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It is time to kill our darlings

We could ‘fight them on the beaches’, or we could ‘actively constrain in a cyber domain to protect critical national infrastructure in the maritime domain’. Tell me: which one of those two soundbites is the more memorable? It shouldn’t be a rhetorical question – but it is. This article exposes a life-threatening flaw in contemporary military education. The absence of plain English is hindering the effectiveness of our forces and, for the most part, at the highest levels in the British military, the art of rhetoric is dead.

There is no easy way to put this: until leaders turn their backs on buzzword-laden homilies that are an inspiration to no man and, instead, find some respect for a skill mastered by few but instinctively admired by many … we will carry on shooting ourselves in the foot. It is only a matter of time before that will lead, directly, to someone getting shot in the head (if it hasn’t already).

In The Alphen Group’s November 2020 essay,1 Paul Cornish suggested it makes sense for agencies to use language in an integrating way – harnessing the power of words and their persuasive abilities to bring departments closer together. Common sense you would think. Cornish is right in that it’s not beyond the grasp of most people to communicate clearly by using language properly. The real problem is not personal ineptitude but the culpable misnomer that jargon, clunk, and the glutz of fetid technospeak give military oratory some kind of superiority. If the art of rhetoric was still a focal point in the curriculum then this would not be a problem.

I will show this in two ways: with an overview of the addressable deficit, with examples of flaws in the tools in place. First though let’s start with an unpalatable truism. Some people won’t have the foggiest idea what I’m talking about. They’ll have had no formal training in the art of rhetoric and little if any experience in writing content that is designed – designed, specifically – to be persuasive and easy to understand. So, at the risk of patronising those who have, here’s the skinny:

Logos, Pathos, and Ethos are not The Three Musketeers

Plain English is just that. It’s the removal of words that are superfluous or unnecessarily complex, and the adjustment of syntax to provide greater clarity. (Syntax is word order. Yoda very syntax specific uses.) But in the same way we might say, “the air force does things with planes, the army does things with tanks, and the navy does things with ships that can carry both …”, rhetoricians would say that rhetoric, written or spoken, is the art of persuasion with language. It is not that simple, obviously. The ability to write in plain English is almost an artform and rhetoric is the art of combining myriad rhetorical devices with language that’s used in pre-determined ways to secure a desired outcome. The three most common ways of deploying that language are through the invocation of logos, ethos, and pathos.

Logos is the leader’s go-to. It’s the use of facts to establish an authoritative position on a subject. Ethos is more complex: it’s the use of language that resonates with a specific audience, usually in terms of corpus, grammar, and syntax. Pathos? Pathos is an anathema in military circles. It’s the use of language that appeals to the emotions, it’s a catalyst for securing a reaction from an audience. As for those myriad rhetorical devices, you know them, even if you don’t know their taxonomy. Alliteration. Oxymorons. Irony. Pleonasms, hyperbaton, epizeuxis, epizeuxis, epizeuxis…  Word-nerds love this kind of stuff. Powerful tools, each and every one.

Unfortunately, the art of rhetoric is rarely taught in the British curriculum today. This means that those great weapons – for want of a better metaphor – stay locked in the gun cabinet. Plain English is conspicuous by its absence too, while ‘military rhetoric’ and ‘rhetorical question’ are terms that obfuscate the issue, albeit inadvertently.

What’s worse, many schools and colleges invest time in encouraging students to actually refrain from talking (equating the lack of noise in a classroom as a proxy for higher quality education), and in promoting the use of over-extenuated vocabularies. It’s not until we cross the threshold of more esteemed seats of learning, and yes, this is an Eton mess, that we find Aristotle’s totems included in the curriculum by default and the art of constructing simple narratives is considered a vital life-skill.

Rhetorical skill is easy to identify and conspicuous by its absence

At this point, I would like to extract and present a submission from an MA written by Professor John M. Hinck,2 one of our country cousins. (Unfortunately, our native penchant for a) data protection and b) being reticent to admit to our systemic failings mean that British datasets on historic studies are hard to procure. Fortunately, for us, this deficit in a curriculum is a universal problem that shadows the momentum of societal change and tailcoats the economic drivers for change to education systems all around the world. The importance of rhetorical skills, however, transcends geography.)

Hinck’s review of the US’s Command and General Staff Officers’ Course (CGSOC) revealed that from 1936 to 1974, public speaking was part of the resident course; from 1975 to 1980, no courses on public speaking or rhetoric were offered; from 1981 to 1992; only three elective courses on effective speaking skills were offered – which is not the same as the art of rhetoric – from 1993 to 1997, only one elective course on effective presentation was offered, and from 1998 to 2003, no courses on public speaking or rhetoric were offered at all. I would suggest this is a familiar story for comparable educators, here in Britain.

