Deconflicting the Humma-Humma


From Parameters, September 1990, pp. 100-103.

I've always sensed a certain wariness between civilians and the military. As the son of a Marine, I grew up thinking of civilians much as the nuns who schooled me regarded non-Catholics: There might be some good ones out there, but they'll never get into heaven..

Having now spent my professional life as a civilian, I looked forward to my year at the US Army War College as an opportunity to get to the root of this cultural barrier. After all, I have spent half my life in a military environment and half in the civilian netherworld. As a member of the civilian government bureaucracy, I have worked often with the military and continuously been impressed with both that organization's integrity and intellect. What, then, causes several of my civilian acquaintances to draw the verbal caricature of the "military mind" and many of my military friends to view civilians as a species just below jellyfish and slightly above the US media?

I figured if I could do some original study on this issue, I would go far in accomplishing my mission of promoting peace, understanding, and mutual respect between our two cultures. I could also satisfy a writing requirement or two. I could assume the perspective of one of the International Fellows who attend the War College, watching, listening, and learning about just what makes the military--in particular the Army--unique.

My initial clue came when we all gathered in Carlisle Barracks' Bliss Hall auditorium that first steamy August day of last year. At one point during that morning's welcoming remarks, the word "infantry" was mentioned in passing. As soon as this word issued forth, no fewer than 25 of my classmates bellowed OOO-AH! (I remember being somewhat disappointed that it was not in unison, but it was, after all, our first day). In addition to easing my concerns about my professional maturity in handling the rigors of the War College, this event caused me some angst over the meaning of "OOO-AH." Having spent many an evening in base movie theaters in Panama and Okinawa, I'd always heard "OOO-AH" belched after the national anthem by young men in buzz cuts and muscle shirts, with eagle tattoos on their arms. Thus, I'd always thought "OOO-AH" meant "Let the movie begin." Now, it seemed to mean something else. And I couldn't find the word in any of the 500 JCS PUB DASHES we were given to read.

As we moved into seminar discussions and course readings, the root cause of the military/civilian disconnect became more apparent. I was fairly convinced of the problem when one of my reading assignments included the sentence: "In addition to AMC and TRADOC, other MACOM serve as the MATDEV or CBTDEV for certain types of equipment." All doubt was removed, however, when one day in the coffee shop I overheard several LTC(P)s bemoaning the plight of the Serbs. Thinking that I was entering a heavy discussion on the nationalities question in Yugoslavia, I offered as how I found the Serbs to be quite determined. It wasn't until a week later that I found out I had broken in on a debate over Selective Early Retirement Boards. The barrier between the military and civilians is not one of ethics, discipline, or patriotism--it's language.

This is more than just a question of acronymphomania, however. My research shows that militaryspeak goes back at least as far as Alexander's time. But even before Haig, there was one person whose influence on militaryspeak is felt even to this day, and he wasn't even an American.

Everybody at the War College has to read and pretend they understand Carl von Clausewitz. We are told Clausewitz is the master writer on war, although he based his writings primarily on Napoleon's romp through Europe and on armies that had to see each other to fight. Clausewitz, or his translator, wrote complexly about war's complexity. He uses words like "adjunct" a lot and refrains from punctuation to the extent possible, presumably to avoid distracting the reader from his insight. Being German, Clausewitz also had little use for a verb when three or four nouns would do perfectly well.

Because every colonel wants to be a military genius, it is natural to begin the transformation by talking like one. The same principle went for football coaches during the Lombardi era. Thus, I venture that Clausewitz's real influence on the US military lay primarily in his influence on its language.

So how can a civilian conquer this language barrier? There are no shortcuts to acronyms, unfortunately. The best thing one can do is to find a pronounceable acronym or two--TIPFIDDLE is my favorite--and throw them around during seminar discussions. If one wants to know what the acronyms actually mean, studying might be required. (But such considerations are beyond the scope of this article.) Aside from acronyms, however, there are a couple of words civilians should learn so they can hold their own--a sort of street militaryspeak.

In addition to the aforementioned "OOO-AH," "Humma-Humma" is quite useful. "Humma-Humma" is roughly translated as "et cetera," "B.S.," or "I forgot what I was going to say." This word comes in handy during speeches. I listened to one general use "Humma-Humma" so often in a lecture that I thought he was reciting a Buddhist mantra. For my own purposes, I've found "Humma-Humma" to be useful when giving oral reports to the seminar.

A second tip, especially helpful in writing, is to cluster three or more nouns together, e.g. military manpower procurement problem. I believe this practice descends directly from Clausewitz. At the War College, noun clusters not only help fulfill wordage requirements, but they sound military. I was able to hide my civilian identity for three weeks in one advanced course by keeping my noun-verb ratio at four to one. I blew it when I went and said something nice about Jimmy Carter, the US Congress, and the media all in one day.

As for verbs, civilians can get away with using English most of the time, but there are a couple of high-impact verbs to keep in mind. "Prioritize" is the word most military people claim they hate to use but use anyway. As best as I can trace it, "prioritize" was first used during Alexander Haig's tenure as Secretary of State.[1] It is a word familiar to everyone in the US government, so it shouldn't pose much of a problem for those with no previous training in militaryspeak. However, a much more powerful and versatile verb is "deconflict." Given the chance, civilians will choose wimpy words like "compromise," "mediate," or "negotiate." Military officers, on the other hand, can simply use "deconflict" to cover all such unpleasant situations. I've also come to use "deconflict" in place of "prioritize," because deconflicting connotes accomplishment whereas prioritizing sounds almost wishy-washy by comparison. On those days I don't actually get any work done, I can always claim I deconflicted my schedule; it at least sounds as if I spent time wrestling with a difficult problem. If I just say I prioritized my workload, however, I find it harder to cover up for procrastination.

Finally, academic life is only one facet of the Army War College. Socially, it. is important for all students to know the meanings of "ring knockers," "cannon cockers," and, of course, all the O-words. I'd spent two weeks memorizing all the ranks in the four services and could even think of generals in terms of movies (a one-star, two-star, etc.), but when I heard that Joe So-and-so made O-7, all I could think of was that it had something to do with Bingo. The potential for such social gaffes are many. Finally, please realize that the blank designated as "DOR: _____" on the information sheet all incoming students receive is not asking if you are a member of the Daughters of the Revolution. If you put in "no" like I did, it may cause administrative problems.

Overall, with a few well-chosen words, a repertoire of multisyllabic noun clusters, and a dozen or so acronyms thrown in for good measure, civilians should be able to overcome the military language barrier. Until civilian agencies are able to open up formal language training, I'm afraid this is the most that can be done. The effort is worthwhile, however. As the military gets more and more into LIC, as well as MIC and HIC, we civilians are going to be called on more and more to work with our uniformed counterparts in deconflicting the world's humma-humma.


1. Some linguists maintain that during General Haig's tenure at State he in fact created a new language by combining the thought processes contained in US policy statements with military syntax and expression.

Douglas J. Naquin is a career government intelligence officer and a graduate of the US Army War College, Class of 1990. He holds a B.A. in political science from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and an M.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. He has served with the Foreign Broadcast Information Service in Okinawa, Bangkok, and Panama, where he was involved in extensive liaison with the military. Among his assignments in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as the Executive Assistant to the CIA's deputy director for science and technology.

Reviewed 9 October 2001. Please send comments or corrections to