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The United States military, and the culture that surrounds it, are in many ways enigmatic entities. The everyday operations and customs of the U.S. military concern matters that are alien to most, that is, they are matters that are not usually thought about when the phrase “everyday life” is uttered. For this reason, these matters prompt a closer analysis on several habitual practices of the military that are vital to its continuation and welfare (if not simply consequences of its existence), so as to perhaps better understand how (and why) the military exists the way that it does.
The subjects we will we be examining are somewhat paradoxical in nature, because although the United States military (as are, really, all militaries) is one of the most heavily regimented entities we can possibly analyze—so much so, that the “everyday lives” of soldiers are, to a large extent, void of any presumable autonomy—the following matters are ones that consist of perpetual change or evolution.
Military jargon represents a particular kind of condition. A condition that is a reflection of what soldiers are made to endure, as well as a culmination of their experiences. To begin, there is a certain degree of insolent and ill-mannered speech that revolves around service members’ vernacular. If we are to go forward with the premise laid out by J.L. Austin in that to say something is to always be doing something then we can justifiably assume that how something is said determines what is being done just as much as what is being said.
This need not be mere speculation, as Austin virtually infers as much in asserting the following:
It has come to be seen that many especially perplexing words embedded in apparently descriptive statements do not serve to indicate some especially odd additional feature in the reality reported, but to indicate (not to report) the circumstances in which the statement is made or reservations to which it is subject or the way in which it is to be taken and the like. (3)
That is to say, vulgar modifiers such as “fuck,” “hell,” “damned,” etc. are not said to emphasize the subject that is being modified, but rather, to accentuate the conditions in which whatever is being spoken about has taken place. For example, if a soldier were to say, “During my last deployment I broke my damned leg,” it is not his leg that he wishes to emphasize. The more likely explanation to such an utterance is not that there was anything special about the leg (that it was somehow “more” of the leg than any other), or even anything special about the manner in which the leg was broken; rather, it is said so as to indicate that the broken leg is a consequence of the conditions surrounding it (war, combat, violence, etc.)—that as a result of these conditions, the leg was indeed “damned.”
If one were to attempt to somehow discuss military jargon without doing the due diligence of examining the uncouthness that exists in the language, that person would be committing a terrible injustice to his or her own analysis. As Donald Howard affirms,
The omission of obscenity in reporting military lingo demonstrates a failure to recognize this fundamental fact: obscenity, in the Armed Forces especially, serves as a semantic shortcut in conversation. Its ability to compress meaning into a few choice four-letter epithets, and thus avoid excess verbiage—which indeed is often highly desirable in actual combat—makes it a utilitarian method of oral communication that is practiced by the educated as well as the uneducated. (189)
In other words, the omission of this reality inevitably leads the misunderstanding—if not an all out absence of an understanding—of its utilization. As I have stated previously, military jargon (as can be argued for any dialect) is a reflection of the condition of the soldiers—it is a verbal personification of their physical experiences and instincts. As Howard alluded to, it is not difficult to understand how, in combat, soldiers are faced with two enemies: those across from them on a battlefield, and time. Indeed, situations in which “time is of the essence.” Soldiers are faced with the harrowing reality that a split-second can mean life or death—the success of a mission or its failure. Understanding that veteran soldiers not only have to live, for however long, in such daunting conditions, but are also from the very start of their careers trained in identical environments (not to mention that in these physically combative situations there is still a great amount of verbal communication being utilized, and done so tactically), how could we not expect remnants of such a reality to spill into soldiers’ “everyday” speech (in more-or-less “casual” settings)?
Thus, if Howard’s claim of “compressing meaning,” and Austin’s claim of “indicating circumstance,” are accurate, and we can assume that they are, it makes sense why speak with such peculiar aggression and anxiety—why they might feel they are “pressed for time.” To offer another example, and to attempt to illustrate the claims of Howard and Austin, let us suppose a soldier were to say the following statement to his comrade: “let’s get some fucking food.” The “compressed meaning” here, that is, the understanding the soldier may wish to get across to his companion, is that he does not care too much at all what the meal will be, or where they will acquire it. The epithet used here is, again, not offered so as to describe anything about the soldiers’ pending meal but to indicate the circumstance the soldier that uttered the sentence currently finds himself in: he is desperately hungry.
Furthermore, military jargon also serves to create a distinction between the soldier and the civilian. Ask any member in any branch of the Armed Forces about the nature of that branch’s Basic Combat Training, Basic Military Training, or Recruit Training, (commonly referred to as “boot camp”), and at some point, one will, more likely than not, be met with the claims that the training serves as a means to “break down” civilians and “build them back up” as soldiers (or Marines, Seamen, or Airmen). For instance, retired the United States Air Force Sergeant, Rod Powers, provides his understanding of the purpose behind Basic Training in asserting, “I can describe the military basic training experience in one sentence[:] It’s all about breaking a person down and rebuilding him from the bottom up. The breaking down process begins immediately upon arrival” (Military.com).
A considerable degree of the “breaking down” process of civilian concerns what is said to him and what he is expected to say. In other words, it is as concerned with the transformation of a recruit’s speech as much as any physical transformation or maneuver. The speech that a recruit is trained to use and to recognize can achieve its desired result—transforming the civilian into a soldier—if, and only if, the speech transforms for the recruit an already recognized world. That is to say, the speech must help to transform, firstly, the recruit’s identity—how he recognizes and places himself in this new environment—followed by how he perceives all that encompasses the “everyday” world. As Howard further explains,
Accordingly, a trainee is a boot, who spends approximately ten weeks at boot camp. He lives in a squad bay (barracks) which usually has a head (toilet) and a scuttlebutt (drinking fountain) in the passage (hallway)…he must swab (mop) the deck, square away (tidy up) his 782 gear and see that his rack (bed or cot; also called sack) is correctly made. The bulkheads (walls) and ladders (stairways) must be spotless…they march to chow (breakfast, lunch, dinner). (190)
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