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Words Matter

The author fears that the Army is not only incorporating business terms into its vocabulary, but also distorting the meanings of words that are defined clearly in doctrine.  

Even as our Nation’s attention is focused on the war in Iraq, I notice the increasing incorporation of commercial or popular management terminology into the profession of military logistics. Frankly, words like “enterprise management,” “portfolios,” “business rules,” “Lean Six Sigma,” and “national partners” make me cringe. I sometimes wonder whether I should consult Harvard Business Review or Army Logistician when I want to increase my professional logistics knowledge.

Even some who wear military uniforms and others who are part of the Department of Defense civilian logistics corps have begun to assume that business terms like these hold a shared meaning for the rest of us. I believe I speak for the majority of us in the military profession of logistics when I say, “No, they do not.”

I remember attending a meeting years ago during which a lieutenant colonel disrupted discussion of an Army Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) contract issue when he said, “I do not like the way you use the word ‘event’ instead of ‘operation.’ We should use the word ‘operation’ because those are Soldiers out there, not kids running a cross-country race.” Boy, was he right!

Because the duties of my last assignment entailed writing, reviewing, and commenting on logistics doctrine and future operating concepts, I found myself in a constant struggle with those (many in senior grades) who simply had not stayed abreast of their professional art. The military logistics profession is about the uncommon sense that sets us logisticians apart from laymen. Part of our shared sense-making is our artful use of words that seem esoteric to those outside the profession. Words such as “general support,” “supporting commander,” “lines of communication,” and “lines of operation” are distinctive and enhance our ability to communicate effectively (a key aspect of any profession).

We logisticians are not only letting business terms encroach on our profession but also allowing ourselves to distort the meaning of words that are defined clearly in doctrine. For example, in doctrine written over the last decade, the modifiers “strategic,” “operational,” and “tactical” have been paired with logistics levels of organization and support. These terms originally were conceptualized as levels of war, not levels of organization or support. Joint Publication 3–0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, states—

The levels of war, from a doctrinal perspective, clarify the links between strategic objectives and tactical actions. Although there are no finite limits or boundaries between them, the three levels are strategic, operational, and tactical. They apply to both war and MOOTW [military operations other than war]. Actions can be defined as strategic, operational, or tactical based on their effect or contribution to achieving strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.

In Field Manual 3–0, Operations, the Army has also recognized that the use of these terms is focused on the effects of activities and should not be confused with levels of organization—

The levels of war are doctrinal perspectives that clarify the links between strategic objectives and tactical actions. Although there are no finite limits or boundaries between them, the three levels are strategic, operational, and tactical. Understanding the interdependent relationship of all three helps commanders visualize a logical flow of operations, allocate resources, and assign tasks. Actions within the three levels are not associated with a particular command level, unit size, equipment type, or force or component type. Instead, actions are defined as strategic, operational, or tactical based on their effect or contribution to achieving strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.

We professional military logisticians should be careful not to use terms such as “operational logistics” or “strategic logistics,” as used in Joint Publication 4–0, Doctrine for Logistics Support of Joint Operations, because we do not know if logistics actions by organizations at any level will actually achieve certain objectives (or to what degree they will contribute to or enable them) until after the fact. Joint Publication 4–0 states—

The Joint Staff and Service staffs concentrate on strategic logistics matters. Serving as supported commanders, the geographic combatant commanders as well as supporting commands and agencies link strategic and operational level logistics to support their assigned missions. Subordinate commanders blend operational logistic and tactical support to accomplish tasks assigned by the commander of a combatant command…

This excerpt contains a flagrant misuse of the words “strategic,” “operational,” and “tactical.” Their use here seems to suggest a commercial, businesslike interpretation of “strategic management.” In retrospect, the last time logistics was militarily “strategic” probably was during the Berlin Airlift, when military logistics (transport aircraft) did achieve national strategic objectives. When logistics actions are the main effort of an operation, as was the case during the recent relief actions following Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistani earthquake, we might have a case for “operational logistics,” but that must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

We need to use agreed-upon terms to describe the kind of support rendered, such as “area,” “general,” or “direct” support. I also believe that we should use “national,” “joint force,” and “unit” when we refer to organizational levels of logistics.

I believe that we should use the word “national” to describe support provided by forces that are assigned to a continental United States-based service or agency or the U.S. Transportation Command but are not assigned or allocated to a geographic combatant commander. National support capability, by virtue of supporting-to-supported command relationships and direct liaison authorization, may be collocated in theater with the theater-level support capability. Joint deployment and distribution operations centers are an example of this collocation to help ensure a “seamless” transition from national- to joint-force-level logistics distribution.

I believe that “joint force” should mean general or area support that is common to one or more theaters of operations, theaters of war, or joint operations areas. “Unit,” I believe, should refer to support forces that are highly integrated, or “organic,” and that are acting in direct support of combat formations, task groups, or task forces.

Cultural symbols, such as language and icons, are increasingly “free-floating” and lack the concrete meanings of the industrial era. In an article published in Teaching Ethics and Values in Public Administration: Innovations, Strategies, and Issues, Charles J. Fox, a postmodern theorist, claims that people in post-industrial societies are caught in a world of unstable meanings because “language loses its ability to communicate the discrete workaday reality.” He claims that the “unanchoring” of meaning is a sign of an emergent postmodern era. If he is right, the result could be “deprofessionalized” logisticians who are utterly dependent on outsiders.

According to Fox, we have had 10 major management fads in 25 years. This rapid diffusion of different movements suggests that science is not the culprit but that the “hyperreal” symbols of transformations are. From a critical thinking perspective, these transformations are only shifts in vocabulary and not in tangible product. For example, fads such as Management by Objectives and Total Quality Management are merely alterations in the ongoing search to satisfy the perception of effectiveness and perhaps serve more as anxiety-reduction mechanisms than actual performance enhancements. “Lean Six Sigma” and “Balanced Scorecard” are offshoots of the same quest. Nothing really new is created. Fox calls such management symbols and movements “plastic, disposable reifications” (something abstract that is regarded as a material or concrete thing). The work-force becomes cynical as these waves of plastic, disposable fads are constantly reintroduced.

It is incumbent on all of us to study the words of our profession, use existing terms correctly, and suggest new terms only when warranted. We should avoid the copycat mentality that seeks to import business terms and perhaps corrupt our profession as a result. We should guard against the use of plastic, disposable definitions and popular management fads that disguise false learning, fail to challenge old knowledge or provide us with knowledge that is truly new, and do not lead to positive achievement or change.

Colonel Christopher R. Paparone, USA (Ret.), recently retired after 28 years of active duty as a Quartermaster Corps officer. In his last assignment, he served as the Deputy Director (J–3/4) for Logistics and Engineering at the U.S. Joint Forces Command. He has a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University.