

This bewilderment occurred when discussing internally, as well as when discussing with outside our Regiment with other organizations in the Army. Changing the acronym had nothing to do with increasing the efficiency of it, and everything to do with reinforcing an organizational narrative about how cavalry units are distinct from the rest of the Army. Thus, the rice-bowl aspect of acronym construction adds a sociological element to how we frame this issue.[16]

Intentional or not, we seem driven to separate ourselves through different language, customs, and identities- every military service and branches within these services demonstrate this organizational behavior.[17] While individual acronym abuses appear trivial, cumulatively over time they render an organization paralyzed because subcomponents and specialty sections have insulated themselves and are unable to articulate concepts and actions to others. Thus a ‘jargon epidemic’ further fragments an organization’s shared understanding and isolates sub-groups through perpetual categorization using the preferred traditional worldview.

 As Dent writes in ‘Complexity Science: A Worldview Shift’, classical science of reductionism, linear causality, objective observation, and using the scientific method to unlock everything within a complex situation is what the western world (and our military) prefer as a worldview, yet it no longer serves as a reliable guide.[18] Our ‘jargon epidemics’ continue because as we encounter change in military situations, we tend to apply new acronyms atop of existing ones, and branch out with even more until only specialists within that sub-component are literate in their meanings. See figure 1 below on ‘improvised explosive devices’ or IEDs for one example based on acronyms found in one military intelligence analysis.[19]

Figure 1 helps illustrate how over time, the original acronym for ‘improvised explosive device’ began to spawn many subordinate acronyms as conflicts evolved and our tendency to reduce, categorize, and apply classical scientific processes drove new acronyms for various conceptual aspects as well as component-related and delivery means for these weapons. Thus a U.S. Army intelligence analyst might quip, “The MDCOA for MOA of CWIED with NMC is for INS to use YPOC with HME as a TTP” in conversation using the latest blizzard of IED acronyms. Yet only a tiny fragment of the military community can honestly translate that sentence, and this occurs regularly within virtually every sub-component, branch, service, and specialized organization within our military.[20]

For instance, our logisticians employ myriad acronyms that do not exist outside the narrow confines of the sustainment playing field, while our intelligence elements wield an equally impressive litany of acronyms that are further frustrated by unique classification requirements and extremely dense technical specifications. Aviators speak their own language (so to speak), while the Army medical community uses entirely different acronyms divorced from the larger institution as well. Further, many elements attach organizational pride to various acronym structures where only those within the specific field, branch, or specialization are knowledgeable and articulate, and the dense groupings of acronyms create a barrier of exclusiveness where outsiders are unable to access. Not only are we building a Babel Tower, but also we are locking different doors within it to isolate not just our organization from governmental and other agencies, but from ourselves!

Sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman argue that as our societies construct shared knowledge, there are caretakers that exist to protect and maintain the form and unique nature of these conceptual forms, akin to fortresses of knowledge resisting attacks from outsiders. [21] Military strategist Shimon Naveh also likens the military obsession with doctrine and hierarchical decision-making to similar processes in religious and scientific institutions. Western science and religion throughout history sought to maintain “a privileged and proprietary lock on learning and knowledge” where our bureaucratic structures “makes possible the codification and logical centralization of doctrine.”[22] Our doctrine is saturated with myriad acronyms to the point that we even maintain entire books that define doctrine and terms.[23]

While some acronyms provide utility through ease of communication, we have reached a point where the military routinely ‘speaks a foreign language’ that requires an interpreter. Fellow government agencies such as the State Department, the National Security Agency, non-government agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, businesses, and our politicians and diplomats require military personnel or former military within their element to help explain and interpret military jargon. Further, we find confusion between military services and within particular branches with routine operations. The Army favors particular acronyms and jargon, while the Air Force leans toward Joint Operational doctrine and lexicon. The Marines have their own language, while Special Operations continues the trend as well.

Even within a service lexicon, we often double-tap acronyms by introducing new ones that repeat the letter structure of an existing one. For example, does NMC mean non mission capable or non metallic content?  Is C&S a ‘command and staff’ briefing, or a ‘cordon and search’ operation? Is RFI ‘request for information’ or ‘rapid fielding initiative’? Does ASAP stand for ‘as soon as possible’ or for the ‘Army Substance Abuse Program’? Is PRT short for ‘provincial reconstruction team’ or ‘physical readiness training’? Are we going on a ‘battlefield circulation’ or to a ‘border flag conference’ when we say BFC? Is FLA the ‘forward limit of advance’ or ‘field litter ambulance’? These double-acronyms reflect poor decisions on behalf our organization for introducing new concepts while attempting to ‘car-jack’ other established acronyms in our lexicon. In the business world, companies face law suits for this behavior. In the military, we seem satisfied with intentionally confusing ourselves.

With the boom of technological innovation in the past decade of persistent conflict, a tidal wave of new gadgets, systems, and innovations have flooded our lexicon with new terms and acronyms without many of the existing conceptual acronyms giving way. With the never-ending creation of new acronyms, we often re-use existing ones both within military lexicon and from our mainstream societal language where confusion and miscommunication increases. This in itself is a corrosive phenomenon; however there is yet another tension within our institution that compounds this into further de-synchronization.

