Catchwords – The Curse and the Cure (1953)

By Major C.H. Lithgow, The Royal Canadian Regiment
Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 6, No. 6, January 1953

[The author wrote this article while attending the Command and Staff College, Quetta, Pakistan, in 1952. – Editor.]

"There are three things against which the human mind struggles in vain: stupidity, bureaucracy and catchwords." As far as catchwords are concerned, this thought, expressed, over twenty years ago by Colonel General von Seeckt, is as true today as it was in 1930. The tendency towards the use of catchwords can be found among all officers and the incidence is perhaps highest among instructors in tactics. New methods, new equipment and new commanders have together given soldiers a host of catchwords and phrases most of which are vague, some of which are definitely misleading and all of which tend to eliminate clear thinking. When in 1941, battle drill became universal in Commonwealth armies, a whole new vocabulary came into use, one which threatened to nullify the vigour and enthusiasm of the training. A senior officer summed up the situation by saying. "If the word—(a famous four letter word) and the phrase left flanking were removed from the English language, the army would become both speechless and immobile." Before discussing some of these catchwords and phrases in detail, I propose to examine their general faults. The first criticism which one can make is that they are generally incapable of precise definition or explanation and are therefore unsuitable for military use. Some of the phrases are more or less definable but the clarity of understanding is dependent upon the military experience of the person to whom the phrase is being defined. A field officer with fifteen years service will understand but the newly-commissioned subaltern will not. Most of the phrases mean many things to many men but rarely do they mean the same thing to all men. Having accepted the fact that some of the phrases are capable of reasonable definition, my second criticism refers to their application. So easily do they roll from the lips that we find officers using them when they do not apply. Vital ground, all-round defence and immediate counter-attack are examples of phrases which have a reasonably clear meaning but which are usually applicable at a certain level of command or action in a particular set of circumstances. Any failure to specify the level or to explain the circumstances results in misunderstanding, especially among young officers, who at that stage are groping desperately for a ready solution to their many problems. My final criticism is that these phrases are a sure bar to incisive expression and thought. As the present Staff College text on military writing states, "To write jargon is to be perpetually shuffling around in the fog and cotton wool of abstract terms." The first phrase which I have selected for condemnation is set-piece attack, a comparative new-comer to the military vocabulary and whose source was, I suspect, 21 Army Group. I challenge the use of this phrase on the basis of my first general criticism. It is not clearly definable. It means many things to many men and finally it suggests some very fundamental difference from other attacks. Explanations of the phrase will vary depending upon whether the person defining it served in Burma, Italy or North-West Europe in the Second World War. All the definitions will contain vague references to time, planning, obstacles and the co-ordination of supporting arms, and eventually one decides that a set-piece attack is one which is planned over a considerable period of time, in great detail, involving the co-ordination of many supporting arms to overcome strong obstacles and enemy defences. The difference between a set-piece attack and the common variety apparently lies in the answers to "How much?", "How long?", "How many?" and "How strong?" and this will usually be expressed in words such as "a lot", "several", or "very strong"—words which are shunned by the soldier as being too vague. Let us be perfectly clear about one thing. An attack is an attack. All attacks consist of the basic stages of deployment, assault and reorganization. One or all of these stages may be complicated in varying degrees by the ground, obstacles, the time available and the enemy defences and the result will be plans of varying complexity. The differences are ones of degree only. All attacks are deliberate ones in the sense that they are mounted with intent, after careful and logical thought and in a determined manner. Any commander who does otherwise is a fool and is not deserving of his command. The word "attack" is a vivid one. Why emasculate it? I now turn to a Staff College favourite in the phrase think two down. This phrase has nothing to do with the state of a commander's morals but refers to one of those mental processes of which we are so fond. My quarrel with the expression is not so much with its definition as with its application. It is fair to say that when allotting tasks to subordinate formations, a commander must think of the unit or sub-unit two levels below his own. A divisional commander in detailing tasks to his brigades must think of their capabilities in terms of the three battalions which they contain. A battalion commander's tasks for his companies will be based on an appreciation of the capabilities of three platoons. However, when we find instructors applying the phrase the result is too frequently pure nonsense. Let us say for example that we are students taking part in a TEWT and that we have been given the task of planning a battalion attack. Asked for our solution, we will, in the course of giving it, detail the objectives for the various companies of the battalion. At some stage the instructor, anxious to teach the importance of thinking two down, will ask the student what he sees the platoons of a particular company doing. The hapless student can either reply that he would leave that