Full-Spectrum Integrated Lethality? On the Promise and Peril of Buzzwords
Every few years, there seems to be a new buzzword in the national security establishment. What was once simply “deterrence” has recently become “integrated deterrence.” This follows a decades-long adjectival march through nuclear, conventional, direct, immediate, general, complex, indirect, extended, asymmetric, classical, traditional, modern, pivotal, and perfect deterrence, not to mention deterrence by denial, punishment, entanglement, and detection. Today, at least 27 types of deterrence exist in political science and defense studies.
Across the defense enterprise, the proliferation of attention-grabbing jargon is widely maligned. These new terms can be confusing, duplicative, vague, and generally unhelpful. Buzzwords and jargon are banned in writing guides, legislated into plain language, and constrained through terminology standardization programs. Yet, despite this, buzzwords continue to proliferate. Why?
Buzzwords are a promising weapon in the arsenal of individuals seeking to shape an organization. Buzzwords introduce a new label that can delink us from our prior knowledge and expectations. They can provide an external or executive-driven justification for new budgeting and organizational structures, thereby deflecting blame from lower-level leaders. When used judiciously and in concert with other tactics, buzzwords can help leaders change organizations. But buzzwords are also perilous. They can be coopted into bumper stickers or denigrated as bingo squares. All buzzwords eventually lose their buzz. It is the actions, or inaction, of individuals and organizations during a buzzword’s lifespan that determine whether it begins a revolution or fades into a bumper sticker.
Delinking and Rethinking
“Buzzwords” and “jargon” are often conflated but they are not the same. Jargon is the set of technical language shared by a group of people in the same profession or specialty. One subset of jargon is “terminology” — the standardized technical words and phrases that have been codified. For example, in my research, “military terminology” is the set of words found codified in military doctrine, the Department of Defense Dictionary, or the service dictionaries. Buzzwords are a different subset of jargon. They are uncodified phrases that are particularly fashionable or attention-grabbing at a specific moment in time. Some are just flash in the pan words that quickly drop out of usage, while others survive for decades. Critically, words can move between these categories: buzzwords that lose their fashionable nature decay into non-buzzy jargon, and with enough support, may eventually be codified into doctrinal terminology.
The first benefit of buzzwords is that they create cognitive distance from something that already exists, creating space for individuals to think in a new way. When individuals enter a profession, they are taught the jargon of their professional community. These words become familiar, even habitual. Jargon is often shorthand for more complex ideas and processes, allowing for faster communication. Because this language is often learned through conversation and context, it is possible to use jargon appropriately without recalling its origins. You’ve experienced this if you have ever used an acronym but cannot recall exactly what it stands for. It is possible to discuss the term “deterrence” without understanding its intellectual history. The 2022 National Security Strategy introduces “integrated deterrence” in an attempt to make readers reconceptualize “deterrence,” breaking out of the habitual shorthand. The document even explicitly calls on readers “to think and act in new ways.”
One of the greatest (unintentional) buzzword designers was Carl von Clausewitz. In On War, Clausewitz used scientific analogies like gravity and friction to capture his theory of war. Ironically, he also warns readers about the “pompous retinues of technical terms” that accompany most studies of war. In Clausewitzian thought, “centres of gravity” are “situated where the greatest bodies of troops are assembled.” After the 1970s boom in On War’s popularity in professional military education, usage of the phrase “centers of gravity” peaked in military professional journals in the 1980s. The argument was that Clausewitz presented a more intelligent way to focus Army combat power. At this same time, U.S. Army leaders were learning from the Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars, reconceptualizing and extending the battlefield, and implementing change through the AirLand Battle concept of war. Robert Cluley argues that buzzwords provide a “spoonful of sugar” to help organizations explore problem areas that they don’t want to admit are problematic. The “extended battlefield” and “centers of gravity” were that sugar.
The buzz around these ideas would eventually dissipate. But this was not a failure of the buzzwords, rather it was a sign of their success. Leaders like Gen. Donn Starry at U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command were wielding their buzzwords intentionally and thoughtfully in a planned series of talks, articles, and engagements. “Center of gravity” is not in AirLand Battle, but Clausewitzian and AirLand battle narratives converged. In 1986, Army operations doctrine codified AirLand Battle, redefining operational art as the fundamental decisions about when and where to fight. This was to be enabled by the identification of center-of-gravity, defined as “those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight.”