‘A Never-Ending Game of “Whack-a-Mole” with Acronyms’

While language remains a perpetually changing, adapting form as a society progresses through time, the cycles of language creation and destruction usher in new terms while abandoning obsolete ones.[24] Some terms such as ‘horsepower’ outlive original forms and thrive in the age of automotive propulsion, while other terms and concepts associated with outdated processes fade out of our lexicon.[25] Although this occurs with military acronyms, particularly when replacing equipment or technology with newer forms, many of our conceptual acronyms appear to remain almost impervious to editing. We must critically think about our values and military culture in order to reflect upon acronyms that might be obsolete or inadequate, yet remain heavily in use due to institutionalisms and protecting one’s self-relevance (rice bowls). [26] For example, psychological operations struggles with an acronym identity crisis of sorts with the latest ‘MISO’ label,  while most military professionals use the older PSYOP acronym in conversations despite psychological operations professionals protesting the outdated terminology![27] Are we unable to effectively edit our lexicon because of our doctrinal processes, or are there sociological, conceptual or cultural reasons unique to the military profession that prevent us? Before answering that question, there are a few more things to consider.

Berger and Luckman also explore the maintenance of social knowledge construction, how rival institutions and societies often battle conceptually to protect boundaries and reinforce structures.[28]  A way our military unintentionally inhibits acronym adaptation by individuals in the group that are unfamiliar with them is the paradoxical fear that “not knowing equates to weakness.” Granted, no military professional raises an eyebrow to a new recruit or fresh platoon leader asking many apparently obvious questions about organizationally exclusive information such as a routine acronym, yet as leaders mature and rise through the ranks there is a powerful social phenomenon of avoidance where not asking the question is preferred to inquiring about an unfamiliar acronym. As a profession, we fear even the insinuation of weakness, and asking what an unfamiliar acronym is reflects an aspect of this behavior.

While some might scoff at this, it is easily apparent when confronting a group of competitive peers where two in the group begin using an unfamiliar acronym within the context of a conversation that the rest of the group understands. Generally, those that do not know the acronym will learn what it means and adapt usage, while never actually knowing what the acronym stands for. Try your own social experiment with this in your work environment to confirm or deny my hypothesis. When you ask someone what a particular military acronym is and they can readily tell you what it represents or does but not what it means, this illustrates what we might label ‘acronym blindness.’ Other terms for this include ‘Redundant Acronym Syndrome’ or RAS; however, I view the redundancy as merely descriptive of the underlying problem. When we misuse acronyms, we tend to do so because we are inadvertently unaware or afraid to ask what they mean, yet continue to use them frequently in conversation. Over time, wider groups of people gain acronym blindness that fractures shared understanding, particularly at the rate we create new ones. We get used to the acronyms without realizing their actual meanings, and avoid asking because of social forces.

Conclusions: The Tower of Babel has a Foundation- Can we Rebuild Lexicon?

Acronyms, conceptually, are not bad things. They help an organizations, professions, and societies rapidly articulate information and share ideas more effectively than re-stating a shared concept repetitively. The military has many useful acronyms that improve our communication as well as our shared knowledge. However, if we are unable to prioritize our acronym use, wisely self-edit our lexicon and practice, and are unwilling to admit gaps in our personal or organizational knowledge, our ‘Towers of Babel’ will continue to plague our ability to communicate and synchronize military operations. This is a fundamental tenet in the U.S. Army’s ‘Mission Command’ doctrine conceptualized in the term ‘shared understanding’, if we look to our doctrine for guidance on organizing our behaviors.[29] What can we do with respect to operations, planning, doctrine, education, and leadership where poor acronym practices might be avoided?

First, we might consider how general, broad terms might replace many of our unnecessary acronyms, particularly those that feature competing technologies or niche applications. For example, the acronym for multiple integrated laser engagement system (MILES) is well used, but because it is proprietary, other contractors employ a myriad of other proprietary acronyms to sell their similar systems to the military for training. Thus, we have MILES, we also have the wireless independent target system (WITS), and a series of other challenging array of acronyms that all fall under the generic term ‘weapon simulation.’ Our communication systems, computers, weapon systems, optics, and other technological items all have many independent competing companies that battle to market their wares and gain military interest (thus profit). It seems that every product comes with its own clever acronym as part of the way to market the item. In isolation or from that company’s limited view, this makes economic sense. From the systemic perspective of the larger military organization, we are overwhelming our soldiers with an alphabet soup of confusion when simpler terms would suffice.

Were our institution to abolish business-centric proprietary acronyms and focus instead on generic terms, we might avoid not only the continued fragmentation of shared understanding, but also inhibit the economic stimulus for emergent innovations to seek “marketable” acronyms to distinguish their product from the competition. Part of selling something or some idea to the military appears to include a catchy acronym, yet we rarely clean up or delete outdated or obsolete ones without significant growing pains. Yet the more acronyms we gain, the further we draw our conversations into ‘military jargon-ese’ and away from comprehensible English.

Second, we need to consider our growing role in Security Force Assistance missions where we work to partner, advise, and assist other foreign militaries in pursuit of mutually supporting national objectives. Although our own military organization is somewhat able to still communicate within our tangled web of acronyms, we often partner with non-western allies and conduct our advising and assistance operations where typically, our operations orders and written products are translated directly into a client nation’s native tongue. In many languages such as Arabic, Dari, Pashtu, and others we recently or currently conduct significant military operations with, acronyms do not translate well at all.

