Recently, I read some draft military doctrine. It was a disturbing experience. It reminded me of a time not long ago in which I often found myself straining to decipher turbid professional military writing or searching for meaning in jargon-laden vision statements and roadmaps. Clarity was rarely the watchword for the thankfully anonymous authors of those documents. This is not true of all professional military writing, just too much of it. I have long thought that before prospective military doctrine writers fill pages with inane sentences about designing future information effects, for example, they should acquire and keep close George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”
Nearly 75 years after it first appeared in the journal Horizon, “Politics and the English Language” remains a persuasive case for clear, simple writing—the plain style, as Orwell called it—and the corollary that unclear writing has consequences beyond the concern of schoolmarms or composition mavens. Orwell is known today more for his novels, especially Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), than for his essays. As an essayist, however, he should still be considered a preeminent practitioner.
The essay does have its critics. For example, Carl Freedman takes Orwell to task in “Writing Ideology, and Politics: Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ and English Composition,” which appeared in the April 1981 edition of College English. Freedman’s critique is thought provoking, as is Stephen Poole’s attack on Orwell’s rules as burdensome inventions (that writing in passive voice should be avoided, for example) and his keenness for plain English, the “shibboleth of dull pedants.” While both Freedman and Poole make many good points with which I can agree, neither they nor others have soured my affection for an essay that, year after year, helped me detect common writing flaws, not least in my own writing. I stand with the late Sanford Pinsker who, in his 1997 Virginia Quarterly Review article, “Musing About Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’—50 Years Later,” did more than an admirable job returning fire on Orwell’s behalf. Orwell’s essay should, Pinsker claimed, remain a lodestar for writers who care about expressing themselves as clearly as possible—“nothing more or less than writing committed to plain sense.”
One of the joys of editing the Naval Institute’s Proceedings is having near at hand bound, refurbished volumes of nearly 150 years of professional military writing. Sampling writing from different eras is edifying. Officers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrated an impressive command of the English language. However, they tended to be long-winded, repetitive, and inclined to use ten words when five would do (Orwell would not approve). Prize-winning essays often came in at nearly 20,000 words. Here are just two sentences from the opening of then-Lieutenant Ernest King’s 1909 prize-winning Naval Institute essay:
It is universally admitted that the service is in need of reform in the matter of organization, and this is as necessary on board ship as in any other connection. The methods of handling personnel now obtaining in the service are largely due to accretion, combined with the primary disadvantage that there has never been any logical system, founded on principles, on which to base anything.
From the 1930s, through World War II, and into the 1980s, Proceedings essays tended to be less verbose, favoring cleaner, more straightforward prose. The prevailing writing style had changed, probably a result, in part, of common schoolhouse composition instruction that followed E. B. White and William Strunk’s The Elements of Style (1920), White’s essays on writing style in The New Yorker and elsewhere, Ernest Hemingway’s famous success with a lean, unadorned style, and, later, Orwell’s essay itself, which for a long time was in almost any high school or college writing course syllabus.
But toward the end of the century, professional military writing was more regularly eschewing clear language in favor of the business-speak of self-anointed management gurus. I believe the chief cause of this unfortunate trend is that, in the peace-dividend decade of the 1990s, it became fashionable for military leaders to adopt the language, no matter how vacuous, from the business-management class. Management theory book titles began appearing on service chief reading lists, and many senior leaders were espousing “business engineering processes” as the salves to the pain of downsizing to a leaner, meaner military. Just run the military like a business, they said again and again. Find those efficiencies! But as Matthew Stewart showed in his well-researched essay, “The Management Myth,” which appeared in The Atlantic in June 2006, management theory, while pretending to be scientific, actually more closely resembles the “toothless wisdom” found in the self-help genre.
It is no wonder that military leaders writing doctrine and other dicta began using language less to convey some clear meaning and more because these career-minded authors felt compelled to use words trending in board rooms and at management “offsites.” Words such as synergy and synchronize, now used far outside their scientific connotations, signaled a leader who “gets it,” as did terms that were until then safely confined to fields such as botany (cross-pollinate!). Language is always evolving, to be sure, and military professionals are no different than any class of professionals in using an unofficial cryptolect to navigate their careers. But official language should clarify concepts, not render them more opaque. Military writing, therefore, should follow in the tradition of Descartes who, Stewart noted, “. . . dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible and not obscure.”
While Orwell’s essay predates by decades this unfortunate development, the writing tenets he championed are timeless. Being clear with language requires recognizing what is clear in the first place. When confronted in official language with phrases such as “[effects-based approach to operations] is about creating effects . . .,” officers and other leaders should be able to recognize writing that glosses over flawed concepts or reheats old ideas with new expressions.
Orwell opens the essay with five particularly egregious examples of bad writing before shifting the attack to three categories of writing sins: Dying Metaphors (“a dump of worn-out metaphors that have lost all evocative power”), Pretentious Diction (“[language] used to dress up simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality . . . [or] . . . dignify the sordid processes of international politics . . .”), and Meaningless Words (“. . . [words that form] long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”). He then demonstrates how easy it is to “dress up simple statement” with his own parody of the following verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity but must into account.