In this case, an intentional campaign of AirLand Battle buzzwords merged with the inadvertent buzz of Clausewitz’s lexicon, linguistically anchoring a transformation in Army doctrine. Other services, like the U.S. Marine Corps, were also codifying Clausewitzian theory into their operations doctrine. Nearly forty years later, centers of gravity remain critical to operational design and underpin how U.S. forces assess, plan, and act in combat. The term remains codified in joint doctrine as “the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.” Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of an enemy was not a new idea, but “center of gravity” has fundamentally changed how Army forces train, plan, and operate. A foothold in doctrine was all that was needed to shape the thought of an entire generation of soldiers.
“Integrated deterrence” now seeks to shape thinking in a similar way. We all have preconceived notions of deterrence based on our education, occupational background, and numerous other factors. The National Defense Strategy explains integrated deterrence as “using every tool at the Department [of Defense’s] disposal,” in concert with the rest of government, allies, and partners. Needless to say, this is not a new idea. But in practice, “whole-of-government” coordination for deterrence has been difficult to achieve. As with “center of gravity,” “integrated deterrence” seeks to disconnect listeners from their habitual understandings and create a new lens through which a challenging conversation can be revisited.
Buzzwords are just words until they are made material. When a new term is introduced, leaders can use this new external or higher-level priority to reallocate resources with less blame falling on them personally. One of the clearest ways to connect a term to material impact is through funding. To be resourced, a program must be named. The first National Defense Authorization Act passed in 1961 was less than one page long. It had three named categories: aircraft, missiles, and naval vessels. The fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act is 4,409 pages long with hundreds of sections, each representing a uniquely named “budget bucket.”
“Lethality” is one such term made fiscally relevant. The concept of “new lethality,” was introduced in the 1976 Field Manual 100-5. Interest in the idea would wax and wane until, in the 2010s, the term was directly connected to resource reallocation. In 2017, the Army’s modernization priorities had “one simple focus: make Soldiers and units more lethal.” “Soldier lethality” became a modernization priority. The 2018 National Defense Strategy defined “joint lethality” as a resource allocation criterion, overtly threatening the existence of any organization that “hinder[ed] substantial increases in lethality.” Even though there was no codified meaning for “lethality” at the time, the term gained material importance.
The connections between names and funding can prove problematic. Michael Spirtas wrote that “poorly understood terms waste time, money, and potentially lives.” After “lethality” was introduced as a metric for funding allocations, a cascade of rebranding occurred across the defense enterprise. In 2018, the Hawaii National Guard participated in the Pentagon’s Showcasing Lethality briefings to discuss their volcano response efforts. Volcano response is a legitimate public service, but the power of the buzzword as a metric for funding required that the program be redefined through a relationship to lethality.
The momentary justification provided by a new buzzword is fleeting by nature. Buzzwords are flashy linguistic lightning rods — they spark debate. When used within a narrative or directly connected to resource distribution, they can underpin concrete change. Over time, however, a word that is initially an intervention in a discourse is often reconfigured into a neutral talking point with no inspirational power. These neutral terms can be chained together into fuzzy language that masks meaningful conversation. George Orwell wrote that “modern writing at its worst … consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Once the Department of Defense has been fully wrapped in the fuzzy chains of integrated deterrence and lethality, there is no need or opportunity for it to change further. Volcano response is conducted in the name of lethality. The moment is gone.
Change is success for a buzzword. This change can take the shape of new ideas, new actions, and new funding, but also new language. Buzzwords can fizzle out and be forgotten, but successful buzzwords die a glorious death in legitimate codification. Military dictionaries and glossaries are the cemeteries of successful buzzwords. The most recent edition of the U.S. Army’s Field Manual 3-0 Operations defines lethality as “the capability and capacity to destroy.” No longer simply buzzy, “lethality” is now doctrinal terminology.