For instance, in Dari the acronym ‘ISAF’ or International Security Assistance Force is usually pronounced ‘Isaf’ (eye-saf) as a whole word, devoid of its acronym nature. Thus, English based acronyms become mnemonically translated and assume a different meaning within the foreign language. With the enormous volume of acronyms we employ, our translators as well as host foreign militaries either employ hybrid words such as “Isaf” or convert cumbersome acronyms in English into slang terms their culture readily grasps. Many translators already adapt an earlier suggestion in this conclusion where the acronym is dropped in favor of a general term that encompasses the many confusing terms. In Baghdad, interpreters swap the confusing VBIED (vehicle borne improvised explosive device) with the Arabic word combination for ‘car’ and ‘bomb.’ Yet many interpreters must struggle if even our soldiers are overwhelmed with how many acronyms we use. If they stick with the acronym but convert it mnemonically, we then create another group of foreign military professionals that are also afraid to admit they do not know what the word ‘veebed’ really stands for, but they contextually know what it means.

Acronym confusion in Security Force Assistance practice potentially creates twin Towers of Babel where greater confusion reigns in both military forces. Conceptually, it chips away at fundamental tenets of Security Force Assistance where we are directed to “carefully analyze the operational environment, especially the relationships of foreign security forces and their populations.”[30] What could be more fundamental in that analysis than language?  Perhaps some of the following suggestions, if implemented at various levels throughout our institution, might reduce acronym confusion and improve our ability to communicate both with ourselves and with other relevant governmental and non-governmental bodies.

  • Encourage military professionals to ask what an acronym means and enforce a “no stupid question” environment to favor asking instead of remaining silent.
  • Limit acronym use in speaking and writing to no more than one per sentence. This is hard to do! Try it and see how quickly you end up speaking English.
  • Strategic level: eliminate self-relevant (business oriented) acronyms and use only general terminology in all doctrine and correspondence.
  • Curb creation of new acronyms to those that are necessary, and introducing a new acronym should require the retirement of an obsolete or rival one.
  • Stop stealing other well-known acronyms for new niche ones (ASAP means ‘as soon as possible’ to most of society).
  • Not everything needs an acronym. If you can say the term with ease, giving it an acronym does not add value or make it more relevant.
  • Place non-military members in the center of lexicon considerations instead of the outskirts. This is especially critical at operational and strategic levels, where many outputs and deliverables end up on a policy maker or diplomat’s desk. Dense military jargon littered with acronyms is unintelligible to Congressmen as well as Sergeants.
  • Reflect on why we do things with our language and lexicon instead of what the content is. These deeper considerations bring to the surface core issues.
  • Whenever you hear an acronym you do not know, ask the exact meaning. Chances are, the person using it doesn’t really know either!

In conclusion, I could be completely wrong about everything in this article. Recently, I had a discussion during the parent-teacher conferences with one of my grade-school aged children’s teachers concerning the decline of cursive writing classes. We reflected on how the latest generation is fully engaged in the digital age, with tweets, texting, and a very different way of communicating while older, more formal methods are becoming irrelevant to them. Although I like to imagine that my generation was the original “internet generation’, I started surfing online as a freshman in college in 1994. My ten year old expects internet access for everything on everything, while my four year old effortlessly changes settings on any smart phone and mastered ‘Angry Birds’ before learning his A,B,Cs. This entire article might be a coherent argument for improving our military communication processes, or simply a mad ranting by a member of a generation that missed full immersion in the new digital age.

Things like ‘LOL’, ‘ROTFL’, ‘WTF’, and a myriad other digital-aged initialisms are acronyms that represent how the next generation prefers to communicate, although technological advances in typing or typing alternatives might transform even this trend into something else. Internet slang is growing, while cursive is declining. Written letters by mail are out, while texting is obviously a dominant means of communication by the latest generation. Perhaps as these young people navigate the same military organizations as older professionals depart it, there will be an even greater acceptance of military jargon-ese, completely integrated with internet slang. Thus, a future military intelligence analyst might tweet on his secure smart phone, “LOL, the INS used YPOC with HME as a TTP today as their MOA. We had CAS FUBAR them. It was like, CYA. ROTFL!” If future military professionals can communicate this way, we will be fine. However, the current crop of military professionals is already overwhelmed with military acronyms; we may not be able to cope.

[1] Mark Rutgers, Be Rational! But what does it mean? (Journal of Management History, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1999),18.

[2] Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Anchor Books, New York, 1967), 118.

[3] Mats Alvesson, Jorgen Sandberg, Generating Research Questions Through Problematization, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011), 257. Alvesson and Sandberg identify ‘field assumptions’ and ‘root metaphors’ as unquestionable theoretical concepts within an organization’s preferred manner of viewing the world that are “difficult to identify because “everyone” shares them, and, thus, they are rarely [questioned] in research texts.” This inability to question prevents genuine innovation.

[4] I use the generic term ‘logic’ in this article whereas social scientists also employ ‘logic system’ or ‘paradigm.’ See: Martin Kilduff, Ajay Mehra, and Mary Dunn, From Blue Sky Research to Problem Solving: A Philosophy of Science Theory of New Knowledge Production, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36m No. 2, 2011) 297. Kilduff, Mehra, and Dunn use ‘logics of action’ to define organizing principles that shape ways of viewing the world by “providing social actors with vocabularies of motive, fameworks for reasoning, and guidelines for practice.”

