a camel is a horse designed by committee

I don’t disbelieve in committees in principle. Indeed, one of the key elements of Bahá’í community life and administration is consultation, and I’ve seen firsthand the way that a group of sincere people dispassionately considering a problem together can discard prejudices and zero in on truth through serious, candid discussion. People who disparage the ability of groups to arrive at truth or act on information forget that while individuals are more efficient, groups tend to be able to consider a larger number of ideas and challenge one another’s preconceptions.

But the key to the process, of course, is sincerity. Too often, a committee devolves into a group of individuals showing varying levels of interest in the task, and the result of their work ends up being a hodge-podge of ideas, some of which may differ only in wording or semantic shading, slapped together quickly without editing or any serious attempt to arrive at the right solution. Those who don’t care about the task at hand simply want to get it over with, and those who do care tend to aggressively put forth their own views. The loathing of argument (read: delay) and, conversely, the stridency with which individuals defend their own ideas, explain why the result of committee work often becomes a series of bullet points — nothing equalizes all ideas, good and bad, like bullet points.

Here is one of the ugliest camels I know. Its committee origins are written all over it, buried in its very language:

I am an American Soldier.

I am a Warrior and a member of a team.  I serve the people of the United States and live the Army Values.

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.  I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.

I am an expert and I am a professional.

I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.

I am an American Soldier.

This is the “Soldier’s Creed,” which all new soldiers in the Army are required to memorize and, on command, recite in full. When I was in basic training, four years ago, we learned the “Soldier’s Code,” on which more in a moment, and so I have never bothered to learn the “Creed.” I thought about it, when it first came out; I thought it would be a good idea to learn it, for promotion boards and so on. But I found myself, frankly, repelled — not just because it seemed like simple-minded propaganda, but because it was badly written simple-minded propaganda.

It starts off punchy, there’s no denying that — “I am an American Soldier.” Simple, direct — a good start. (And if you were wondering why “Soldier” is capitalized — I think we got caps-envy of the Marines.)

But immediately we start with the compromises. What’s the most important thing about being an American soldier? (Or, if you must, “Soldier.”) Is it being a warrior — “Warrior” — or being a member of a team? Is it serving the people of the United States, or is it living the Army values?

The four lines in the middle, which I’ve highlighted, are a little creed-within-a-creed known as the “Warrior Ethos.” It’s generally forgivable, in the Army, not to have memorized the entire creed, as long as you can at least rattle off these four points, which are considered the cornerstone of everything we do as soldiers. They are the four most important things you can tell someone about being a soldier; together they form the irreducible hard kernel upon which is constructed a soldier’s moral framework.

But are they irreducible? What, exactly, is the difference between never quitting and never accepting defeat? At best, surely, the latter is a subset of the former? But really, they very much amount to the same thing. Surely one phrase would have sufficed?

I can think of two reasons why these two vital elements of the warrior ethos were left uncollapsed. First, four is a nice number. If you’re going to have an multi-part ethos, four parts is probably the way to go. Three is too few, a limp, straggly number, and five or more starts to seem like a grocery list of things which can’t possibly all carry equal weight.

(Of course, the writers of the Soldier’s Creed clearly didn’t limit themselves to four, but went for the grocery list approach after all. I’m guessing the four came up later. Perhaps they brought in the rough draft to the approving commander: “Ummm…. yeah. This is pretty good, but… Any chance you guys could whack this down to, you know, your top four?”)

But the other reason, I think, that the Warrior Ethos has four parts and not three is that there must have been some argument over which phrase was better — “never quit” or “never accept defeat.” It was, perhaps, Friday after lunch, and the members of the committee were still working long after others had gone home for “family time.” And whoever had the marker and was writing things on the white board, after listening to his colleagues squabble about wording for fifteen minutes, graciously stepped in and suggested that perhaps they were really two different concepts — after all, you can quit without anyone ever defeating you, and you can be defeated without ever quitting, right? So let’s just use them both. And because everyone was tired of it and their uniforms were ill-fitting and awkward on their bodies after a long work week and they just wanted to go home, peace was made and redundant phrasing allowed to hold sway.

