The Military and Writing: It’s Complicated

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Introduction

As social beings, humans depend on the ability to communicate in securing their needs, and assuring survival; written communications being the most critical, dependable and permanent form of communications. In any profession, it is often writing that is relied upon as the preferred method of communications for getting tasks accomplished. The U.S. military has a vital and challenging mission to safeguard the United States of America. The nature of military work is complex, and the military relies on officers to lead and manage military organizations. U.S. military officers are required to perform a variety of duties to meet their missions. The ability to write intelligibly, comprehensively and succinctly is a skill that requires strengthening, because it is needed by all military officers. This article will illustrate why military officers must be skilled in writing, why weak writing skills exist in the military, and finally what can be done to improve writing in the armed forces.

Why writing is important

In order to perform their jobs competently, military officers must communicate effectively. Military orders are a critical dimension of military work. How orders are interpreted and implemented have a domino effect throughout a military organization. Officer evaluations and the linkage between writing and critical thinking are of great significance for military officers. Much military work is communicated via military operations orders. Operations orders are formatted in such a manner that they compact a lot of information in a small space. An operations order describes the commander’s intent, details of the specific mission and the responsibilities of the receiver. Writing well is critical in ensuring that first, all personnel can understand the order properly, and second, to ensure that there is no ambiguity in the language, so that there are no misunderstandings or confusion.

The written officer performance evaluation and assessment procedure makes clear and precise writing an indispensable and significant skill throughout the chain of command as officers are promoted based on written assessments regarding their performance. As Major Trent J. Lythgoe observes, “The Army’s promotion and command selection processes depend heavily on good writing. Board members rely heavily on rater and senior rater comments from officer evaluation reports to make promotion and command selections.”[1] Ensuring that the meritorious officers are selected is crucial for the institutional health of the military. The military cannot afford to promote the unworthy officer, or overlook the suitable officer. Based on both assessments of subordinates and assessment by superiors, proficient and error free writing is an essential skill for composing fair and accurate evaluations.

Writing is not only the most precise and effective method of communication, it functions as an efficient tool for promoting and enhancing critical thinking, argues Major Trent J. Lythgoe.[2] The act of writing in itself allows one to analyze his/her writing by simply putting it on paper. Moreover, writing involves thinking beforehand and formulating complex thought. Writing is the act of putting complex thoughts on paper, as the words and their relationships to each other have nuances. Therefore, simultaneously with the process of writing, one is able to analyze and look into his/her critical thinking process through a clear, accurate and honest lens. Such analysis is instrumental in detecting and remedying incomplete or unclear thoughts.

Weak Skills: Whom Do We Blame?

The origins of poor writing skills come from a variety of sources. We can trace the roots of military’s writing problem to America’s public high school and college system. Lythgoe cites the U.S. Department of Education, National Assessment of Education Progress in April of 2008 that “only 33 percent of 8th graders and 24 percent of 12th graders can write proficiently.”[3]Therefore, we can forecast based on these numbers, that American students enter college with subpar writing skills.[4] Defective writing skills often remain un-remedied through college, and become problematic when graduates enter the work force, in particular, military service. Furthermore, based on the author’s observations, during initial training with newly commissioned Army officers who had recently graduated from various undergraduate programs across the country, poor writing was the norm, rather than the exception.

Poor, inaccurate, imprecise writing cannot be attributed to America’s public school system alone. Lythgoe contends that writing has been in decline in the Army as well.[5] John Bergen’s Naval Postgraduate thesis research illustrates that as a whole, Army officers are “average writers.”[6] Bergen continues to add that after testing a group of Army officers 18.5% “tested below national writing minimum standards.”[7] Bergen continues to argue that the army does not emphasize good writing skills.[8] Bergen’s thesis was written in 1975. The date illustrates that poor writing is not a new phenomenon for the military. Pointing out the Army’s culpability, Lythgoe adds that the Army’s writing manual was last updated some 25 years ago, and that the Army has shifted from writing formal decision papers to emails and PowerPoint presentations.[9] He continues to argue that the problem with “PowerPoint lies in the fact that it does not require officers to formulate complete ideas or put those ideas together in a logical way.”[10]