[5] Margo Paterson, Susan Wilcox, Joy Higgs, Exploring Dimensions of Artistry in Reflective Practice (Reflective Practice, Vol. 7, No. 4, November 2006) 455-468. See also: Haridimos Tsoukas, Mary Jo Hatch, Complex Thinking, Complex Practice (Human Relations, August 2001), 979-1008.

[6] Mats Alvesson, Jorgen Sandberg, Generating Research Questions Through Problematization, (Academy of Management Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011) 254. Alvesson and Sandberg use the term ‘in-house assumption’, ‘root metaphor’, and ‘field assumption’ to explain how organizations employ a logic that contains theoretical concepts that are ‘unproblematic’ and are often deeply tied to organizational values and identity. See also: John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife; Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002) 9. “Military organizations often demonstrate remarkable resistance to doctrinal change as a result of their organizational cultures. Organizational learning, when it does occur, tends to happen only in the wake of a particularly unpleasant or unproductive event.”

[7] Shimon Naveh, Jim Schneider, Timothy Challans, The Structure of Operational Revolution; A Prolegomena (Booz, Allen, Hamilton, 2009),23. “Just as literacy facilitates bureaucratic, administrative centralization, it also makes possible the codification and logical centralization of doctrine.” See also: Rutgers, 23. Rutgers explores the paradox between rational and positivist organizations and how rational systems seek bureaucracy to reduce meaning, freedom, and individual control.

[8] Karl Weick, Rethinking Organizational Design (Managing as Designing, Stanford Business Books, 2004) 42. “This line of thought implies that a primary danger in designing is over-design. Designers fail because they don’t know when to stop.” Weick’s design concepts apply directly to military language and processes such as acronym creation and usage.

[9] John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife; Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002) 9. “Military organizations often demonstrate remarkable resistance to doctrinal change as a result of their organizational cultures. Organizational learning, when it does occur, tends to happen only in the wake of a particularly unpleasant or unproductive event.” See also: Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War; American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1989).

[10] Haridimos Tsoukas, Mary Jo Hatch, Complex Thinking, Complex Practice (Human Relations, August 2001), 979-1008. See also: Martin Kilduff, Ajay Mehra, Postmodernism and Organizational Research (Academy of Management Review, 1997, Vol. 22, No. 2) 453-481. See also: Helen Gunter, Critical Approaches to Leadership in Education (Journal of Educational Enquiry, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2001) 94-105.

[11] Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Anchor Books, New York, 1967). Berger and Luckmann make the case that all knowledge is socially constructed within groups and societies, and over time are institutionalized into vast, complex, and expanding bureaucracies.

[12] Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider (The Penguin Group, New York, 2006), 184-189. Brafman and Beckstrom discuss the differences between centralized and decentralized organizations. The U.S. Army clearly operates as a centralized, or ‘spider’ organization according to their definitions and explanation.

[13] Jeanna Liedtka, In Defense of Strategy as Design (California Management Review; Spring 2000, Vol. 42, No. 3) 17-18.

[14] Eric B. Dent, Complexity Science: a Worldview Shift (Emergence, 1(4), 1999), 6. “I will suggest that if we are to continue to grow, develop and thrive in this world, we must adjust some of our most deeply held mental models about the world and our interactions with it.” See also: Chris Argyris, Teaching Smart People How to Learn (Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991), 100. “In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.”

[15] Michel Foucault, Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia, (originally covered in six lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California, Berkeley in October-November, 1983. Published online at: (accessed 30 December 2012). A ‘problematizer’ threatens his institution by critically questioning it, and faces elimination by both an upset leader and the overarching institution if threatened with change.

[16] For more on framing, see: Sarah Kaplan, Framing Contests: Strategy Making Under Uncertainty (Organizational Science, Vol. 19, No. 5, September-October 2008), 729-752.

[17] Mark Rutgers, Be Rational! But what does it mean? (Journal of Management History, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1999), 27. “The basic notion of relativism is raised because all knowledge is constituted by rules of human origin, especially the rules of language that determine what constitutes reality.”

[18] Eric B. Dent, Complexity Science: a Worldview Shift (Emergence, 1(4), 1999).

[19] All acronyms in Figure 1 were found in one military intelligence analysis document provided to the author for purposes of military operations. No information in Figure 1 reflects anything but unclassified information available to the public domain.

[20] As an informal social experiment, I asked staff officers from my organization to translate the sentence into a non-acronym thought. Only the two intelligence officers got 90% of it correct, with neither catching the proper meaning of all of the acronyms. None of the non-intelligence branched officers came close.

[21] Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Anchor Books, New York, 1967). See also: Sarah Kaplan, Framing Contests: Strategy Making Under Uncertainty (Organizational Science, Vol. 19, No. 5, September-October 2008), 737. Kaplan tells the story of Hugh Collins in her case study that illustrates how a caretaker defends their constructed knowledge.

[22] Shimon Naveh, Jim Schneider, Timothy Challans, The Structure of Operational Revolution; A Prolegomena (Booz, Allen, Hamilton, 2009),23, 53. See also: Mark Rutgers, Be Rational! But what does it mean? (Journal of Management History, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1999); See also: Eric B. Dent, Complexity Science: a Worldview Shift (Emergence, 1(4), 1999).

[23] U.S. Army Field Manual 1-02, Operational Terms and Graphics, September 2004. Headquarters, Department of the Army.

