By ART CHANCE
The military has long, probably always, had its own vernacular. Those who have been in the military and those of us especially of ‘Boomer age learned a lot of the vernacular from our fathers and grandfathers, most of whom served in some capacity.
We’ve all heard that something was FUBAR, “F—ed Up Beyond All Recognition.” We’ve heard of a SNAFU, “Situation Normal, All F—ed Up.” Most of us knew the word “scuttlebutt” as a term for rumors. The scuttlebutt was Navy slang for the potable water fountain on a ship and the crew would gather around the scuttlebutt and exchange rumors and lies.
When our youngest joined the U.S. Army, we quickly learned that he spoke a foreign language. We bought a slim volume from Amazon called “Embrace the Suck, The Navy SEAL Way to an Extraordinary Life,” which is a guide to military speech. The underlying premise of military thought is encapsulated in the WWII slang phrase, Snafu. It is also the underlying philosophy of those who actually do things in civilian government, where it is usually expressed as something like, “expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised when you don’t get it.” At its essence, it all sucks, so deal with it.
The guys in charge of cutting and transporting the stones for the Egyptian pyramids probably complained that the guys drawing the plans and giving the orders had never worked with the tools and didn’t understand what it took to cut and move stones. In my State of Alaska days, I had something of a reputation for being cynical and negative, and that’s not usually a good thing in the “rah-rah” world of political management. I didn’t care; I wanted to be able to say, “I told you so” if anything went wrong.
Neither British North America nor the new United States had much in the way of wage labor or regimented factory production. The federal government and state governments were tiny groups of clerks and secretaries, the little “s” kind of secretary. The Post Office was probably the most powerful department in government because postmasters were appointees and Mail Carriers were patronage appointees. The Customs Service wasn’t far behind because of its presence in the port cities.
There was very little unskilled, semi-skilled labor in industry. Machinists, ironworkers, wheelwrights, shipwrights, cordwainers, printers, and the like were organized into guilds or unions and the owners bargained with the guilds/unions to arrive at wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. The sort of labor scheme that had existed since the Middle Ages began to unravel with the expanded industrialization and immigration from the 1850s onward.
The U.S. workforce began to rely more and more on unskilled and semi-skilled labor doing repetitive work and by the 1920s the U.S. was riven with labor strife. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 extended the sort of bargaining practices that the skilled trades had once enjoyed to all employees of businesses engaged in interstate commerce. That sop to Labor and WWII bought a period of relative peace – for a little while.
Nobody in world history had ever run anything as big as the Allied war effort in World War II. The U.S. military had less than 200,000 men in 1939. At the end of the War in 1945 it had 12.5 million men in uniform. For those of you who’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan,” there is a scene a day or so after the landing, when the Tom Hanks character is summoned to see his commander. There is an horizon-to-horizon view of the English Channel from the bluffs above the beach. The beach is covered with materiel, the sea is filled with ships and landing craft, the sky is covered with aircraft, and the men look like ants on an ant hill. That scene is a reenactment of an actual photograph.
A reality check: The only things in that scene that existed on Dec. 7, 1941, were two World War I battleships in the bombardment fleet and the men themselves, most of whom were in high school at the time.
The military, industry, and education worked mightily to teach men, and some few women, how to keep this mighty host fed, supplied, and armed. Harvard Business School led the charge with the University of Chicago not far behind. Holding military office, going to Harvard or the University of Chicago at government expense, then after discharge going on to Harvard and Chicago’s pro team, McKinsey Consulting — that was the path to the stars in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now the military isn’t the entrepot to the big-time but the path to the big-time still goes through McKinsey. Go research the CVs of the people running the US these days.
Those of us in government and to some degree in corporate management learned to hate people with Master of Business Administration degrees 20 years or more ago. Probably those grizzled non-commissioned officers in World War II learned to hate them long before that. This is the guy that the Egyptian stonemason complained about 4,000 years ago who gave him plans and orders but who had never cut or moved stones. The whole notion behind the MBA is that you don’t have to be able to do something to be able to tell other people how to do it. I really don’t want to listen to some Ivy League punk with a Gantt Chart in his hand telling me what I should do when s/he can’t analyze a grievance or put on an arbitration successfully.
My last experience with the world of the MBA was my “get off the sofa” job at Cabela’s. Above the store level, the managers were all the sorts that had a BA in Retail Merchandising and an MBA, and who had never worked in a store nor would they sully themselves by doing so. Things that I could get done in the early 1970s with a pencil and a clipboard just couldn’t be done. For that matter, nobody could even make change if the registers were down.
All that said, America was beginning to suck in 2019 but it still sort of worked; you had to go find the suck. Then we were incarcerated for the better part of two years and then as we emerge nothing works.
The service in almost every restaurant sucks because they don’t have enough help.
You can’t get your car fixed for three weeks when it used to take three days, and it also costs half again as much.
Calling customer service about anything, anywhere is just an exercise trying to talk to someone who speaks broken English and who doesn’t know anything.
Years ago when I was young and poor, I could fix most anything whether I wanted to or not. Today, I’m just going to embrace the suck and do it myself.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.