08 April 2010

Words and Thoughts on Target

It was one of those slow-motion trip-wire moments, in which time seems to slow down and you're able to perceive all the moving parts, each moving independently, each a part of the whole. The briefer's slide refers to "second and third world effects," and the first- and second-highest ranking individuals in the room lock into instant eye contact with each other. As the classroom fractures into a 10-minute break, I overhear one of the officers say to the other, "Yeah, I caught that, too. I'll ask him about it."

I continue to listen in as Col. York takes the briefer aside. It's a friendly but somewhat pointed conversation. Listening to him work is nearly always a pleasure. Somehow, he can ask insightful, incisive questions to push a person toward an answer or action, but in a way that never puts the person completely on the defensive.

It's a skill that I personally have never been able to fully master. Col. York's questioning technique is a lot like laser surgery: Direct, precise, with little damage to surrounding tissues. By comparison, even at my inquisitive best, I'm just a dull scalpel; at my worst, I'm a cleaver.

In the instructor's defense, the slides are not the his own. And one can certainly see how the original author may have confused the phrase "second- and third-order effects" (Army-speak for the ripple-effects resulting from a particular event or action) with the Cold War breakdown of the globe into the First, Second, and Third Worlds Consider: "Second- and third-order effects" plus "New World Order" equals "second- and third-world effects."

I once worked directly for the good colonel, deployed to a U.S. Department of State mission that was ultimately overseen not by a military officer, but by a U.S. civilian diplomat. Early in our deployment, York told his soldiers that he would not tolerate the word "siddiqui" to be used in reference to the local Arabic-speaking population. While it allegedly meant "friend," it had come to be used by U.S. units preceding ours as a slang term, one of derision and disrespect. (The example parallels U.S. soldiers' use of the honorific "Hajji" as a slur in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

In short, words matter to Col. York: Words shape thoughts. Words shape actions.

During my last deployment, at an informal dinner our unit put on for the diplomat-in-charge, all the soldiers present stood up and briefly introduced themselves. When it was my turn, I used a phrase familiar to soldiers everywhere: "back in the world, I ..."

For whatever reason, most everyone else who followed used the same construction: "My name is [NAME HERE]. I'm the unit [DUTY POSITION HERE]. Back in the world, I [CIVILIAN OCCUPATION HERE]." I guess it was kind of catchy, or an easy conversational crutch.

At the next morning's daily briefing, however, in front of the usual motley collection of contractors, soldiers, and sailors from various countries, Col. York casually put me on the hot-spot:

"Sherpa, tell me ... isn't [THE COUNTRY WE'RE IN RIGHT NOW] part of 'the world?'"

Gulp. Yes, sir!

Since then, I've watched my language more carefully around Col. York. Not because I fear his questions, but because I know he demands carefully chosen words ... and well-placed thoughts on target.


  1. Being able to ask questions and get respectful, accurate answers is NOT an ability I seem to possess, either. I mean, what is so wrong with, “Tell me exactly how you pulled that shit-brained idea out of your desk-worn ass without forceps, and what are we gonna do to keep it from stinking up the room?” And why would that offend anyone?

  2. @ Coffeypot: EXACTLY! The funny thing is, one of my occasional Army jobs is to type up the answers to such questions in official-sounding ("officious"?) reports. It's amazing that I've survived as long as I have, I guess ...


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