Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Introductions to alien cultures: How to live in the world of the U.S. military

Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, who has appeared in all three of my non-fiction books, has a good piece in Small Wars Journal aimed at helping civilians who work with the U.S. military to understand it. It reminded me a bit of a rule I developed when writing about embedded units: Try to get away ...

popculturegeek.com/Flickr
popculturegeek.com/Flickr
popculturegeek.com/Flickr

Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, who has appeared in all three of my non-fiction books, has a good piece in Small Wars Journal aimed at helping civilians who work with the U.S. military to understand it.

It reminded me a bit of a rule I developed when writing about embedded units: Try to get away from the unit when actually writing long stories, to achieve a bit of psychological and intellectual distance.

Gary's bottom line: They don't bite, but they do shoot. Sample cultural lesson:

Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, who has appeared in all three of my non-fiction books, has a good piece in Small Wars Journal aimed at helping civilians who work with the U.S. military to understand it.

It reminded me a bit of a rule I developed when writing about embedded units: Try to get away from the unit when actually writing long stories, to achieve a bit of psychological and intellectual distance.

Gary’s bottom line: They don’t bite, but they do shoot. Sample cultural lesson:

There are some things to remember in your personal dealings with military members. First, make an effort to learn their rank structure. Each service has its own structure, and although Army and Marine ranks are similar, there are subtle differences that can cause embarrassment. A few rules of the road are in order. If you call a Marine master sergeant "top", he will probably remind you that a top is something that spins around a room. Likewise in both the Army and Marine Corps, the term "sarge" went out of fashion long ago. You may hear Marines refer to their captains as "skipper", but an Army captain will look at you strangely if you call him that. The best rule of thumb is to listen to what they call each other when they are being formal and stick with that until you feel comfortable doing otherwise.

The best practice is to start by addressing them by their full rank. Officers you work with may ask you to use their first name, but only do that when you are in a semi private setting. When around their peers or their superiors, use their rank. It is always best to address the enlisted personnel by their rank, particularly if they are assigned to work for you. You will be treated as an officer and will be expected to act like one.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.