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Pentagon Pronouns and Illegitimate “Lethality”

In 1932, Lt-Colonel Bernard Montgomery – to whom a decade later the task fell to building the first modern British Army in a century – began an assignment as instructor at the Staff College in Quetta (later, Pakistan). Not many months passed before Monty began to make a strong impression on his students, one of whom remembered:

I thought he was first-class. I remember he invented a new method of lecturing there. He’d come in with his notes, read to himself one page – taking three or four minutes reading them while one sat waiting. And then he’d walk to the front of the stage and talk splendidly, absolutely right. I used to sit there and think: that’s always what I’ve thought, this is quite right, but I haven’t got enough wit to say it, the language. (Monty, The Making of a General, 1887-1942)

In later years, Montgomery remained vigilant to ensure that correct language reflected correct thinking, as in 1941 when Britain still expected a German invasion. As a corps commander, Monty had “some 215 miles of English beaches” to defend. Convinced that the best military option available to him was to establish inland centers of (offensive-minded) forces-in-reserve capable of moving readily to any area where a German landing threatened the homeland, Montgomery stated: “The expression Beach Battalion can result only in defensive beach-bound mentality, and is forbidden. . . .” In today’s terms, Monty cancelled the term, “beach battalion.” Why?

Instead of attempting “to defend every possible yard of the beach or coast” which “led to undue dispersion,” he said, Monty’s defense was to be done with reserves “kept assembled so that they can act offensively and strike blows.” Montgomery rightly perceived that the terms “Beach Battalion” and “beach-defense” revealed a mindset contrary to the offensive-mindedness to which he was committed.

In short, Monty understood that language may influence combat outcomes, or, to use the current American military buzzword – lethality. Montgomery’s war record, while not perfect, confirmed the fundamental correctness of his “almost despotic vision” on such points.

Montgomery declared, “There is a great need today for clear thinking,” and he took pains to ensure his troops employed clear language – following his example – which promoted an offensive warfighting mentality; one reinforced by his exercises (“brilliant rehearsals for specific operations”) without regard to possible invasion. Bernard Montgomery employed clarity of thought and word to promote legitimate lethality.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said regarding today’s Pentagon leadership and senior officers in the field. While counterproductive examples are numerous especially since 2021, two weeks ago the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), headquartered in Hawaii, promulgated new guidelines regarding pronoun usage. As the Washington Free Beacon reported, PACAF leaders are instructed, “Do not use pronouns, age, race, etc.” in official writing, continuing with the revelation: “Welcoming and employing varied perspectives from a foundation of mutual respect will improve our interoperability, efficiency, creativity, and lethality.”

In fact, these two PACAF quotes have nothing to do with one another. The second quote’s “foundation of mutual respect” sermonizing is nothing new and has been an integral part of most U.S. military leadership, communications skills, and team-building materials for decades. I know firsthand that was the case at the Air Force’s professional military education schools at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, at least since the 1980s. The first quote, on pronoun usage, has no bearing whatsoever on improving “interoperability, efficiency, creativity, and lethality.” However, it may have some bearing on lowering lethality, which was the point of PACAF’s leadership regarding the new mandate.

That PACAF views lethality as indispensable to its mission is certain. Its official command “Vision” is stated in 17 words. “Lethal” is one of them. Moreover, there are four descriptors of the air forces the command requires, and a “lethal force” is one of the four. For PACAF leaders to say the word pronoun in the same sentence with lethal force is disturbing in the least. They have lost their way.

It’s particularly painful to have this going on while the U.S. Air Force marks its 75th birthday. Can anyone imagine the likes of Jimmy Doolittle and Curt LeMay during World War Two, or Chappie James and Robin Olds during the Vietnam conflict, briefing their combat crews or their staffs on pronoun usage?

There are two possible responses to the pronoun mandate, both negative.

First, most PACAF personnel – at least those not required to write as part of their job – may laugh off the silliness and go about their business. Even in that case, however, a climate of lowered respect for – and trust in – senior leadership is a logical result.

The second possibility may be more serious. If the traditional “train like you fight” philosophy holds in this case and senior leaders as well as those down the chain are forced to devote time and energy to ensuring their official communications meet the unwieldy, counterintuitive Pronoun Purity Test, then future combat operations will undoubtedly be hindered because there will be less time and less energy devoted to matters of legitimate lethality. Communications will be made less clear, less concise, and to PACAF’s ostensible concern, less efficient.

Meanwhile, the Chinese continue to act with brazen aggression toward Taiwan; develop revolutionary hypersonic systems and non-kinetic, mainly cyber, capabilities designed to neutralize our space assets; and increase their strategic influence in the Western Pacific and beyond, evidenced a few weeks ago when one U.S. Navy and one U.S. Coast Guard vessel was denied a port call in the Solomon Islands. Do not doubt the Chinese and North Koreans are chuckling at the Americans’ foolishness in equating pronoun usage to lethality. Our adversaries know better.

Monty’s passion for clear and correct language – like certain other senior military leaders during World War Two including the U.S. Army’s General George Marshall, who despised unclear, wordy military orders – was authenticated where every military doctrine, program, or pet project is proven or disproven – on the battlefield. As the Pacific Air Forces’ deputy commander said recently of the Airmen he leads, “Their sacrifices and their work does not go unnoticed. . . . It’s noticed in our allies’ and partners’ capitals, and it’s certainly noticed by our adversaries. Thanks for . . . being lethal and ready.”

Unfortunately, America’s adversaries also notice our ideological devotion to counterproductive language when it comes to such things as lethality. The Pentagon must ditch this kind of irresponsible virtue signaling and get back to the real business of lethality.

– Forrest Marion / Roanoke

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