[24] Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, (translated by Brian Massumi) A Thousand Plateaus; Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). Deleuze and Guattari discuss the ‘war machine’ where an assemblage creates and destroys through an iterative, dynamic process. I consider language an important element of this process. See also: Eric B. Dent, Complexity Science: a Worldview Shift (Emergence, 1(4), 1999) on dynamic, adaptive transformations.

[25] The introduction of the combustion engine in an era of steam power and horse transport created the situation where people required a metaphor to understand the ‘power’ of the automobile. The scale of a steam engine would not work, but a horse was widely recognized and the automobile offered an alternative to horse-drawn transportation. Thus a 3 horsepower engine made sense despite the combustion engine being entirely novel.

[26] Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War; American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1989) 11,17. Historian Carl H. Builder argues in The Masks of War that military institutions are generally motivated towards institutional survival, evoking ‘golden eras’ of past wars, and the continued idolization of self-defining behaviors, traditions, and structures. See also: Sarah Kaplan, Framing Contests: Strategy Making Under Uncertainty (Organizational Science, Vol. 19, No. 5, September-October 2008), where Kaplan details the institutional battles between different departments over the direction of a technology company’s future strategy.

[27] Curtis Boyd, The Future of MISO (Special Warfare Magazine; January-February 2011).

[28] Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Anchor Books, New York, 1967) 120-130. Berger and Luckman offer the process of how rival definitions of reality might translate, adapt, or battle with a dominant social construction- either mutating it or breaking away into a shadow or splinter group. In time, that splinter group may become powerful enough to overwhelm the parent structure and replace it.

[29] United States Army, Army Doctrine Plan 6-0, Mission Command (TRADOC, May 2012). See also: United States Army, The United States Army Functional Concept for Mission Command 2016-2028 (TRADOC PAM 525-3-3; 13 October 2010).

[30] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Security Force Assistance (Field Manual 3-07.1), May 2009. In the forward to this publication, Commanding General of the Army, General Martin E. Dempsey provides a one page cover letter for the purpose of this document and provides the quoted guidance to all readers.


About the Author(s)

Ben Zweibelson is the Program Director for Design and Innovation at the Joint Special Operations University and is a doctoral student at Lancaster University. A retired U.S. Army Infantry officer and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ben has provided design education across USSOCOM, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Government, academia and industry as well as internationally. He was named “design conference ambassador” for the second year in a row for the upcoming IMDC, and has recently lectured on design at the Polish and Danish War Colleges, the Canadian Forces College, NATO Schools at Oberammergau, the National Counterterrorism Center, the IBM capstone SPADE conference for NATO in Copenhagen, as well as numerous Special Operations and strategic level defense assets in 2018. He resides in Tampa, Florida with his wife and three children. He can be reached at



Fri, 05/17/2013 - 7:02pm

As the founder of, I sympathize with the points Maj. Zweibelson raises. Even so, DoD probably does a better job with its online "DoD Dictionary" than any other Federal agency, and I highly recommend it.

The problem is not limited to military terms. Google Index tells us there are 14 million searches every month for government acronyms--excluding military terms. James Madison long ago said, "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

When coined and used well, government acronyms have powerful branding value. Would you change "NASA"? When they are poorly conceived, sloppily thrown about, and abused, they contribute mightily to the perception that government is elitist and arrogant--fodder for government-baiters.


I agree with everything you wrote above. Your article was spot on about overuse and misuse of acronyms and I would add buzz phrases like it takes a network to defeat a network, etc. There is a time and a place for using specialized lexicon (my counterpoint), but outside that sphere of technical experts you have to be able to communicate your ideas in plain English. One of my favorite mentors used to ground into me that "words have meaning," which was his way of telling me to go back and find the appropriate doctrinal term (in this case), so the document conveyed the message it was supposed to communicate. I think actually getting to the point where we can convey an idea clearly and concisely in plain English is often very challenging. I think it was Mark Twain who was quoting as writing, "I'm sorry, if I had more time I would have made this shorter." It does take more work to think through an issue and reduce it to its essence. I think some action officers developing presentations and contractors trying to sell products attempt to wow their audiences with so much unessential crap that they fail to communicate the points they're trying to make (assuming they actually have any).

Outlaw 09

Mon, 05/13/2013 - 3:38pm

In reply to by bz

Ben---have reached out to ISTC and they are chasing down the German officer---have heard from other senior German officers that yes in fact the German Army is drifting away from "auftragstaktik" towards a type of decision making process similar to MDMP.

Will try to call you tomorrow--will email my cell number as well.

Still torn between doing one more war to add to an already long list of wars or kicking back as an executive and doing what is a natural for me-both offers are literally sitting on the table.

Difficult decision---one is via the heart the other is via logic.


Mon, 05/13/2013 - 9:29am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

great. Give me an e-mail or call this week if you can and we can catch up. Would be ironic to end up with you downrange. But we would have plenty to write about...


Outlaw 09

Sun, 05/12/2013 - 8:47am

In reply to by bz

Ben---not an issue---will contact ISTC tomorrow and get the German officer to pass it to me---am up for an interview---but when are you all pulling out for SFAT as I am on vacation for the next two weeks?

I am not far behind you all myself---someone we both know is trying to pull me to AFG on a JOC mentoring mission and I have my heart/body committed to a VP of Corporate Security position in Stuttgart with a well know German manufacturing company.