matter entirely to the company commander concerned or he can "stick his neck out" and give a rough idea of what the platoons might be doing during the operation. If he gives the first answer, he is eternally damned, for as the triumphant instructor will point out, "You have failed to think two down." Any other student who had the same answer immediately changes his mind and decides to produce some kind of a solution. Having demolished the first student, the instructor now turns to the other unfortunate who has prepared some kind of an answer. This student produces, as a battalion commander, an estimate as to what the platoons of the company would be doing. The instructor, poised like a cat stalking a canary, now pounces upon him and proceeds to tear the solution to pieces. This is usually not too difficult, as he has had the advantage of more time and a more detailed study of the question. The discussion invariably ends with a reiteration of the importance of thinking two down: the students go home properly humbled while the instructor sighs with the satisfaction at having done his duty. The result has been a half hour wasted. When a commander is allotting tasks to his command he thinks automatically of their organization and capabilities and details the job accordingly. In the process he unquestionably forms a rough mental picture of what the sub-unit two levels down might be doing. The precise position or manoeuvre of the sub-unit he leaves entirely to the company commander concerned, in the case of a battalion. This process is certainly illustrative of thinking two down, but to suggest that this rough picture has any serious tactical validity is ridiculous. Even less sensible is it to subject this rough picture to a searching examination based upon tactical principles. If a battalion commander is expected to appreciate the actions of twelve platoons in sufficient detail to stand close and critical scrutiny then it is going to take us a long time to get our armies on the move. I turn now to two phrases with a defensive flavour to them, killing area and all-round defence. Both of these became popular during the battle-drill era and continue to cause a good deal of misunderstanding. They can be criticized, not for being indefinable but because they have no universal application and relate to a certain level of command in a particular set of circumstances. I will attempt a definition of killing area as being an area into which a defender hopes to channel the main weight of an enemy attack and with superior fire-power destroy the attacking force. A complete purist may disagree with this, but I will let it stand for the time being. Few people will challenge the idea which is implied, but the nonsense arises in its application. There seems to be little doubt that a division by a judicious siting of minefields in conjunction with other ground features and with superior fire- power, especially anti-tank guns, could create a killing ground. So also, no doubt, could a brigade create one. It is much less certain that a battalion could have a killing area and the idea becomes progressively unlikely as we move down the chain of command. To be sure, there may be occasions in jungle or mountainous terrain where an enemy's approach may be canalized by the natural features of the ground but the lower down the chain we go, the more is a commander concerned with enemy who might come from any direction. An enemy will always be reluctant to be channelled into a preselected death- trap. The phrase is a descriptive one and is capable of reasonable definition, but we do need a clearer understanding of its application so that we will no longer find platoon commanders prowling around searching for their platoon killing area. The connection between killing area and all-around defence is considerable. The requirements of the latter make the former more difficult to attain. A literal interpretation of all-round defence results too often in tactically unsound positions and many instructors fail to explain the precise import of the words. Certainly the defence must be prepared to engage an enemy attack from any direction. This results often in platoons being sited in a perfect perimeter facing outwards from the centre, where stands the platoon commander with his head permanently turning. The net result is a waste of fire-power, a lack of depth to the position and a sore neck for the commander. There are perhaps occasions when such actions are necessary but each circumstance will be different and will depend upon the nature of the ground, the extent of the area to be held and the availability of approaches to it. The exact method of obtaining all-round defence will vary in each case. The mountainous terrain of Korea, for instance, makes all, round defence within companies and platoons almost obligatory, but the extent of positions to be held renders it impossible of achievement for a battalion. In flatter ground with less extended positions, however, a battalion commander might cater for it in his own plan, thereby enabling his company and platoon commanders to obtain greater depth and concentration of fire-power in their positions. All-round defence is here to stay. What we must avoid is a multitude of battalions, companies and platoons all playing "ring around a rosy." I believe that all officers will agree upon the dangers inherent in the use of catch-phrases as a deterrent to clear thought and as an aid to misunderstanding. I suspect that most officers will agree that we show an unhealthy inclination to use them in our tactical thought. If there is agreement upon these two points, then all that remains is to forever eliminate the useless ones and to properly define the others, especially as to their use. In this brief article I have suggested four which I consider suitable either for retirement or for rehabilitation. There are many more and as Colonel General von Seeckt concluded his words on the subject, "There is one talisman against them—clear thinking."