Despite the potential for new thought, redistribution of resources, and new ways of operating, buzzwords are a double-edged sword. A well-designed and thoughtfully wielded buzzword can slice through red tape, but it can also rebound and cause a great deal of damage. In hierarchical organizations, subordinates are incentivized to use the language of their superiors. Using a leader’s language is a public way to show deference to authority. Typically, if a leader introduces a new term, no matter its utility, that word is reproduced in all subordinate documentation. The language cascades down the hierarchy as programs are relabeled to match a leader’s priorities. During these cascades, organizations can refuse to adapt but exploit the buzzword to appear different without substantive change.
Organizations also tend to incorporate as many buzzwords as possible, even if it leads to incoherence. The result is exercises “focused on fires interoperability designed to increase readiness, lethality and interoperability across the human, procedural, and technical domains.” This communal regurgitation of buzzwords was described by a retired military officer I interviewed as “bunnies reproducing on PowerPoints.” Historically and not only in the military, when buzzwords are regurgitated, people keep track. It is not uncommon for individuals to create bingo cards of that moment’s terminology and turn speeches, presentations, or conferences into games of buzzword bingo with their colleagues.
A 2015 comical buzzword bingo card by Steve Leonard, a.k.a. Doctrine Man, reproduced with permission.
This is not a new phenomenon. In 1986, retired U.S. Army sergeant major Fred Bost published an article titled “Buzzword Cowards,” excoriating commanders for cramming “pizzazz” into the language of enlisted and officer evaluation reports. Earlier, in the 1970s, bureaucratic satirist James H. Boren wrote that the Pentagon was a “graduate school of the mumblistic arts,” dedicating an entire book to the art of “mumbling with professional eloquence.” In this work, he defined mumbling as “the practice of mixing of tonal patterns with multisyllabic words for the purpose of projecting an image of knowledgeability and competence without regard to either knowledge or competence.”
Herein lies the warning. Leaders have a particularly powerful ability to shape an organization’s language. Documents and speeches presented by individuals at the peak of a hierarchy are the ignition point for linguistic virality. When buzzwords are mindlessly adopted in relabeling cascades, critical conversation shuts down. Confident presentation of incomprehensible buzzwords, particularly by authority figures, has the potential to fool even the most educated audience. The more difficult a written work is to understand, the more likely it is to be seen as important and prestigious by peers. However, when communicating outside of your profession, the overuse of jargon can cause readers to judge the writer as less intelligent. Using complex language can lead to the perception of credibility, but complexity and vagueness will undermine listeners’ trust over time.
Cosmetic linguistic change is perilous. Former commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Gen. William E. DePuy cautioned, “conceptual or doctrinal change is much like drastic surgery; it should only be undertaken for the most powerful reasons.” Regardless of intent, the veneer of rank will require subordinates to use buzzwords. But the introduction of new language without intentional presentation and control of its narrative can undermine trust in an organization and its leadership. Words matter, so choose your words carefully and wield them intentionally.
Building a Buzz
When facing an entrenched and powerful bureaucracy, there are a range of options for introducing change. Buzzwords are just one weapon in this arsenal. However, they must be used thoughtfully and combined with other tactics. When encountering a new buzzword, don’t only ask what the word means, ask what it seeks to do. “Integrated deterrence” asks you to reconsider your preconceived notions of deterrence. This may require new processes and different allocations of resources, and the buzz of “integrated deterrence” provides an external justification for organizations to reorganize. It is too early to say whether this effort will be successful. Leaders can influence narrative and incentive structures, but it is the actions taken in the name of “integrated deterrence” that will determine success. Organizations can relabel programs far more quickly than they can change. It is easier to slap on a bumper sticker than it is to rebuild a car.
Buzzwords have the potential to be helpful, but this is not a blank check for a buzzword bonanza. Too many new meaningless words can slowly poison the intellectual environment. Much like the emissions of a single car are not enough to destroy the ozone layer, a single, isolated buzzword will not prove fatal. But add more and more buzzword emissions every year and eventually decades of linguistic pollution could leave discourse and strategy burning.
Elena Wicker is a Presidential Management Fellow at U.S. Army Futures Command. She has a Ph.D. in International Relations from Georgetown University. Her research explores the history of military lexicography and the power of U.S. military terminology and jargon. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElenaWicker.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keira Rossman
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the author of “Buzzword Cowards” as “U.S. Navy retired sergeant major Fred Bost.” It has been corrected to reflect that fact the he is a retired U.S. Army sergeant major.