For the record, Prof. Hinck is the Assistant Professor of Leadership at the American Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, and a former Army Colonel with 22+ years as a combat leader and Apache pilot, commanding 2nd Battalion, 314th Aviation Regiment and Task Force ODIN-Afghanistan. I would suggest he not only understands the value of deploying rhetorical skills but also the value of being deployed in situations that depend on excellent communications.

Today, communications training for military leaders focuses on briefing techniques, directives, and decision-making abilities. It gives far less credence to the value of rhetorical influence or of the impact of creating effective communications in plain English. Why? Well, in short, I would surmise the current cohort of teachers are – through no fault of their own – ignorant as to the value of great rhetoric and simple language. Ignorant is a strong word. It is the right one. Tomorrow’s leaders are being taught by today’s teachers, the majority of whom are a generation that did not hear the sermon on rhetorical skills, preached from the front of the class.

As a writer by trade, I use myriad styles to achieve my clients’ aims, whether it’s a far-reaching change in policy for government or a local-focus campaign for a small business. I’m often asked to write about sensitive subjects, for speeches and eulogies in particular, and there’s very little in that vein I haven’t tackled. Sex, drugs, rock and roll. However, I’ve also been invited to teach – to coach, to provide workshops – and, as a teacher, as someone who’s taken hard cash more than once for the privilege of helping ‘rising stars’ to communicate more effectively, it pains to me disclose that far too many six-figure, university-educated, policy-making, portfolio-toting, decision-taking bright young things could not craft a cohesive, persuasive argument if their lives depended on it. Two of them hadn’t heard of Winston Spencer Churchill either but that’s another story.

Ironically, most of us do recognise a poor piece of writing when we see it (and Churchill), no matter what our background or alma mater. Instinctively, we do not need a privileged education to feel the appeal of great rhetoric when we hear it: we can all tell when a leader at the despatch box in peacetime is ‘bumbling’. I’m confident we can agree, by comparison, that some leaders’ speeches in times of crisis are infinitely more memorable.

How did Winston Churchill’s words become ingrained in British heritage? (Spoiler alert, the answer is rhetorical skill.) One day before D-Day, on 5th June 1944, how were American troops motivated into mortal combat when General Patton addressed them in the field? (Again, that’s a rhetorical question, seeing as how the answer is rhetorical skill.) Like it or not, did Lieutenant Colonel T T C Collins make a memorable speech to the officers and rangers of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment in March 2003, just before crossing the Iraqi border in OPERATION TELIC? Yes. And would it surprise you to know that speech oozes rhetorical skill?

Those leaders all deployed identifiable rhetorical devices to great effect. Patton and Collins did it naturally – Collins’ speech was given more or less off-the-cuff – Churchill did it by design. This is not a debate: the right speech or turn of phrase can reframe a situation in such a memorable way, it contributes to historical change.

It doesn’t need to be Shakespeare to be inspiring; I’m not suggesting every communication should be Churchillian; but surely it would be to our strategic and operational advantage if this free resource was on tap, every day, at every level? The odds, however, are stacked against us.

The proof is in the sweet, heavily fruit-based, seasonal dessert

The basic tools issued to date – the building blocks for communications across all branches of the services – are less than ideal. The MOD’s Writers’ Handbook January 2019 is quite a thing.3 The first inspiring quotation in it is from the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, and the typesetters have clearly not been given the good news about a new-fangled piece of technology known as word-processing software.

For those who don’t know it yet, there is no need to physically add a double-space between sentences. That anachronism dates back to the metal characters in typewriters using the same amount of space, so a narrow character like [i] had as much width as [w] – and an extra space made it clear that a sentence had ended. Today’s word-processing software makes fonts proportional, which is why we only need one space. There may or may not have been an edict issued recently, advising of the need for only one space – I’ve yet to see much evidence that anyone has read it or taken its content on board.

Then we have the extant version of the Defence Writing Guide JSP101 (4.0),4 which is less than ideal. Any document that recommends writing in the active rather than the passive tense but then uses the passive tense three times on page one alone… is a document that can be improved. Any teaching aid that a) provides an incorrect definition for acronyms, b) uses that word in error, more than once, and c) directs students to include acronyms and abbreviations in a lexicon but then omits its own reference for the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff … is on dangerous ground.

[For the record, an abbreviation is a truncated word. An acronym comprises parts of the phrase for which it stands and can be pronounced as a word. AARSE, for example. An initialism is an acronym that is pronounced as individual letters. The editors of the Defence Writing Guide JSP101 (4.0) would have us believe that MOD is an acronym, which would be spot on if Paul Weller is ever appointed Chief of the General Staff — unlikely, I know.]