Despite the merits of Lythogoe’s argument, we must keep in mind not to blame PowerPoint, as it was never designed to replace a formal Army decision paper. Therefore, comparing the two is not theoretically sound and should be avoided. The culture of the military has changed since the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Information is now accessible in an unprecedented manner. Military leaders need useful information, and they need it delivered in a rapid and expedient manner. Today’s military is at war, and has been at war since 2001. No wartime commander or leader has the time to write, and analyze a formal military decision paper, though certain occasions demand formal decision papers. Emails and PowerPoint presentations provide commanders and leaders information compacted in a manner so that it is easily analyzed to formulate decisions and to continue the operational cycle of either command or staff work. PowerPoint and email are not going disappear as communication platforms for the military. Therefore, PowerPoint and e-mails should be written proficiently and faultlessly, free of grammar and punctuation mistakes. More importantly, the same level of critical thinking should be applied to PowerPoint, and e-mails as they are with formal papers and essays.

The Solution

Not having any control over the public education system, popular culture or the societal shifts, the Army needs to redouble its efforts to remedy the poor writing epidemic in an arena which it can control. According to Lythgoe, “Officer education system,” is the correct platform to start with the remedy.[11] The military controls the officer accession process and the two largest sources of officer commissioning: Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and the service academies. Introducing mandatory remedial English classes which focus on punctuation and grammar, as an addition to undergraduate education, is the first step. The second step is to continue with training focused on writing at a higher level; starting at the officer Basic Courses and continuing through the Career Course and Intermediate Level Training for field grade officers.[12] By ensuring that basic level English with focus on grammar and punctuation is taught and emphasized at the commission source level, the military can then concentrate on proper writing techniques throughout an officer’s career via professional officer education courses.

Additionally, most military bases have education centers. Staffing those education centers with writing professionals who can aid military officers is a necessary step to ensure that training received at officer education courses is followed up and sustained. Finally, since e-mail is now the preferred method of communication and PowerPoint the preferred method of the delivery of information, commanders must ensure that products are well written, and should demand no less. The caveat is that those commanders must first be trained themselves in proper writing techniques.

Conclusion

Despite the hyper use of emails and PowerPoint in today’s military culture, the need for writing well which itself is the sum of critical thinking, is an absolute vital skill. Unless a massive social change takes place and prompts the American education system to strengthen English and writing, in the public school system, the military will continue to receive a percentage of officers from the American education system who are poor writers. The military must take ownership of this writing void and retrain officers starting at the officer commissioning sources, and continue training progressively throughout the military officer education system.


Lemar is an active duty military officer with extensive experience in international affairs and military operations. He has multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. Currently, Lemar is a graduate student at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. The opinions and positions stated here are his alone and do not represent the views or policies of the Government of the United States or any of its agencies.


Notes:

[1]Trent J. Lythgoe, “Flight Simulation for the Brain: Why Army Officers Must Write,” Military Review 91, no. 6 (2011): 50,http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20111231_art011.pdf.

[2]Lythgoe, “Flight Simulation,” 50.

[3]Ibid., 50.

[4]Ibid., 50.

[5]Ibid., 50.

[6]John D. Bergen, “The Causes of Writing Problems in the Army,” (master’s thesis, Command and General Staff College, 1975), IV,http://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/utils/getfile/collection/p4013coll2/id/2256/filename/2307.pdf.

[7]Bergen, “Writing Problems in the Army,” IV.

[8]Ibid., IV.

[9]Lythgoe, “Flight Simulation,” 50.

[10]Ibid., 50.

[11]Lythgoe, “Flight Simulation,” 55.

[12]Lythgoe, “Flight Simulation,” 55.