One can see the fun Orwell is having here, conjuring his own example of an inflated style, but only to underpin a serious point—“the whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” This tendency can never be arrested once and for all. Good editors and teachers combat it at every turn, but it invariably reemerges, like a recurring pestilence. It infests the Joint Chiefs of Staff strategy document Joint Vision 2020 in many sections, recalling Orwell’s parody all too well. In just the opening section, the reader is treated to this redundancy: “The strategic concepts of decisive force, power projection, overseas presence, and strategic agility will continue to govern our efforts to fulfill those responsibilities and meet the challenges of the future.” Would one write, “the strategic concept of strategic agility will continue to govern our efforts”? And good luck deciphering concrete meaning from this paragraph:
The qualitative change in the information environment extends the conceptual underpinnings of information superiority beyond the mere accumulation of more, or even better, information. The word superiority implies a state or condition of imbalance in one's favor. Information superiority is transitory and must be created and sustained by the joint force through information operations. However, the creation of information superiority is not an end in itself.
For the military professional, the imperative to write clearly comes with the added burden of knowing what terrible consequences could ensue if language used to convey orders is not as clear as possible. Taking good care with language, then, should be a top priority.
The heart of the essay is Orwell’s contention that writers often use the wrong words either because they have not first thought through what meaning they are trying to convey, or they are deliberately being unclear. The former is forgivable for communication in the moment. But not in official documents that should benefit from careful revision. It is simply unclear writing. On the latter, Orwell warns that the “great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” and I can only echo this to young military leaders in reminding that they need to be smart enough with language to recognize when a euphemism is masking an ulterior agenda.
Orwell wrote the essay at a time when his government was regularly using unclear, euphemistic language to disguise what he viewed as nothing less than crimes. “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” Yet even today, this type of official public-relations language remains common. If he were alive today, I suspect Orwell would find that politics and language abuse are as closely linked as ever. And while that may never be untrue, Orwell held out hope for writers who know how to produce and citizens (readers) who understand and demand clear language. The more, the better. Literacy matters for democracy to survive, a point Adam Garfinkle makes in his article “The Erosion of Deep Literacy” in the Spring 2020 issue of National Affairs.
While Orwell condemns as an act of moral turpitude intentionally using unclear language to mask criminality, being unintentionally vague remains easy enough to do despite the offender’s intentions. Orwell advises writers to ask themselves six questions before choosing their language: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
None of those questions should count as an epiphany, but as an editor, I can certify that many otherwise thoughtful military authors with important ideas to share either do not follow a version of this process or give it a cursory treatment. To be fair, we are all mimetic creatures subjected daily to what Orwell called a “debased language.” We speak and write as we hear and read. I have to remind myself from time to time of Orwell’s observation that “just as thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” If a writer is not careful, it is easy to adopt commonly misused words and phrases because they quickly come to mind and not because they are the best fit for the intended meaning.
You can shirk [the necessary work] by simply throwing open your mind and letting ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need, they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.
Meaning, Orwell emphasizes, should “choose the word, and not the other way around.” In so much modern military writing, the authors do not appear to have this sequence in the right order. Perhaps nowhere is this troublesome inversion more apparent than in official writing on information operations, a relatively new subgenre of military writing that traffics in jargon to the point of obscenity. It could be that the concepts information operations writers are trying to convey defy clear definitions, rendering Orwell’s standard unattainable. If so, we are back to Descartes—concepts that cannot be clearly explained are not durable concepts at all. Bertrand Russell put the same point another way in his introduction to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s groundbreaking work on the relationship between philosophy and language, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “. . . the whole function of language is to have meaning, and it only fulfills this function in proportion as it approaches to the ideal language to which we postulate.”
Read through Joint Vision 2020 and encounter such gems as, “the joint force of 2020 will seek to create ‘frictional imbalance’ in its favor by using the capabilities envisioned in this document . . .” and “. . .shape ambiguous situations at the low end of operations . . .” To envision is the cognitive act of creating a mental picture. One can describe capabilities in writing, but simply envisioning will never put words on paper. And the word shape, when used as a verb, means to form, produce, or create. It does not mean to make clearer, unless one stretches a secondary definition of the verb—namely, to determine—such as, for example, the experience shaped my opinion on rent control. I know no military leader who would order a subordinate commander to shape an ambiguous situation.
A recurring absence of precision and clarity in professional military writing and speeches has real consequences. How many botched reorganization attempts or unrealized plans can be blamed, in part, on poorly articulated concepts, requirements, or intent? Leaders can parrot tropes about breaking down silos, creating collaborative environments, or finding synergies, but when their subordinates rightly demand specifics and clarity, hazy exhortations simply will not do.
There is clear professional military writing out there if one looks hard enough for it. This year the Navy issued an updated version of its preeminent doctrinal publication, Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfighting. Writing this past August on the publication’s improvement from its 2010 version, my CIMSEC colleague Jimmy Drennan noted that the 2020 version “. . . makes a concerted effort to plainly demonstrate the value of American seapower. Whereas NDP-1 (2010) liberally uses military doctrine buzzwords and acronyms, NDP-1 (2020) instead describes similar concepts in plain language . . .”
Indeed, Orwell held out hope that “the decadence in our language is probably curable.” For the military, the curing will require that leaders recognize the problem, encourage attentiveness and discipline with language, and remain humble in knowing that no one is immune from misusing language. Orwell himself makes this point when he writes, "Look back through this essay, and for certain, you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.” No single writer, even one of great renown, can firmly fix a definition of good writing, but surely there must be such a thing as good writing and rules worth following. Using Orwell’s essay as a source seems to me smarter than imitating professional writing (most of it bad) in vogue.
It is perhaps best to close this essay at the point Orwell himself left off, with his “. . . rules [that] sound elementary . . . but . . . demand a deep change in attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable:”
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These seem good rules for the professional military writer to follow if he or she wishes to use, as Orwell advises, “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”
Bill Bray is a retired U.S. Navy captain and the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.