The Art and Process of Communicating

Communicating derives from a Latin word which carries dual meanings of transmitting and sharing. Merely sending a message and receiving an acknowledgment is not communicating. Communication is a vital part of combat and combat is a team job. If the combat operation goes awry, the entire unit can suffer. The more each individual knows and understands about other individuals' jobs, the better will be the chances for success. The combat communicator must do his share.

During a Vietnam era training exercise, a staff officer wrote a long message which contained one short top secret paragraph. The rest of the message was of a lower classification. Since the classification of the message had to be the same as its highest element, the entire message had to be encoded by hand, transmitted, and then decoded by hand. The message reached its recipient some forty-eight hours after it left the hands of its originator. Had the staff officer been familiar with the communications system supporting his particular headquarters, he could have gotten his message through in a small fraction of that time by splitting it. The longer part of the message could have been transmitted quickly over on-line teletypewriter circuits designed to handle secret traffic while the shorter, top secret, part was being encoded by hand as a separate transmission. The headquarters failed to achieve one of its objectives; because it was a training exercise no lives were lost, nor were actual tactical operations endangered.

Communicating even face to face with another individual can be difficult. Sharing an understanding of the thought being transmitted depends upon the language being used, the cultural experience of both individuals, and the expectations of the recipient. Misunderstanding often comes from misinterpretation because the parties involved are thinking of different subjects. This can happen in combat in a very messy way. One example was cited by an adviser who was on a combat operation with a battalion of the 7th Regiment, 5th Vietnamese Division, near Trung Lap in January 1965. During a firefight with an enemy unit, the senior


American adviser was killed and a young lieutenant had to take his place. American gunships were called in by radio to provide fire support. The inexperienced adviser managed to describe the enemy location to the pilots well enough to bring the first run in close to the target, then he discussed with the pilots the adjustments necessary to make the second run more effective. The adviser then abruptly switched subjects and indicated that his column was moving out in a certain direction. The pilots, anticipating information about enemy activity, apparently did not comprehend the shit in subject and shot up the battalion column. Seven soldiers were wounded before the gunships could be called off.

Not all transmission mix-ups occur over the radio. Messengers are a vital part of the communications system; and their use does not always preclude misunderstanding. On 14 November 1965 during the la Drang Valley operations of the 1st Cavalry Division near the Cambodian border, Company A, 7th Cavalry, commanded by Captain Ramon A. Nadal II, took part in an air assault into Landing Zone X-Ray. During the fighting that followed, Second Lieutenant Walter J. Marm of the 1st Platoon had his hands full conducting his first big firefight as a platoon leader, when a company runner came up to him with the message, "The CO's hit. You're in command." The young officer was stunned. For a few hectic minutes he was under the impression that he was commanding Company A. Then he heard Captain Nadal's voice on the radio. The runner, in his haste to dodge enemy bullets and to get the message to Marm, had neglected to pass on the captain's full message beginning with the simple word if. 1

In August 1966 a long-range patrol from the 2d Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, was operating near the Cambodian border and had not had any enemy contact when Company A, lst Battalion, 5th Cavalry, air assaulted in on their location. Apparently a radio transmission from an aerial observer indicating large groups of people a few kilometers away from the patrol's location had come through garbled. Brigade headquarters understood that the patrol was being attacked by large groups of people. The two units were unscrambled, and Company A was airlifted out to execute its original mission for the day, several hours later than intended.

Cultural differences can interfere with the proper transmission

1. The platoon attack to clear the area was stalled by deadly fire from a machine gun bunker among the trees. Lieutenant Marm charged and silenced the enemy position; he was seriously wounded in the attempt. For his heroic actions, Lieutenant Marm was later awarded the Medal of Honor.


of an idea from one mind to another. Brigadier General William A. Knowlton, assistant division commander of the 9th Infantry Division, made the point while discussing operations in the delta region and Vietnamese-American relationships:

. . just to give you an example of differences between American customs and Vietnamese customs that can lead to all kinds of problems. The blowing of the horn in an automobile. In Vietnamese, that means, "Don't sweat. I see you up ahead and I know where you are." In American, it means, "I'm going; get out of my way because I want to get by you." If a Vietnamese is riding down the middle of the road on his bicycle and he hears a horn behind him, he says, "How wonderful. He knows I'm here in the middle of the road," and he relaxes. The American, in turn, says, "He doesn't understand my message. I told him to get over because I want to go by." There had been a total lack of communication in blowing the horn. Due to this lack of communication, the results are that the American runs the Vietnamese into the ditch, the bicycle gets smashed up, and the old man says, "The Americans are idiots; they are barbarians; they're crude and very impolite to the Vietnamese . . . ."

A cultural difference need not mean a difference in nationality or education. One noteworthy case occurred during the Vietnam era at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in screening people nominated for the Army officer candidate program. Pressure was .strong to get every qualified candidate into the program. The screening process consisted of an aptitude test, a unit commander's evaluation, and a board of officers' evaluation. When a number of likely candidates did not score high enough to qualify, a detailed inquiry revealed that the scoring key to the evaluation form used by the board members was faulty for about 20 percent of the questions. The key and the form had been prepared by civilian consultants who apparently were not familiar with Army word usage and attitudes. One inconsistency, for example, involved the personal appearance of the candidates. The term clean-cut, which most board members had used in describing the appearance of outstanding male candidates, earned the candidate no points, but the term attractive would have scored a point. The board and the candidates, all of whom were male, just did not think in those terms. The use of the scoring key and evaluation form had to be adjusted.

Other understanding gaps come from using colloquial language, service jargon, and technical verbiage. All such gaps are a potential danger to effective. communication. Add to this danger mechanical communications devices, distance, static, stress, confusion, conflicting requirements, and the loss of visual contact. The chances for error rapidly multiply.


Many of the military operations conducted in Vietnam were combined operations with troops of other countries and joint operations with the U.S. Navy and Air Force. Under these conditions, great care had to be taken to ensure that established procedures and terms were used by operations and communications personnel to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. For example, trained communicators know that the term repeat has long been outlawed from normal military radio usage. The reason is that in both British and American artillery procedures, the term is used to order repetition of an associated fire mission. Requests for repetition of radio messages or parts of them must be made with say again.

The efficiency and professionalism of a tactical unit can be judged accurately by monitoring its command net. The command net reflects the personality and character of the unit. A frantic, nervous unit has a frantic, nervous command net. A good unit's command net is quiet, uncluttered, calm, and quick to respond. The base station exercises firm control over the net, polices the net, requires legitimate users to use correct and efficient procedures, and commands trespassers to get off the net. Operating a command net professionally requires operators who are military professionals. Garbled communications were the exception, not the rule, in Vietnam.



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