Look man, we’re in the military…we talk like that, it’s just part of it.

In the recent debate in this journal on the wisdom and civility of using cuss-talk in stories, I decided to offer my humble opinion in favor of cleaner language–this by way of confession, because I thought, in hindsight, that one of my books stepped over the line.

It was with no surprise that I discovered vocal opposition. One cannot say anything in favor of the culture these days without provoking the haughty scorn of the counter-culture. Frankly, I do not believe the opposition is honest, and that belief, unfortunately tempted me to answer scorn with scorn, a temptation I did not stumble into so much as run eagerly, leap and swan-dive into.

Putting scorn aside for the moment, one serious question that was raised was whether a writer could portray servicemen with the unblinking honesty demanded of realistic fiction without including their typical earthiness of language.

I was reminded of that debate when I read this, written by an officer in his web journal:

I was in Dallas Ft. Worth airport waiting to catch a flight on the last leg of my TDY trip to help a returning unit at Ft. Sill. As I went to my gate, I saw 4 Sailors in their black uniforms gathered at the gate…one was large and white, the other three were black. There was very little room, and many of them were standing intermingled with civilian airline passengers. As this was close to Christmas time, I figured they were on a break from IET and were heading home for Christmas Exodus. None had rank on their sleeves, so that confirmed my suspicions that they were in initial training. As I approached the group I heard a lot of loud talking, laughing, and a lot of profanity. In particular, one Sailor was on a cell phone talking to someone about some sort of exploratory obstetrics he was going to perform on his “baby mama” when he got to the “crib”. A lady was standing nearby with a baby in arms and what apppeared to be a 5 or 6 year old boy. She looked bothered by all of the commotion. I was particularly embarassed because the loudest and most vulgar one was black, I was also embarassed because they were military acting in an unseemly manner. (I was in civilian clothes as I traveled)I walked over to them and said,

“Hey guys, would you mind watching your language and keeping it down a little? There are a bunch of kids around here.”

There was an instant mood of irritation that came over the whole group, but nobody said anything. The particularly large white Sailor looked at me and said,

“Look man, we’re in the military…we talk like that, it’s just part of it. We defend your right to free speech so don’t try and stop ours. (give me a break you little boot camp punk I thought….) If you don’t like it go somewhere else!”

At this point, the top of the pot boiled over, but I kept my cool. I reached into my pocket and flipped open my wallet and said,

Okay Sailor, if you want to play the military game that’s fine with me. My name is First Lieutenant Smith, I’m giving you a direct order to quiet down and cease with the profanity. When you wear that uniform you are supposed to set the example, not act like a bunch of reform school rejects. I want the language cut out..NOW! Understand me?

There was silence in the group of Sailors and silence from most everyone at the gate. I waited for a moment and said,

“I’m not sure how they do it in the Navy, but in the Army when an Officer gives an order to a Junior Enlisted man and asks him if he understands, the Enlisted Man responds with ‘Yes Sir, or No, Sir’..what’s it going to be?”

A paragraph or two later, this tidbit caught my eye:

I asked him for his unit of assignment, and I demanded his military ID, I wrote down his Social, and told him that I was going to contact his unit commander. (I never did, I thought about it but changed my mind.)

When I gave him his ID back he turned to sit, and I barked at him and said,

“Get out of that seat and let that lady sit down.”

She politely declined, but mouthed the words,

“Thank you.”

In other words, an officer and a gentleman.

It is worth reading the whole thing, because this same officer keeps his cool when one of the sailors refers to him as a ‘nigga’ (A word that even the mavens of Political Correctness will admit is less than perfectly civil, despite their desire to demean the rest of the language to a gutter level.)

Now, the behavior of this officer was more in keeping with what I remember from my days on post than the stream of filth that comes from the pen of ‘authentic’ modern writers. In combat, or in emergency, it might be different, and I do think the infrequent swear  word might be the only right word for a character to use: call this the “Rhett Butler” exception. What I remember from my youth on post was military courtesy that civilians would do well to imitate: those boys were squared away.

This should give a second thought to anyone who opines that a love of clean language or a respect for women and children is something our brave young fighting men do not or should not share.

( Of course, this officer was an Army guy dressing down Navy guys, and my loyalties are required to go with the Navy. He was right to tell these sailors to clean up their act, but we will still beat you at the Army-Navy game, ya landlubber. GO NAVY! )

This man’s level of courtesy, once ubiquitous, is now as rare as Sahara rain. I have been in crowded rooms at science fiction conventions, for example, and I was the only one get up and offer his seat to a lady, even if the lady were blind, lame, or pregnant. Disgraceful. The Culture Wars are over, and our side lost, so women are treated like dirt, and the weaker they are, the more in need, the worse they are treated. You’ve come a long way, baby.

I notice, by the way, that all the arguments used in favor of dirtying up a book or movie with Anglo Saxon expressions of excretion, copulation, and perdition, could also be used in favor of colorful expressions for African-Americans, persons of alternate sexual orientation, and differently-abled persons. Can anyone draw the distinction for me? For example: If the censors ought to allow Starbuck on the new Battlestar Galactica to say, “I am going to kick the shit out of you,” during a catfight with Boomer, on the ground that it is honest and realistic, why can’t she also say, “I am going to kick the shit out of you, you slanty-eyed Chink bitch.” ? Is the one really less offensive or less realistic than the other? Let me ask a more pointed question: is there really any grounds for political correctness aside from a Marxist theory that language oppresses certain classes and races, and that correct “party thought” requires correct “party speech”?

(For the record, let me say that, aside from the bad language, no one could actually use a slang term for Boomer that referred to a Chinese ancestry. Not only is the gorgeous Grace Park a Korean, the character of Boomer is from the space colony of Capricorn. She would have to be called some made-up sci-fi slang term: a Cap. For the same reason, Lando Calrissian cannot be called an African-American, or insulted with a slang that referred to Niger. He would have to be called a slang for a man from a galaxy long long ago and far far away– I suggest “Longlong” or “Farf”. Hence: “You betrayed my friend Luke and sold me to a bounty hunter! I am going to kick the shit out of you, you farf nerfherder!”)

(Along these lines, Humans could refer to robots as “bleeps” and robots, of course, could call us “meat puppets.” )