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Pop Psych Quietly Invades the Military Lexicon

Micro-manage? Empowerment? Baby boomer lingo crops up in naval commander's apology.

March 26, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For those of us who have never been a commander in the armed forces, it is impossible, and probably inappropriate, to imagine what the skipper of the submarine Greeneville should say in the wake of an accident that left nine Japanese dead. Cmdr. Scott Waddle is a tragic figure, and so perhaps somehow we expected the oratory of a hero undone. A grim acceptance of responsibility, a spare but heart-felt apology.

Which he delivered in his testimony before a court of inquiry last week. But these days, the words "sole responsibility" are inevitably followed by a litany of mitigating circumstances, often couched in therapy-speak. And so it was with Waddle. "I did not micro-manage my crew," he said in his defense. "I empowered them to do their jobs."

Mr. Roberts meets Tony Robbins. Tomorrow, on "Oprah."

For centuries, the lexicon of the military has colored the vernacular, infusing popular culture with an appreciation for order and devotion to acronyms--FUBAR was coined by soldiers, not slackers. And now, it would seem, popular culture has returned the favor.

It is difficult to know exactly what Waddle meant by this statement. "Micro-manage" is a relatively new word, appearing in the third edition of Webster's New World, but not the second, and its implication--that too much attention to detail is a bad thing--is a relatively new concept.

Certainly, it's hard for a civilian to imagine that there can be too much attention to detail on a submarine. And the implications of a naval commander defining himself in terms previously preferred by management consultants is a bit disconcerting.

But that's nothing compared with the word "empowered." Here is a word that needs a vacation. Or at least a better job description.

Historically, one was empowered by receiving some sort of institutional authority: a fiefdom, perhaps, or an office of some sort. But during the various social revolutions of the '60s and '70s, empowerment became a ubiquitous goal. Women needed to be empowered, and minorities; lately, empowerment has linked arms with self-esteem--we hear that children need to be empowered, that empowerment is a personal thing that can be achieved via therapy or religion, through chanting or the keeping of journals.

"If I could make one contribution to society before I die, I would like it to be finding a synonym for 'empowered,' " says Wendy Kaminer, pop psychology critic and author of "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional" and more recently, "Sleeping With Extraterrestrials."

Kaminer is cautious about reading too much into Waddle's statement, especially under the circumstances. There long has been cross-pollination between business and pop-psych slang, she says, and it isn't all that surprising that a baby boomer, in or out of the Navy, would use terms that have surrounded him during his adult life.

"In the Army, and I imagine in the Navy, we do talk about the need to delegate authority," says Jeffrey Whitman, a retired major and former West Point instructor. "You shouldn't be looking over your subordinates' shoulders all the time. But the ultimate responsibility is always the commander's."

Whitman, now an associate professor of philosophy at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, says Waddle's terminology could reflect the "total quality management" kick the Army was on for a while in the 1980s. But most likely, he says, it's just a case of civilian middle-management lingo creeping in.

As separate a universe as the military might seem to civilians, few people are born into it, says Kaminer. They come to it after growing up in the popular culture, with its increasing reliance on self-help and pseudo-psychology. "And self-help movements have always been about teaching the technique of success, in whatever area," she says. "It's a very regimented kind of thinking, a systematic type of thinking I associate with the military."

This may explain the Army's rather astonishing recent recruitment campaign. Taking its previous individualistic admonishment to "be all that you can be" one step further, the new television ads urge young men and women to become "an army of one." Logistical complications aside (do they each get a different sort of uniform? And roll call, how does that work?), this Rambo-esque ambition rings of heresy. This is, after all, an organization that still requires boot camp, the purpose of which is to tear down the individual and rebuild him or her as part of a larger force.

"It does seem to go against the whole concept of the Army," says Kaminer. "Especially since the whole argument against gays in the military is that it would upset the whole, and the whole is more important than the individual.

"But," she adds, "you have to remember that this is a peace-time Army in a time of low unemployment, competing against other employers. They have to speak to 18-year-olds in language they can understand."

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