June 28, 2004

Big disagree

In a recent Washington Monthly article on Niall Ferguson, Benjamin Wallace-Wells cited a deverbal noun that was new to me. The context is a talk by Ferguson at the Council on Foreign Relations:

In the row in front of me, a broad-shouldered, uniformed officer stood up. "Big disagree here, sir," he bellowed. "Big disagree with your characterization."

It's obvious what this means, and perhaps it's become a conventional idiom of objection in the U.S. armed forces these days, but it hasn't made it onto the internet much. I could find only a couple of examples, neither one military:

(link) Well, I've got to butt in on this one and put in a big DISAGREE.
(link) i have to give a big DISAGREE!

I wonder if this usage comes from response categories in surveys: "AGREE ... DISAGREE."

The American officer's reaction came in response to Ferguson's assertion that recent problems in Iraq are an inevitable consequence of military occupation:

"In behaving the way they did," Ferguson said, "those soldiers and military policemen [at Abu Ghraib] were largely doing to their prisoners what routinely people in the American military do to new recruits."

The American officer who objected went on to say

"The institution I have spent my life in abhors what went on in Iraq," he said. "It's not the way we treat anyone-- a fresh recruit or a plebe at West Point." The crowd clapped vigorously. In less than 10 minutes, Ferguson had pulled off that rarest of Washington double plays, alienating liberals and conservatives alike.

Based on my own experience, which was limited but took place at a time when the U.S. Army might have been rougher with its recruits than than it is now, I have to agree with him. Basic training was often painful and humiliating, and not always safe, but nobody was ever attacked by dogs or made to stand on a box holding (even fake) electrical wires. More generally, no one was ever (what I would call) tortured.

I suppose that what Feguson meant was that military recruits are always subjected to a systematic process intended to break them down and build them up again in a new way. When it was done to me, aspects of this process were things that might be called torture in another context: six weeks of systematic sleep deprivation, or running a couple of miles while holding a heavy rifle over your head, or belly-crawling in freezing mud while drill instructors yell at you and kick you back flat if you get up on your hands and knees, or having your bunk upended at 4:00 a.m. if you don't get out of it before the sergeant can get to you.

But context changes interpretation. These things were done as part of a process of training and initiation, not part of a process of interrogation. I suppose there's a common thread of subjugation, of breaking down someone's will by pushing them beyond their normal physical and social boundaries, but there's still a big difference between something done to recruits or inductees and something done to prisoners. Even if it's the same thing, it's not the same thing.

And there were definite limits. They were often crossed, but not always with impunity. While I was in basic, trainees had a clear concept of what the limits were, and were quick to object when they thought something was wrong. Objections were usually overruled and even punished, but drill instructors who were too fond of hitting recruits, or whose trainees were injured or killed as a result of questionable practices, were brought up on charges and disciplined.

There were definite limits at Abu Ghraib too, and they were definitely crossed, and the people who crossed them are now in trouble. I think that this similarity is another basis for the officer's "big disagree", which I also agree with: even partial and hypocritical adherence to ethical norms is a step forward over no recognition of such norms at all.

I wonder what the history of military initiation is. Some of the techniques are apparently quite old. As I recall, Patrick O'Brian describes seamen in the British navy of 1810 or so being awakened by a call of "Here I come, with a sharp knife and a clear conscience!" Anyone who wasn't out of his hammock in time found himself abruptly on the deck. This is the same technique that was used on us in basic training, and it certainly works. Especially from an upper bunk, it's not a way of waking up that anyone wants to experience twice.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 28, 2004 10:22 AM