Have been on the military mentoring treadmill since late 2004---time to get off and enjoy a normal life were MDMP is just another normal thing in life and one does not have to train and retrain "running estimates" with every new staff/commander transition.

Maybe the first week of June is that is fine for the interview?


Fri, 05/10/2013 - 7:03am

In reply to by Outlaw 09


no rush; I just have something on the back burner that would fit nice with that sort of material. I would want to interview you as well, if you were up for it!


Outlaw 09

Fri, 05/10/2013 - 6:36am

In reply to by bz

Ben---will reach out to the ISTC and ask that particular officer---will need until next week as he is in a military assistance course-if that is fine?


Fri, 05/10/2013 - 4:25am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw- do you have any of the NATO doctrine they are doing this with (the MDMP conversion)? Or, do you have any source material I could get my hands on?


Outlaw 09

Thu, 05/09/2013 - 5:39am

Ben--as always another good article---would say though that it extends even in the common term MDMP which in some NATO armies is morphing into DMP---it extends as well to other organizations ie the UN with their IMPP or NATO with their COPD---all planning terms of differents values/colors/meanings.

Was just recently at a SF training center here in Germany where a German SF Major made an interesting comment reference MDMP that goes to Ben's comments on critical thinking.

We in the Big Army are focusing the cultural shift mechanism around the concept of Mission Command with the subsets Art of Command and the Science of Control. Now in the doctrinal literature we try to tie MC to the German doctrinal term term "auftragstaktik" or really what our doctrine calls "disciplined initiative".

What he mentioned was that he was in their German Army PME development team that is having a hughly intense fire driven academic discussion on whether the US MDMP model in AFG has driven the German Army away from "auftragstaktik" as MDMP tends to lead to being told what to do and what not to do which is totally counter to the German doctrine since 1806.

So small single groups of letters we call acronyms can have major cultural shift causing impacts that we the military never intended.

jim monroe

Sat, 05/18/2013 - 6:55pm

In reply to by bz

Ben, one thing that would certainly help the situation you mentioned is to actually follow Army publishing guidance and spell out the first use of acronyms. I ran into this with a boss who refused to believe he needed to spell out the first use of CAS, even when I pointed out that this could be combat aid station in addition to close air support. There's too much of an assumption that people will understand what the acronym means.


Sat, 05/11/2013 - 8:00am

In reply to by bz


Your second anecdote highlights another way acronyms are becoming more pervasive: Microsoft Office products such as Powerpoint or Excel.
Death by Powerpoint is becoming another common theme that can affect clarity as much as acronyms. Powerpoint unfortunately is a must have qualification to brief leadership, and many times to fit the requisite information on the slides acronyms are used liberally. The key though, as you mentioned, is knowing what is on your slides and speaking to it in normal terms. Additionally, as part of the murderboard process in creating any briefs, acronyms are spelled out in full the first time it is used. That helps alleviate most of the crowd being confused when a acronym comes up they are unfamiliar with and crosses some inter-service boundaries with same acronyms/different meaning. Abbreviate on the slide, but talk using proper English.
The Excel problem has become more apparent to me now that I have taken over as Maintenance Officer for my squadron. Excel is used to track maintenance on aircraft, ordering parts, qualifications, etc. Why write out all those terms in a small cell when they can acronymed? Unfortunately everyone talks in the "jargon-ese" that is used extensively in the Excel trackers. Even with being in the community for over ten years now, I have to constantly ask or look up acronyms that are used constantly in the Maintenance spaces. Even when writing awards for my Sailors I have to concentrate to not throw the sneaky acronym in there, words I take for granted, but are in fact abbreviations.
I think the goal is to swim successfully in the sea of acronyms, but choose not to use them in your own personal interactions. It might sound verbose to the professional acronym user, but like normal conversation to everyone else.



Thu, 05/09/2013 - 7:24am

In reply to by Bill M.


That is an interesting thought; I may need to clarify that I wrote this focusing on military professionals that are not "technicians" doing specialized work. I had a fun conversation this morning with an Intel Officer in the chow hall on your comment and whether there is perhaps a growing divide between military technicians that can speak in highly specialized jargon to each other (but only within their field or unique group) while the vast, vast majority of the military profession cannot understand them. So, it does make sense for an Intel analyst to talk to another and use terms like "HME w. NMC VSBIED" because they can quickly frame things in a positivist, reductionist way, but there appears to be a mission creep effect where these terms bleed into regular professional discussion.

Another anecdote, I was in one of those fancy closed-door briefings by people in civilian clothing with fancy slides the other day; the slides were crawling with acronyms. I asked a few questions when I encountered an acronym I was unfamiliar with; the funny thing was that even the experts had to quit out of the slide show and click their notes page to reference what some of them meant, and in one case, there was an acronym within an acronym which he knew the latter but not the meaning of the former! Ultimately, it broke down into what you described above- the "doctor" told us (patients) what the heck they were doing, in laymen’s terms. We understood, all was good.

Lastly- I think that technical acronyms may have value still, if only used in these compartmentalized discussions between technicians of the same guild from Hogwarts; because these have, in a positivist way, value and a justification for existence in our lexicon. However, the marketing drive to insert new acronyms for new (or just upgraded) systems and products for sale is getting out of control. I cannot tell you how many times contractors have given me their cards and tried to either sell their product, enforce their product's relevance, or tried to downplay a competitor's product...and everything is done in this acronym lexicon...thus economic competition for military business increases the number of new acronyms we need to learn. Every contract granted, every catchy new program (MRT, for example) requires more acronyms to be learned...

