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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Words Have Meaning

This is Steven Petrick posting.

Words mean things, but the reality is that the words have a meaning not just in their context, but with the occupation of the people using them.

A recent example.

"Move if you have to."

What do those words mean?

To a professional soldier those words mean that if I deem it necessary to move, my superior has delegated to me the authority to do so on my own initiative. However, my superior also has said by those words "do not move unless you have to". I am required by those words to maintain my current position unless circumstances are such that I believe I "have" to move. I cannot simply abandon my current position because my superior is trusting me to use my own judgment to determine when movement is necessary and otherwise wants me to maintain my current position.

Compare that to "You have freedom of action."

Freedom of action allows me to do whatever I deem possible with the forces at my command. I can maintain my position, withdrawal from it at my own discretion, or even initiate an assault on an opposing force if I deem it the best course of action. The choices are all mine.

In both cases I am expected to keep my superior advised as to what I am doing, and of course circumstances can result in his changing my orders. I am still subject to the commands of my superior.

"Do whatever you think necessary".

The professional officer knows that those words are loaded with other phrases that need not be said. They are not a carte blanch authorizing, for example, violations of the Law of Land Warfare because "I think it necessary". If I do violate the Law of Land Warfare, I cannot claim that I was "only following orders", that my superior by using the above words has sanctioned any criminal act I may commit. All he has done is release me to make any lawful decisions possible to maintain my force. Whether that is attack, retreat, or defend in place, or destroying my own equipment in preparation for attempting to infiltrate my people through enemy lines. It does not allow me to execute any prisoners I may be holding.

A reporter, on the other hand, would tend to take the above sentence as my superior authorizing me to commit crimes, and most civilians would not understand the nuances of the phrase "Move if you have to", assuming that it means the command in question can simply decide to move and that there is no onus on the subordinate commander to try to maintain his current position.

Words have meaning, but the meaning is often a product of who is speaking and who is listening.