For a short while, this creaker gets back on track — it’s good to swear, as a soldier, that you’ll stay in shape and maintain your equipment, and rhetorically the parallelism of “my arms, my equipment and myself” is a nice flourish, perhaps the only real attempt at style in the whole creed. But in retrospect it may have been overreaching, because in the next paragraph a similar attempt at parellel phrasing gets the authors in trouble:

“I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.”

I stand ready to deploy the enemies of the United States?

“Whatever — you know what they mean.” Yes, I do. I also know that it’s not that hard to write a sentence that actually means what you want it to mean. And if it is hard for you, perhaps you shouldn’t be assigned to articulate the basic moral standards of soldiering for new recruits. “You know what I mean!” is never a valid excuse for abandoning clarity and structural soundness in rhetoric, any more than “You know who I meant to hit!” is a valid excuse for sloppy marksmanship.

But of course, the “I stand ready” sentence is not a sentence at all, not a clear set of thoughts put into a sound linguistic vessel, but a set of bullet points transcribed from a white board with no intermediary thought process.

What really irritates me about the Soldier’s Creed is that it replaced the Soldier’s Code, which (a) I had already memorized, and (b) is much better-written:

I am an American Soldier, a protector of the greatest nation on Earth, sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

I will treat others with dignity and respect and expect others to do the same.

I will honor my Country, the Army, my unit and my fellow soldiers by living the Army values.

No matter what situation I am in, I will never do anything for pleasure, profit, or personal safety which will disgrace my uniform, my unit or my country.

Lastly, I am proud of my country and its flag. I want to look back and say that I am proud to have served my Country as a soldier.

Note that the clarity of thought practically jumps off the screen here: although the Code is almost the same number of words as the Creed (112 vs. 121), it is organized into six sentences of moderate length and complexity, compared to the Creed’s thirteen, mostly simple sentences. The sentences in the Code are all grammatically correct, and only two of them engage in the listing of bullet points, where the entire Creed can, itself, be seen as such a list. It is free of redundancies and repetitions. And it is free of bloat; where the Creed forces a soldier to blather on about being “an expert and a professional,” without ever defining what those things mean, the Code lays out a set of principles in clear language without throwing in a lot of empty, pride-puffing keywords.

(“Professional,” when used as a noun, is a word I particularly hate. It means, essentially, whatever one wants it to mean — it’s a put-down, a suggestion that others may not be taking their work seriously or living up to the correct standards, without one’s ever having to define what those standards are. Quentin Tarantino, God bless him, subtly satirized the snootiness of people who claim to be “professionals” in Reservoir Dogs: “I’m acting like a professional — you’re acting like a first-year fucking thief!”)

Granting that the Code occasionally engages in some patriotic chest-thumping (“the greatest nation on Earth,” “I am proud of my country and its flag”), it nonetheless traffics in serious ideas. It reminds soldiers of their primary duty to uphold the Constitution, emphasizes respect for the dignity of others (presumably, even enemy soldiers), and reminds a soldier that duty comes before “pleasure, profit, or personal safety.” It warns against disgracing the things one cares about and calls for honorable behavior. And it reminds us that a soldier’s life does not end when his term of service does, and that he will carry his deeds with him for the rest of his life. It is quite a document.

Doubtless the Code was created by a committee, just as the Creed was. But it was not shaped by committee-think, nor is the mere compilation of ideas thrown up in a brainstorming session. Even the contrasting definitions of an “American Soldier” are illuminating: the Creed’s “Warrior” and “member of a team” smell like the doctrine of training manuals, while the Code’s “protector of the greatest nation on Earth, sworn to uphold the Constitution” is a vigorous one-two punch that clearly comes from a long process of internalizing and digesting the highest military ideals. Perhaps worse, “Warrior” and “member of a team” sound like a bit of capitulation to events — gone is the sweeping idealism of love for country and constitution, replaced by the individual pride of being a powerful figure and the dogged personal loyalty of a small group in a deadly situation. Are these the strongest motives left?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s