Air Force Linguistics

Interesting article in April’s Armed Forces Journal.

Lt. Col. Edith A Disler, an associate professor of English and deputy head of the Department of English at the Air Force Academy, argues that the Air Force is attempting to reassert its masculinity through language.

Essentially, she argues that two prominent, rather recent linguistic changes oradditions have intentionally excluded women serving in the Air Force.

After deeming the Air Force a support service (rather than a mainly combat service; which I would argue is correct in our current conflicts aside from the Close Air Support they provide allied ground troops), she writes:

Women have long and proudly served in almost any support function one can name — the types of functions dominant in the Air Force today. In the face of this reality, its feminine implications, and leadership’s sense that “Congress doesn’t see what the Air Force is bringing to the fight,” inhabitants of the E-ring have engaged a stealthy and powerful weapon of choice — language — to consciously instantiate reification of the male elite. Such language cloaks women in the Air Force as assuredly as our enemies and potential enemies cloak their women in conservative Islamic dress. Sadly, the use of the term “wingman” is just the start.

I’m not certain that it’s a conscious decision on the part of the Air Force leadership to exclude women through the use of language. I do think they should have taken into consideration the diversity of the force, though. There’s no excuse for the Air Force leadership to have missed the implications of such uses of language. But I don’t think it was malicious.

She does make a good point when she says this, though:

Were you to attempt to attract my attention by calling out, “Hey there, airman,” I would assume that a young enlisted member was nearby and I would neither lift my head nor break my stride. Further, as a lieutenant colonel, I consider myself an airman neither by rank nor by sex.

I don’t want to quote too much more because I want those of you who, like me, enjoy the study of language to read the article yourselves, but I did want to add this:

Lt. Col. Disler recounts watching a video that encouraged airmen to turn in other airmen they witnessed perpetrating a rape:

The video implores its viewers to “take care of your wingman.” Apparently the leadership didn’t know that they’d perpetrated a double entendre of the grandest proportion. In the parlance of today’s 20-somethings, a man who knows that another male is a sexual predator and facilitates that predatory nature is known as a “wingman.” Enter the term into your search engine of choice and you will learn that a “wingman” is a man who occupies the attentions of less attractive women so that his “pilot” can target, as it were, the attractive ones. In the Air Force video, the airman rapist, a man, is known by a friend, a man, to be a sexual predator — the enabler is thus the “wingman” of popular American culture.

. . .

At best, the leadership is out of touch with the societal surround of the demographic at which the film was targeted: 19-25 year olds. At worst, the leadership has created a nefarious subtext. Overtly, the leadership is sending a message of teamwork; covertly, however, the Air Force video invokes a term — “wingman” — peculiar to the overwhelmingly male-dominated fighter aircraft community, thereby reinforcing predatory “work hard, play hard” behaviors consistent with the “flyboy” myth of the fighter pilot. In lieu of the term “wingman,” the leadership could easily have invoked a plethora of more widely known, or at least non-gendered, terms that denote teamwork and mutual concern. Instead, the leadership chose a term from the Air Force community statistically least populated by women, nepotistically retaining delusions of self-made grandeur in hopes of fending off threats to the service’s masculinity.

I agree, I agree. I do think the Air Force leadership is out of touch with the civilian world, and especially the age group she mentions — just like the civilian world is almost completely out of touch with the military subculture. I also think that this argument (that the Air Force used a loaded word in the video that will/would likely result in ridicule rather than instruction) is stronger than her first (that the Air Force is consciously making malicious decisions in their use of language).

I will agree that, on some level, these are conscious decisions, especially in the case of the rape video. “Wingman” is probably used more by civilian college-age males than Air Force personnel (given that pilots are a fairly small percentage of the force). However, again, I don’t believe it is malicious.

And I love her closing:

Words create our worlds — hostile worlds, gentle worlds, artistic worlds and militaristic worlds. The words “duty, honor, country,” “integrity, service, excellence,” “selflessness,” and “sacrifice” invoke worlds that demand devotion enough, without ranking maleness above femaleness or killing above reluctance to kill.

Read the whole thing and let me know what you think.

2 Responses to

  1. Misty says:

    Ah the good old theory of linguistic determinism. I’ve never really bought into the idea that language completely frames thought. When you think about the way that children learn language, they learn objects and concepts way before learning the language to ascribe meaning to them.
  2. Deborah says:

    Neurolinguistic programming is something I’m learning about quite a bit lately. Forrest has been an avid student of how this type of wording is used by corporations and I actually had a meeting this week where the President of the company was attempting to teach me how to speak to an underwriter in similarly programmed terminology (though he never came out and said that was his intention).

    There was a similar news story here within the past week, but it focused on the marines. They said that the marines do not advertise or encourage the enrollment of women. They went on to talk about how their advertisements show men, with only a few very brief clips that allow you to catch a glimpse of a woman in action. They interviewed women who were joining and asked if they were influenced by the new advertising methods. Both noted they hadn’t even seen the commercials but had looked for their information online. The point was that they already knew they wanted to be marines and only had to find the outlets. But what about other women who might want to pursue a career and never think twice about it because it’s never presented as an option?

    But, you know…I wanted to join the Air Force ;)

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