Early in my years in Vietnam, I worked with Marine units in combat. That’s when I discovered the Marine Corps practice of never addressing a superior in the second person, that is, avoiding the word “you.” That usually meant using the rank in place of “you.” For example, one would say “Is the Colonel ready to depart?”
The practice even extends to the first person occasionally. A Marine is trained to refer to himself by rank rather than using “I.” In training, a Marine would say, “The recruit has finished the drill, sir.” Once in a while, I ran into that practice in the field.
When I was with the troops in Vietnam, I was, of course, a civilian employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) operating under cover. To maintain secrecy, I usually wore the uniform of the unit I was with, had my hair cut like troops, used their latrines, ate C-rations sitting in the dirt with them, and slept by them in the open or in tents. I’ve always looked younger than my age, and at a distance I could pass for a twenty-year-old enlisted man even when I was in my thirties.
To do my job, I had to work hand-in-glove with the enlisted men. That meant my cover was as a grunt, not an officer. The troops knew who I was, and, as I noted elsewhere in this blog, found my presence among them hilarious.
For me to be effective, the troops had to accept me as one of them. That was easier with Army units than with the Marines. Respect for superiors is so deeply ingrained in Marines that they resisted calling me “Tom” and treating me as just another snuff. They knew that I often outranked their unit commander and had a hard time bringing themselves to see me as an ordinary guy.
Addressing me in the third person was a challenge. My rank was civilian and labelled according to the GS (government service) rating system. So properly, an enlisted Marine should say, for example, “Would the GS-14 care for coffee?” That didn’t sit right. Instead, they used the term normally reserved for speaking to multiple superiors with different ranks, namely “gentlemen.” But with me they made it singular. The first time a Marine enlisted man asked me, “Would the gentleman like some water?”, I didn’t know who he was referring to, so my answer was, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them?”
With time, the troops and I learned to work together as a team of equals. I couldn’t be effective any other way. And when the Marines finally called me “you,” I knew we were home free.