Are we capable of learning them all, especially as a 2LT or PVT entering the force? I don't think I am even keeping up at the field grade rank (or I am deliberately resisting...)


I think the author accurately captured how the military’s excessive use of acronyms can impede our ability to communicate clearly with those outside our profession and the many sub-professions within the military (engineers, artillery, aviation, medical, information operations, etc.); he fails to balance his argument by pointing out the value of acronyms and other forms of lexicon.

When I entered the service we were still using manual Morse Code the first few years I was in Special Forces. Messages were written and encrypted by hand and then sent out by our amazing communicators who keyed every character. Speed was essential to minimize our chances for our adversaries getting a fix on us. The requirement was to convey a lot of information in as few characters as possible, which is why we relied on brevity codes, which were not unlike acronyms.

The military’s requirement to concisely convey a lot of information hasn’t changed, but the method of conveying/presenting that information has changed considerably. Ben choose to focus on our ever growing number of acronyms associate with IEDs, so I’ll stick with it to demonstrate some of positives. When describing a car bomb incident to non-analysts it can misleading to call it a VBIED or SVBIED, so using plain English and describing it as a car bomb is appropriate. However, among the specialists who track and analyze IEDs to discern certain signatures and patterns of IED attacks the use of acronyms are appropriate. This information is often digitized and easily searched for and presented in ways that allows analysts to describe trends and potential perpetrators. Searching for car bombs isn’t that descriptive, but searching databases for VBIEDS with a series of other important information such as details about what the IED was composed of, the firing mechanism, the target, etc. are important. We format these reports in ways (using acronyms and other brevity codes) to make searching for them easier so we can translate growing volumes of data into information and eventually knowledge. It is a relatively new form of literacy (for a purpose) that augments our more conventional ways of communicating.

I agree with Ben that we excessively use acronyms in forums where they are not understood and create confusion. Outside our sub-professions we need to re-learn how to communicate our concepts in plain English. A doctor telling a patient he is ordering a CBC to help him conduct a differential diagnosis will probably result in a blank stare, but if he tells the patient he wants to conduct some blood tests to help him diagnose what is ailing the patient will readily understand that. Does the use of lexicon limit or enhance our ability to understand? I suspect the answer is both, but we still need a professional lexicon and that includes brevity codes that allow us to communicate a large amount of information concisely.

All; many thanks. On the question below on how the military tends to categorize things, I concur. This article centered just on acronyms in an effort to bring up the larger discourse of thinking about how the military prefers to think; many use the term "preferred paradigm." I have an article on a post-modern non-linear approach called “assemblages” that counters the classical categorical approaches such as ASCOPE and PEMESII-PT. This article is in final edits with a military journal; I will paste a paragraph from that below to provide some of that content.

“Instead, consider the intangible components of the assemblage such as cultural values, macro-economic adaptation, climate change, resources, politics, and population changes over time, and avoid simply categorizing them within traditional reductionist approaches such as ‘political’, ‘social’, and ‘economic’ categories. Categorization fractures the assemblage and renders explanation meaningless for planners seeking design explanation. Routine categorization ignores linkages across scale and beyond narrow boundaries of groupings. Even our administrative concepts of task and purpose within an assemblage appear meaningless, where the task to type a key has the purpose to form a word, which links to forming a sentence, and so on. Typing is linked in a long series of tasks and purposes up to an abstract level of influencing a society on an anti-drug policy; yet our traditional reductionist approach in military planning wants us to shatter the linkages and reduce complexity…”

And I expand further with:

“Instead of categorizing, strategists and operational planners that apply the design theory ‘assemblage’ concept may avoid the pitfalls of breaking dynamic linkages, or ignoring the importance of scale, time, and transformation within an uncertain and volatile system. All of these tangible and intangible actors and forces interrelate in the dynamic and adaptive assemblage where tactical components connect, disconnect, and establish new relationships within a non-linear web of operational and strategic developments.”

The best source for the concept of assemblages is "A Thousand Plateaus" but it is some tough reading for those not comfortable with post-modernism.

For other sources on how the military tends to categorize, I would be remiss if I did not mention Dr. Paparone’s book that Grant Martin and I co-authored a chapter for; “the Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design.”

Check out the book “the Spider and the Starfish” as well, as it really helps frame how large, centralized decision-making organizations like Big Army tend to lumber around while smaller, adaptive (non-linear) organizations continue to outpace us. The parallels between large music corporations versus Napster-type file sharing organizations and the Western militaries versus terrorist, criminal and insurgent organizations is worth its own article alone.

“Rethinking Organizational Design” by Karl. E. Weick (part of the book “Managing as Designing” is also a fantastic source on this. Weick writes on page 42 that “as social complexity increases, people shift from perceptually-based knowing to categorically-based knowing in the interest of coordination. As demands for coordination increase, people begin to perceive one another in terms of roles and stereotypes, distributed cognition becomes more category-based in order to reduce differences and gain agreement…they do this at the potential cost of greater intellectual and emotional distance from the details picked up by direct perception.”

