In 1932, Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Montgomery – who a decade later had the task of building the first modern British army in a century – began an assignment as an instructor at the Staff College in Quetta (later Pakistan). Few months passed before Monty began to make a strong impression on his students, one of whom recalls:
I thought he was first class. I remember that he invented a new teaching method there. He would arrive with his notes, read a page to himself – taking three or four minutes to read them while only one waited. And then he walked to the front of the stage and spoke beautifully, absolutely right. I used to sit there and think: that’s what I always thought, that’s all true, but I don’t have enough wit to say it, the tongue . (Monty, The Making of a General, 1887-1942)
Over the next few years, Montgomery remained vigilant to ensure that the correct language reflected the correct thought, such as in 1941, when Britain was still expecting a German invasion. As 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) reserve forces capable of moving easily to any area where a German landing threatened the homeland, Montgomery stated: “The term Beach Battalion can only result in the defensive mentality related to the beach, and is prohibited. . . .” In today’s terms, Monty canceled the term “beach battalion.” Why?
Instead of trying to “defend every possible yard of beach or shore”, which “resulted in undue dispersion”, he said, Monty’s defense had to be with reserves “kept together so as to that they can act offensively and deliver blows”. Montgomery rightly perceived that the terms “Beach Battalion” and “beach-defense” revealed a mindset contrary to the offensive spirit to which he was attached.
In short, Monty understood that language could influence combat outcomes or, to use today’s American military buzzword – lethality. Montgomery’s war record, though imperfect, confirmed the fundamental accuracy of his “almost despotic view” on such points.
Montgomery said, “There is a great need today for clear thinking”, and he strove to ensure that his troops employed clear language – like his example – that fostered a offensive combat mentality; one reinforced by its drills (“brilliant rehearsals for specific operations”) without regard to possible invasion. Bernard Montgomery used clarity of thought and speech to promote legitimate lethality.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the current Pentagon leadership and senior officers on the ground. While counterproductive examples abound, especially since 2021, two weeks ago the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), headquartered in Hawaii, promulgated new guidelines regarding the use of pronouns. As the Free Washington Beacon reported, PACAF leaders were instructed, “Do not use pronouns, age, race, etc.” in the official writing, continuing with the reveal: “Welcoming and utilizing diverse perspectives on a basis of mutual respect will enhance our interoperability, efficiency, creativity, and lethality.”
In fact, these two PACAF quotes have nothing to do with each other. The “fundamentals of mutual respect” sermon in quote two is nothing new and has been an integral part of much American military leadership, communication skills, and team-building material for decades. I know firsthand that this was the case in Air Force professional military education schools at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, at least since the 1980s. The first quote, on the use of pronouns , has no bearing on improving “interoperability, efficiency, creativity and lethality”. However, this may affect lowering lethality, which was the focus of PACAF leadership for the new mandate.
That PACAF considers lethality essential to its mission is certain. His official command “Vision” is stated in 17 words. “Lethal” is one of them. In addition, there are four descriptors of airpower that command requires, and “lethal force” is one of the four. That PACAF leaders utter the word pronoun in the same sentence with lethal force is disturbing to say the least. They have lost their way.
It’s especially painful to have this as the US Air Force celebrates its 75th anniversary. Can anyone imagine Jimmy Doolittle and Curt LeMay during World War II, or Chappie James and Robin Olds during the Vietnam conflict, briefing their combat crews or staffs on the use of pronouns?
There are two possible responses to the mandate pronoun, both negative.
First, most PACAF staff – at least those who aren’t required to write as part of their job – can laugh at the silliness and go about their business. Even then, however, a climate of diminished respect for – and trust in – senior management is a logical outcome.
The second possibility may be more serious. While the traditional “train as if you were fighting” philosophy applies in this case and senior leaders as well as those down the chain are required to devote time and energy to ensuring that their communications officials meet the unwieldy and counter-intuitive pronoun purity test, then future combat operations will undoubtedly be hampered because there will be less time and less energy devoted to questions of legitimate lethality. Communications will be made less clear, less concise, and to PACAF’s ostensible concern, less effective.
Meanwhile, the Chinese continue to act with brazen aggression towards Taiwan; develop breakthrough hypersonic systems and non-kinetic, primarily cyber, capabilities designed to neutralize our space assets; and increase their strategic influence in the Western Pacific and beyond, as evidenced a few weeks ago when a US Navy ship and a US Coast Guard vessel were denied a port call in the Solomon Islands. Have no doubt that the Chinese and North Koreans are making fun of the madness of the Americans by equating the use of pronouns with lethality. Our adversaries know better.
Monty’s passion for clear and correct language – like some other top military leaders during World War II, including US Army General George Marshall, who despised unclear and wordy military orders – was authenticated where every doctrine, program or military project is proven or disproved. – on the battlefield. As the Deputy Commander of the Pacific Air Force recently said of the airmen he leads, “Their sacrifices and hard work do not go unnoticed. . . . It’s noticed in the capitals of our allies and partners, and it’s certainly noticed by our adversaries. Thank you for . . . be mortal and ready.
Unfortunately, America’s adversaries also notice our ideological devotion to counterproductive language when it comes to things like lethality. The Pentagon must abandon this kind of signal of irresponsible virtue and return to the real business of lethality.
–Forrest Marion / Roanoke