TCS Daily


The Language of War and Warriors: Embrace the Slang

By Edward B. Driscoll - February 22, 2007 12:00 AM

In his introduction to the published script of Full Metal Jacket, Michael Herr, the author of the Vietnam-era book Dispatches that partially inspired the movie, wrote that director Stanley Kubrick was notorious for not allowing any of his actors to deviate from his shooting script. Kubrick made one prominent exception: Lee Ermey, "the ex-Marine who had been hired as technical advisor, bugged Stanley to test him for the part of Sergeant Hartman, and he brought a lot of his own incredible language in, like Orson Welles in The Third Man."

While Austin Bay is a retired Army colonel and not a Marine D.I., his new pamphlet, Embrace The Suck, also introduces the public to military jargon. It's a pocket-sized dictionary of that same sort of incredible language, updated for the 21st century and the Global War On Terror.

In its introduction, Bay writes, "Priests, prostitutes, psychologists, cops, jazz musicians, poker players, the gang at the beauty shop—every trade has its jargon; every group a lingo or recognition code that separates 'ins from outs' and 'us from them.'"

The Common Currency of Military Slang

Lenny Bruce would certainly approve of much of the language of Bay's pamphlet, which is colorful (and often scatological), to say the least. In a recent interview, Bay told me, "You can say that war is obscene and obscenity is the common currency of military slang from the beginning of the military". As he notes, "The title is right on the edge. It's clearly got an obscene basis to it".

In his four-page introduction to the pamphlet (2007, Pamphleteer Press, LLC) Bay writes, "'Embrace the suck' isn't merely a wisecrack; it's a raw epigram based on encyclopedic experience. Face it, soldier. I've been there. This ain't easy. Now let's deal with it." He adds that the title is "indicative of a lot of military humor—there's a gallows humor aspect and a darkness to it".

Bay writes that Clausewitz would be right at home dealing with the suck, except that in his legendary treatise On War, the General called it "friction." "Friction," Bay told me, "being a force of wearing down every effort, every endeavor on the battlefield. Murphy's Law says that 'if it can go wrong, it will.' That's a more comedic configuration of that friction." (Bay his own corollary on Murphy's Law: "If it can go wrong, it already has and we just don't know about it.")

Like Lee Ermey's four-letter-laced rants in Full Metal Jacket, there's much in Embrace The Suck that is laugh-out-loud funny. Bay is well aware of this, but he says that the book's meaning and purpose is multifaceted. It's "primarily entertainment, at one level. But it's not written just to get a grin. There's a very serious side to this, because it is a language of war and warriors." Men and women at maximum risk of death.

Where Vocation and Avocation Meet

Bay says that "When I was working on the pamphlet, I felt like this is one of those jobs that comes along where both my avocation and vocation meet:

"I spent a total of 32 years service; about four and a half of which was active in the '70s, and then I was active in the reserves for 27 years on top of that. So it all came out at around 32 years service time.

"I was a weekend warrior, and I as told NPR, when I look back, sometimes the weekends got darn long! The fact that I was called up for the Persian Gulf War; had several extended tours, was a deputy commander of a Hurricane Mitch relief operation in Guatemala, and sent back to Iraq.

"At the same time, in my profession, I'm an author, I'm a newspaper columnist, I'm a writer. I've also got a PhD in English Lit from Columbia. A lot of folks don't know that. I think it's somewhere, buried on my Website.

"And I thought, this is an interesting marrying of both my experience as a soldier, and also work as a wordsmith and scholar."

The New Pamphleteer

The book's pamphlet form ("Sort of a 'tweener' between blogs and a book", as Bay puts it), is a result of a "Back To The Future" innovation of its publisher, Adam Bellow.

Bellow is a veteran of many years in the traditional publishing business, a New Yorker who famously Escaped The Zabar's Left after 9/11. Bellow says, "Pamphlets are the traditional vehicle for the expression of challenging and independent ideas and arguments, and they are an ideal outlet for the freewheeling culture of the Blogosphere." Bellow also believes that the pamphlet's quick and easy read makes them ideal for "the embattled modern reader in our fast-paced, media-saturated, A.D.D. culture."

Bellow adds that while Embrace The Suck was designed primarily for the civilian marketplace that knows of Bay from his columns and previous books, along with his blog, podcast, and other media appearances, perhaps surprisingly, it's attracted a military audience as well. "The multiple copy orders we have received from people in the military and at the Naval War College and elsewhere suggest we've been successful at opening a channel to the military market," Bellow says. "We plan to follow this up with more offerings for that specific audience."

Of course, by and large, Bay's fellow soldiers need his pamphlet the least. Instead, it should be required reading for every journalist covering not just Iraq, but any aspect of the Global War On Terror.

While Bay plans a follow-up to his pamphlet to ensure it remains up to date, given the reaction Embrace The Suck has been receiving, he says, "I could see doing a longer version, one that also discussed military idioms in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the 21st."

Which certainly sounds like a worthy topic. The Suck has a language all its own, and while that language currently has its share of words from the Nintendo and MTV culture that some new soldiers have emerged from, as Bay notes, its common currency truly does date from the beginning of the military, and is well worth studying.

(Full disclosure: Austin Bay is a regular contributor to TCS Daily, and I produce his weekly podcast, "Blog Week In Review" for Pajamas Media and consider him a friend.)


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6 Comments

And that lingo is often given a bad rap
Many of the references we now consider racial slurs (for Chinese, Japanese, Vitenamese and Middle-easterners) got their start in military lingo. Interesting how public perception, especially in this country, is that everything the solider does is bad.

Hello from the American civilian world, if you were in the military, you are often unwelcome here; we certainly don't want to hear your ugly slang.

Ahhhh, but many will buy the book!!

times have changed....by northernguy
Many of our current colloquial expressions come from a past military age.

The Royal Navy has contributed innumerable phrases to the English language.

Some that come immdiately to mind are: the cat's out of the bag, three sheets to the wind, the devil to pay, slacker, hard over, take(or try) another tack etc.

Very true
As well as some American ones like ASAP. Sadly, the military slang has been snubbed since Vietnam. I'm real fond of SNAFU and a couple of others.

Three letter acronims (TLA's) were US navy speak
This has invaded the computer culture to a COMPLETE degree. Modern children dont know TLA's dont have a long tradition in english but are relitively new inventions.

If you really did an in-depth research into the military effects on modern American languege I believe the results would show a huge military unput to the American experience.

also very true
Acronyms are a big part of the American language. The first letter acronym is common throughout our culture and has invaded the computer lingo in a huge way. LMAO!

Thanks for the information
I have three soldier sons (all in Iraq) now. I heard one daughter-in-law use a strictly military term before another son shipped out, no profanity, and laughed. I'll order a book or two for us back home so that we can keep up.

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