This level of fault-finding may seem petty. It is not. It is petty to the same degree a bricklayer teaches his apprentice to pour Coca-Cola into the mortar mix, on the basis water is listed in the ingredients on a bottle of the black stuff. It is petty in the same way batteries are never shipped separately to radios. It is petty in the same we might overlook supplying ammunition for a gun. Without the right tools to create clear and inspiring, memorable narratives, we inhibit our ability to communicate and our potential to succeed. I am not alone in thinking this way. Tom Hashemi, writing for Wavell Room in September 2020, noted that he couldn’t understand the points being made by fellow speakers at a recent conference put on by the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research. “Despite having an MA in War Studies, I lacked the institutional vocabulary needed to decipher what I was hearing.” Two years ago, at the 2018 International PME Conference, Air Commodore Scott Miller presented a conclusion on the only way forward for developing Coherent Joint Professional Military Education in general.5 In it, he iterated the six activities underpinning every part of the Advanced Career Development Pathway. The ability to communicate effectively came in at number two on the list.

By way of contrast, a short burst of activity in the search bar of the Defence Academy of the UK reveals “Strategic Communication & Influence Operations: Do We Really Get It?”,6 a paper by Dr Lee Rowland & Commander Steve Tatham RN. This dynamic duo suggested that understanding an audience is the beginning and end [sic] of all military influence endeavours – something that echoed Miller’s conclusions, in so far as the first recommendation on his list for improvements was developing emotional intelligence. Such is the veracity of Rowland and Tatham’s conviction; however, they convinced their publishers to underline those four words and iterate: “We believe this should be stamped in bold, underlined and coloured glowing vibrant red on every page of every piece of official documentation associated with influence…” – however, while their arguments are strong, they overlooked one fundamental point.

From the identification of optimal target audiences and the measurement of those audiences ‘influenceability’, to the identification of the best process to influence that audience and the production and deployment of triggers to effectively and measurably change that audience’s behaviour… all of those things are dependent on clear communication. Without catalytic clarity – without clarity in the language, and motivation in the subtext – none of those things can happen.

In schools of military competence, the value of a leader’s ability to use language effectively has received little serious study. Rather, the tactics, techniques and procedures needed to ensure an advance at a tactical level are taught by rote, without giving weight to the quality of the tutorial.

One of the reasons we encourage potential leaders to write essays, during training, is so that they can run diagnostics on their own thinking, recognise weaknesses or strengths in their arguments, and analyse their own persuasive ability. In the classroom they develop the critical thinking skills that will help them to solve problems and make life-changing decisions at an operational level. For the most part, they’ll refine their own character in private – the pursuit of a well-synchronised moral compass is a journey that’s self-determined more than it is guided – but all of this progress can be accelerated if an individual is taught to communicate more effectively. That is how people become aware of their own potential as a catalyst for transformation.

Clearly, mastering the art of rhetoric involves more than learning how to construct a speech or grasping the use of plain English. But when did you last see an After Action Report that analysed the impact of a commander’s speech or the dissection, the fisking, of a high-profile leader’s narrative, pointing out its flaws in style if not in content? It may be hard to split-test language on the battlefield, but any half-competent communications’ professional will tell you there’s a value to be gained from A/B testing a source text – what’s known as the control – and there’s a tangible cost to removing that value, from either the classroom or our overall comms capabilities.

It is time to kill our darlings. If our leaders cannot use words to communicate effectively, who will want to follow them? Surely, that is the ultimate rhetorical question. A campaign for the restitution of rhetorical skill and greater use of plain English needs to start here and it needs to start now.

Image – © IWM OP-TELIC 03-010-18-129

Merryn Walters

Merryn Walters has been writing – using the art of rhetoric, harnessing the power of plain English – for over 30 years. Her clients include Ordnance Survey, Gov.UK, many of Britain’s major utility providers and insurers, as well as private individuals in need of a speechwriter who’s willing to tackle highly sensitive subjects. She is also an enthusiast historian, undertaking an MA in MilHist at the University of Wolverhampton, and she is writing a book about the Battle for Monte Altuzzo and Massacres on the Gothic Line in the second world war.


  1. https://thealphengroup.home.blog/2020/11/27/tag-essay-the-disintegrating-language-of-uk-defence/
  2. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a416892.pdf
  3. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/778501/20180831-DCDC_Writers_Handbook_web.pdf
  4. http://www.rlavies.co.uk/JSP101_2019_Part2.pdf
  5. https://www.da.mod.uk/Portals/0/PME/20181218-PME_Miller_Developing_Coherent_Joint.pdf?ver=2018-12-18-125959-957
  6. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/119385/2010_08.pdf

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