It is often said that government is what is found Inside the Beltway and people are what is found Outside. But anyone who takes seriously the question of what separates Washington from the rest of the world knows the dividing line is hardly that precise. There is, for example, the language barrier.
One way to explore this is through the military, since everyone knows that if something is true of the government in general, it is doubly true of the military. And perhaps the best evidence of the military language barrier is the story of one Gene Klein, who is making a comfortable living off of it.
Klein was for years a manufacturers' agent for weapons makers, marketing their wares to the Defense Department. The hardest part of the job, he said, was not getting the contracts, but learning the language.
Not only did the contract officers talk in inscrutable acronyms, abbreviations and "brevity codes" -- the military's term for saying a lot in a few words -- but even after he mastered them, new ones were always being added. And many of the acronyms had multiple, even conflicting meanings.
For example: AAA means antiaircraft artillery in the Army lexicon, while in the Navy, it can mean the same, or it can mean authorized accounting activity. Needless to say, grave consequences could come of saying, "Let's start up the AAA," for someone who doesn't know his terms.
Klein began pondering a potential market of 35,000 defense contractors, all struggling daily to crack the code. In 1984, while marketing electronic weapon components for a London-based contractor, he started assembling on his own time the authorized directories of military code words. Some were easy to get; others took dogged source-building.
He turned them into three books, each about as thick as the District of Columbia phone directory, each entitled simply "Abbreviations." There is one each for the Army, Navy and Air Force.
The prose is not what one would call page-turning. In the Navy book, one could find: MADMAN, for magnetic anomaly detector contact; CINCLANTFLT, for commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet; NOFORN for special handling required, not releasable to foreign nationals. In the Army, there is: OSDIDBAD for Office of the Secretary of Defense identification badge; SUBOK for substitution acceptable; and, inevitably, WARS for worldwide ammunition reporting system.
Leave aside the question of why it's necessary for military types to talk like this (Navy officials actually walk around talking in hushed tones about the CINCLANTFLT). The first editions sold so well that Klein quit his contracting job to become a full-time publisher. His third editions have just come out (the military obliges him by constantly churning out new acronyms and scrapping old ones, creating demand for his updates), and he says his customers now number "in the thousands," despite the hefty price tag of $79 a book.
He showed a reporter a printout of 720 orders from defense contractors, his best customers, but he also claims as subscribers the CIA, the FBI and most of the technical military libraries of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Even though this information is available from the government for much less money -- if more trouble -- a number of defense contractors contacted said they didn't consider trying to go the cheaper route.
"I can't imagine calling the Pentagon and asking them for a list of acronyms," said Carol Hannes, a customer relations manager who orders the books for Litton Data Systems of Van Nuys, Calif., a maker of battlefield communications equipment. "You go to a store for things of that nature."
Hannes and Betty Cummings, an office administrator for Boeing Co. in Arlington who also orders the books, said they are useful mostly for secretaries trying to decode dictation from engineers about military projects, so as to make reports understandable to the home office.
"I've been doing this for 14 years and you still have to look things up," said Cummings. "Even some of the buildings themselves are acronyms, and you'll be going along typing and all of a sudden wonder, 'What is that?' "
Klein produces his books as a desktop publisher, using an Apple computer to set the type and hiring a contractor to bind them. His company name is, appropriately, an acronym -- DCP -- for Defense Contractors Publishing Co.
Unlike most who make their living off the military, Klein appears unaffected by the budget cuts that have crippled so many contractors. One reason, he said, is that the Defense Department has sharply cut its printing budget, meaning fewer available copies of some acronym directories. And with everyone fighting over a shrinking pie, it apparently becomes even more important to stay fluent in the fractured lingo of this embattled trade.