Sunday, October 27, 2013

Military and civilian language / Goodbye, Lou Reed

H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam is full of military acronyms and zippy abbreviations, but the language that sets my teeth on edge (and, sadly, has most deeply penetrated everyday speech and writing) comes from the civilian leaders and their lickspittles who are McMaster's real villains.

McMaster's own prose is lucid and easy to read, but he's writing history based on extensive archival research about the planning of a war, so his prose is naturally dotted with the jargon of its subject: ECXOM, SEACOORD, CINCPAC, OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense), and so on.

To my surprise, I adjusted easily to the alphabet soup. Not so to obfuscation such as:
"Taylor had to contrive an assessment of the South Vietnamese government that was more optimistic than the one contained in his report two days earlier. The delay ostensibly permitted `thickening the fabric of the Khanh government in the next two months,' a task that Taylor had described as virtually impossible." 
"Bundy ... expressed hope that the `pretty high noise level' might threaten North Vietnam with the possibility of `systematic military action' in the future."
Thickening the fabric? What the hell does that mean? What does it say that shoring up or strengthening does not?  Why noise level rather than noise? And is it mere coincidence that such wordiness and pomposity crops up when leaders are deliberately deceiving the public. (The civilian leaders and Taylor were seeking to postpone action on Vietnam until after Lyndon Johnson could be reelected president in 1964.)

The answer doesn't matter, of course, because obfuscation and wordiness have won. Noise has lost out to noise level, just as no news or sports reporter or jabbering lawyer or business person will write skill when skill level sounds so much more impressive.
I found out while writing this post that Lou Reed had died. My favorite tribute to Reed came a few years ago from the excellent guitarist/songwriter/singer Alejandro Escovedo, who said that when he was growing up and someone would ask, "Beatles or Stones?" he would reply, "Velvet Underground."

Here's the first Lou Reed song I became aware of in the version I heard first.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger Dana King said...

A doubleheader: two good points in the same post.

Obfuscation is the goal. "Shoring up" is a popularly understood term, therefore hard to spin when/if things don't go as promised. "Thickening the fabric" leave some wiggle room, at least in the mind of the speaker.

Adding extraneous verbiage to terms is a device used by those who aren't as smart as they want the listener to think they are. I heard a hockey announcer last year talk abut a player being struck in the "Facial region." When Carlos Beltran ran into the fence in Fenway Park the other night, Fox reported his injury as a "rib contusion." I'm old enough to remember when those were bruised ribs. It's a way to hype the importance or seriousness of the comment artificially by making it sound more intellectual than nit is.

October 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! What's the other good point? The one Alejandro Escovedo made about the Velvet Underground?

The scary thing is that his corporate way of speaking has so permeated everyday life that people talk and write that way without the slightest recognition that they are following in the dishonorable footsteps of McNamara, Bundy et al. It scares me that young reporters, especially, write this way at the precise time that editing is being shown the door.

October 27, 2013  

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