13 February 2010

Lost in Spaced-Out Mil-Translation

Make a Hole ....pngEarlier this week, at a time when I really needed something to distract me from the newspaper, one of my daily go-to web comics really brought the funny. Schlock Mercenary is a "comic space opera" drawn by Howard Tayler since June 2000. He's a great storyteller, a creative-businessman (and, note how the meaning changes with the deletion of the hyphen), a creative businessman.

A couple of years ago, I got hooked on Tayler's twisting narrative about "Tagon's Toughs," group of space mercenaries headed up by Capt. Kaff Tagon. (Surprisingly, given the attitudes and actions of his para-military characters, Tayler has apparently never served in uniform.) The title character, Sgt. Schlock, is a shape-changing alien that typically arms himself with a pair of ominously humming plasma cannons. Things get pretty strange after that. Think "Hammer's Slammers" meets "Red Dwarf."

Gee, Sherpa, when you tell a story ... have a point ...

Well, Thursday's three-panel Schlock comic depicted a high-speed foot-pursuit through a low-gravity shopping mall. One the mercenaries--a flightless bird-alien with a prehensile tongue--tries to the clear the crowd using a timeworn military catch-phase. (By "timeworn," I mean: I learned this one in my basic Army training experience.) Somebody shouts "Make a HOLE," and everybody automatically clears to each side of the hallway, or staircase, or whatever.

It works great when everyone speaks the same lingo. Got a crowd of civilians? Not so much. The comic ends with a collision, after which an exasperated woman asks the mercenary, "'Make a hole? What does that even MEAN?!"

(OK, if you haven't clicked over there yet, here's the link again. No, I didn't give away Tayler's punchline. I'm a class act that way.)

Reminds me of the time I was on leave from active-duty for a friend's wedding. I was in dress uniform. The reception crowd was a little too loud and chatty, and someone else wanted to make a toast. Did Sherpa clink a glass or loudly clear his throat? No ... he used the Voice of God and called the room to "at ease."

I still cringe at that one. What was I thinking?

Oh, that's right--I wasn't ...

So much of Army jargon and training and phrasing is based on repetition and repetition and repetition. (And ... it's repetitive, too.) It's like the crazy mix of call-and-response conditioning (almost said "brainwashing," but thought better of it) and tribal oral tradition. To this day, more than 20 years later, if someone were to yell "What's the spirit of the bayonet?"--I'd bet at least half the old soldiers in the room would instantly respond with the required "Kill! Kill! Kill!" once taught by our drill instructors. There might even be some muscle memory triggered, causing us to hunch into an aggressive ready-pose.

Another example: We were doing medical-skills testing last drill weekend, and the trainers brought out these nifty new tactical tourniquet kits. (Me? I'm old enough to remember when the Army gave you a "medical pouch" that contained little more than a single adhesive bandage and a prayer book.) Back in the day, we were trained to create a tourniquet by twisting a pressure bandage with a stick. Back in the day, we were taught to say, "I will turn my tourniquet / to stop the flow / of the bright-red blood," in a kind of sing-songy voice.

More than two decades later, presented with a high-tech one-size-fits-all tourniquet, the phrase comes to mind as easily as "hickory, dickory, dock ..." That's probably the point to drilling it into us when we're young: Immediate recollection, unthinking action, unhesitating response.

'At ease'? What does that even MEAN?!


  1. "Roger, that."
    Imagine my confusion the first time I saw this at the end of an email. I had been asked to contact a SGT to ask about supplies. Being the civilian/writer/fashionista that I am, I sent a carefully worded letter. I received the information needed, and replied by thanking him. I received, "Roger, that."
    Okay, so I figured out what it meant, and that it was a sort of etiquette. But was I to reply? "Roger what?" "Roger who?" "Roger this?"
    Oh....Woger Wabbit.
    Anyway, I hit "delete" and went on my way. But I think I got it.
    Emily Post got expanded a bit that day.
    Roger that.

  2. I hear "hooah" a lot! who-a what? Who- who? oh, HOOAH!!

    Roger, that! and the ever present....lol

    gotta <3 this. Gr8,huh?


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