NATO Operations and the Unifying Power of a Common Language

Language is a window to thought. In the Army, we often say that “words have meaning” and they do. But even more so, the manner in which we crystalize thoughts into language colors the thoughts themselves. The goods somewhat assume the shape of the vessel in which they are carried. Learning a language beyond one’s native tongue has always been a powerful tool in understanding the assumptions and perspective built into another culture, highlighting some of our own pre-existing assumptions and perspectives, and, perhaps, transcending some of our own cultural baggage. This ends up having practical applications working with allied militaries.

As an American traveling abroad in my younger years, I often felt self-conscious about the asymmetry between my native English and other languages. This often translated into a perceived asymmetry between me and my “status” as an American and an English speaker and the other people I came across. No matter where in the world I was, others could often understand and accommodate me when I spoke in my native tongue, but the situation was not often reversed. My New York English could be understood in Jakarta, but even a speaker of the relatively widely-spoken Bahasa Indonesia was not as readily accommodated in New York. Even more local languages—in Indonesia, there is a diverse galaxy of languages spoken on the many individual island chains—were exponentially less useful than even the national language (itself an appropriated form of Malay, installed as the national language in an attempt to provide some basis for the nationals of the newly independent country to speak to one other). Did that mean that the native speakers of those more local languages were themselves, of inferior “status”? Was being an English speaker in the modern world just another unearned windfall of being born American?

An exchange I had while participating in a recent NATO exercise gave me a new appreciation of English, not as some privileged birthright, but as a utilitarian “intermediate” language. The Lithuanian army officer who was my counterpart mentioned his love of the mountains and of alpine skiing in the winter months. Living in a relatively flat Baltic country meant that he vacationed with his family in France. From some reason it surprised me to be reminded of the obvious: when he, a Lithuanian English speaker, traveled abroad to a country where some third language was spoken, he spoke with the people he met in English (or in Russian, depending on where he was). In this way, I came to see English not just as some nod to the ubiquity of British or American influence, but as an important coordinating mechanism for international human interaction and—at some level—for international common understanding. The utility of English was independent of any connection to the United States or Britain; the various NATO partner nations I worked with related to each other almost exclusively in English (French is also an official language of the alliance, apparently, but I never was presented with the opportunity to inflict my français on anyone while in uniform).

Similar to benefits of English as utilitarian “intermediate” language, U.S. Army doctrine presents a similar, opportunity in military circles. Like many post-9/11 soldiers, the preponderance of my military service has centered on the Middle East. But even from my relatively brief exposure to NATO—at least when it comes to land forces—I realized that America’s war language has been largely adopted as the medium through which collaboration, coordination, and synchronization of the alliance’s military efforts have been effected.

Upon reflection, it is not surprising that the U.S. Army doctrine, symbology, and processes form a good part of the basis for this pan-alliance synchronization. As a ground combatant, I tend to be ground-centric anyway (with all due respect to Multi-Domain Operations). But even beyond that, the Army is the U.S. service designed to be simple, reproducible, and scalable. It is designed to grow massively in wartime, incorporating Americans from all walks of life in to a single, monolithic fighting organization. At the unit level, each team, squad, platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, corps and army of the same type is designed to plug and play with similar units across the organization. Who better to provide the doctrine and the language to unify the efforts of a wildly diverse alliance? How the aviation and maritime fights are coordinated is beyond the author’s experience, but the preponderance of English in civil aviation is well known but not uncontroversial.

NATO may well have some doctrine of its own (albeit unknown to most Americans), in addition to its important work on technical standardization and terminology. The Allied Joint Publication series provides some shared doctrinal base for NATO operations but, as you might expect, it all seems a bit general. It is unclear how much the NATO doctrine is relied upon. As a rule, my Lithuanian Land Forces counterparts advised me that they relied directly on U.S. Army doctrine and handbooks to plan and conduct operations and that is what I observed during my three opportunities to plan and execute operations alongside them.

In the same way that shared principles and values lead to increased cohesion amongst the NATO allies, shared military language and concepts lead to increased planning and tactical cohesion. The import of this was demonstrated during my most recent exercise—I questioned our Lithuanian counterparts on their usage of one of shared doctrinal symbols and ended up learning something myself (their very talented team was right in their usage and I was wrong). Importantly, my views weren’t automatically valid simply because the doctrinal term was somewhat “native” to me (the Lithuanian army used to plan with an entirely different set of Soviet symbology). Both sides of the discussion were, as you might expect, informed by a shared lexicology through which both allies could engage on an equal footing. It was through this shared (but thoroughly non-native) shared military language that the Polish NATO corps commander was able to issue orders to his Polish division commander, down to the Lithuanian Land Forces brigade commander, and on to, inter alia, the German lieutenant colonel in command of the NATO enhanced Forward Presence Lithuania battlegroup integrated into the Lithuanian brigade.

One might expect a multilateral “fog of war” to be even more disorienting than the regular kind. As it turns out, the development and use of shared language and concepts provide a high degree of intellectual clarity and staying power to the NATO enterprise. This was achieved to a degree I would not have expected before observing it first-hand. The wider dissemination and adoption of this shared “war language” is particularly useful in light of shrinking global American military presence, allowing more flexibility beyond an American-heavy military solution in all cases.

The wider dissemination and adoption of this shared “war language” is particularly useful in light of shrinking global American military presence, allowing more flexibility beyond an American-heavy military solution in all cases. 

This important role played by this modified U.S. Army doctrine and by the English language may not be fully appreciated by soldiers—like me—whose overseas service has been mostly shaped by events in the Middle East. It is a truly powerful thing to see in action. The level and depth of the collaboration transcends the type of bilateral and multilateral collaboration with which I was previously familiar.

The centrality of U.S. Army doctrine to the wider military enterprise that is the North Atlantic alliance also generates second and third order effects, especially when the domestic guardians of that doctrine decide it needs to be the subject of rapid change. It takes those of us with the force a hot minute to assimilate the many and rapid-fire changes to the content and structure of Army doctrine to U.S. Army operations. When dealing with these arguably derivate systems through which Army doctrine cascades, however, the result is even more traumatic. Rapid changes desynchronize and un-coordinate the efforts of the alliance, undoing part of the goodness provided by common terms and graphics in the first place.

The solution? As in all things that the U.S. Army does well, the solution is KISS. Simplicity allows for easier bridge building across cultural divides. We have seen the chaos when our doctrine zig-zags to reflect recent experiences rather than the seemingly eternal principles of warfare or when it is modified too often or too quickly to be absorbed or changes too radically (ADP 1-01 31 July 2019: “the Army decided to combine Army doctrine publications…with their associated Army doctrine reference publications…to reduce redundancy.”). Challenges with a “doctrine by committee” approach often include a lack of clarity in the final product; compromise is not a hallmark of intellectual clarity. A slower tempo to the development of oft-referenced U.S. Army doctrine not only keeps the “good idea fairy” at bay but assists in the slow acquisition of new, common doctrinal terms across the wider alliance.

About the Author: Garri Benjamin Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. As a 28th Infantry Division staff officer, he recently participated in the Iron Wolf 2022-I exercise in and around Rukla, Lithuania as an augmentee to the staff of the Lithuanian Land Force’s Iron Wolf Brigade. Previously he participated in the STRONGWILL 2021-III exercise as part of the Lithuanian Land Forces headquarters staff. In an earlier Warfighter exercise in Pennsylvania, he collaborated with soldiers from the Lithuanian Land Forces who augmented the staff of the 28th Infantry Division headquarters.

Cover image: Soldier attempting to speak, image created by the author via DALL-E

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