So, as Weick indicates, the military prefers to categorize with linear decision-making where we move away from really making observations on a complex system holistically towards one where our own institutionalisms, shared values, symbols, and language begin to break down (categorize and reduce) complexity into the illusion of an approved structure. Thus, we force things into the “political” bin with other things tossed into the “social” bin, and yet other things into the “information” bin. After that, we dive into targeting and pattern analysis using a positivist methodology- and we get further and further away from the original (true) complexity where holistically, the situation requires all of those things swirling and interacting together instead of being ripped apart. We lose the complexity. Or, as Weick applies a maxim by Robert Irwin (and later reverses it brilliantly), where “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing seen.” When our military professionals race to categorize things, we “tend to remember the name of the thing seen, rather than the thing seen and the thing felt.” So we see what we wish to see, but not necessarily what there is.

This thought also leads into the concept of simulacra by Baudrillard. I go into this in an article titled “Do We Train to Fail” that Military Review plans to publish in their January 2014 issue. Here is a quick paragraph from that on how the concept of simulacra creates a false copy where military professionals and the MDMP process might grind out products and make analysis that is founded in a false reality that reinforces our own institutionalisms, self-relevance of various services/branches/elements, and the perpetual protection of cherished rice bowls. Now, Baudrillard's book Simulacra and Simulation (translated by Sheila Faria Glaser), (The University of Michigan Press, 2001)is the main source for the concept, but if you have seen any of the Matrix movies, you already know the theory. The Wachowski brothers essentially wrote their science-fiction movie plot by drawing from Baudrillard's work.

“Suppose a couple took a vacation to Las Vegas and stayed in a particular casino hotel that specialized in replicating Venice, complete with canals, gondolas, and many of the familiar visual cues associated with the great Italian city. The couple has such a good time that they decide to take their next vacation in actual Venice, Italy. However, upon their arrival to Venice the moldy smell of the real canals, the crowds of tourists, the formidable language barrier, and the lack of slot machines and readily available American food at every turn disappoints them. They crave the artificial Venetian experience that the casino offered them over the real thing. Instead of enjoying the “real” Venice, the couple decides to return to Las Vegas to the artificial version for their next vacation. This is an example of how simulacra trumps reality.

The casino version of Venice is not just a weak imitation of the real Italian city, but reflects an abstract fusion of western societal values such as American entertainment concepts, buffet meals, opulent service, and localized aspects of ‘Sin City.’ This creates something entirely unlike Venice, despite superficial similarities. According to Baudrillard, a simulation pretends to have what one does not possess, whereas the progression of simulacra is to create a copy with no original; something entirely false, yet commonly misunderstood by a society or institution as “real.” This is the critical aspect of simulacra; that the society or organization accepts the false reality without critically questioning or realizing it.”

So, on simulacra, do our preferred military methodologies, indoctrination, and processes generate simulacra where we see what we think we want, but it is not even a reflection of is a copy with no original. Do we use COGs, Red Cells, Campaign Plans, and other products to generate these false realities? Does our targeting process do this too?

Just some random thoughts for the group. Again, acronyms are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to institutionalisms and organizational thinking where methodologies, processes, and indoctrination tend to circumvent critical thinking, creativity, and novel adaptation.


jim monroe

Tue, 05/07/2013 - 7:56pm

Great article, though sadly, the more things change the more they stay the same. If you can get a copy of the 1943 _The Infantry Journal Reader_, there are three articles that mirror your theme: "War in Plain Language," "ABBR," and "Pollysyllabification."


Tue, 05/07/2013 - 3:26pm

That was anexcellentt article. You may or may not know that all this comes from the original form of Systems Analysis. If the acronym is done correctly it will describe the Systems function such as MLRS Mobilee Launch Rocket System). The original intent was tosimplifyy things focusing the systems function as opposed to which military service jargon it belonged to. Reason being the terms andorganizationn function of the Army,Navy,Air Force,Marine Corps were becoming and are obsolete, which is partly why we have so much trouble in the world today.


Tue, 05/07/2013 - 10:03am


I enjoyed your article. I've noticed an additional military use of acronyms I wanted your thoughts on. We use them not just to communicate, but as memonic devices to remind us of what steps we are supposed to take in multi-step processes (e.g. ASCOPE, PMESII-PT, SOSRA). Well, I think that was the original idea. More often than not, we seem to use these acronyms as comprehensive descriptions of the process they refer to. In other words, ASCOPE has gone from a useful device to start building an understanding of civilian considerations to a list everything we think we need to worry about. Our misuse of acronyms encourages use to interpret complex problems in terms of simple steps or easily reducible, independant elements. I've noticed you have done some writing on the problem of overly linear, reductionist methods of thinking in the military. Do you agree with me that the misuse of acronyms results from and contributes to our problem?

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 05/07/2013 - 8:31am

I do very much agree with this but I would also add it is not just acronyms and jargon. It is also the proliferation of overlapping and redundant doctrinal or "quasi-doctrinal" concepts such as Foreign Internal Defense; COIN; Security Force Assistance; Building Partner Capacity; Train, Advise, and Assist; Organize, Train, Equip, Rebuild, Advise; Stability Operations, and the list could go on. Just like the Jargon and acronyms these overlapping concepts cause confusion both within and outside the military.

I am always reminded of these quotes from Clausewitz and Colin Gray:

“Again, unfortunately, we are dealing with jargon, which, as usual, bears only a faint resemblance to well defined, specific concepts.”* Clausewitz

“The American defense community is especially prone to capture by the latest catchphrase, the new-sounding spin on an ancient idea which as jargon separates those who are truly expert from the lesser breeds without the jargon.” Colin Gray