A time-honored tradition in the Services is the art of ‘Ass Chewing.’ Ass Chewing, or ‘on-the-spot correction’, or critical critique of one’s actions, performance or behavior is a normal, day to day occurrence, it’s just how seniors let their juniors understand in a very clear way where they stand.
One’s reputation can be enhanced by how well they take an ass chewing, or for more senior leaders, on how well they give one. By the time a junior officer becomes a mid-grade officer, they developed their own technique on how to absorb the experience with grace and dignity. It’s just part of life! As they grow in responsibility they develop a skill (hopefully) on how to give an ass chewing, effectively.
Soldiers don’t take it personally, they understand it’s a clear, declarative statement by a senior to a subordinate in order to help them better adjust to the standards of the organization. It’s business!
One early morning I provided the daily update briefing to the General and his Colonels on the logistics status for our forces in Bosnia. That was my job as a Current Operations Branch, Operations Officer. Two of us alternated giving the morning update brief to prepare the senior leadership team for the day’s events and problems.
My misfortune, one morning, was to be the guy in the ‘hot-seat’ the morning that the General was in a very, very bad mood. He, early in his generalship, was one who would ‘shoot the messenger.’ Not good, if your the designated messenger. For some reason or other he was getting frequent ‘ass chewings’ from the more senior generals, and he just felt the need to reach out and share his pain. He was not yet confident enough in his position to share the pain with his Colonels, so this morning he shared it with his briefer, me.
Up to that point in the Army, I had grown up in ‘hard-core’ airborne units. In those units we developed brevity code words to foster along quick communications. It was just the normal culture. The most commonly used brevity word was ‘Hua’ – pronounced who-ah.
In the Marine Corps they used the same word, but pronounced it ‘who-rah’. The Air force….well, they tried to muster the combative tone and enunciation….but it usually came out like some Hollywood actor trying to act like a warrior. Sorry guys, but it’s true. The Navy, well, never mind, but remember the movie G.I. Jane – ‘Who Ya Master Chief!’ You had to see the movie to appreciate the ridiculousness of it all.
Depending on the meaning, the intonation could favor the ‘who’ or the ‘ah’. It all depended. This word could mean anything you wanted it to mean. In an airborne unit, whole conversations could be had with this one word: Hua! (Hey you!), huaa? (Yes Sir/Sergeant?), hua? (Did you get it done?), HUA (Yes Sir/Sergeant!) Very simple, one word, perfect communication to ones in the know.
So, in my morning briefings I would usually answer questions in the affirmative Hua! Normally, this was OK because the Senior Staff liked that they had a rough line guy working for them, it may have reminded them of when they served in line units. Well, some of them. However, on this morning, the Boss was looking for a reason to share his misery and destroy something. I, happened to be the easy target. After one too many ‘Hua’ responses, he let loose. As I recall the ass chewing went like this: “Gawd Damet Major! When you say Hoooaaaah to me I don’t know what you’re telling me! You could either be saying ‘Yes Sir’, or ‘No Sir’, or ‘F**k You Sir.’ I just don’t know! You need to be more clear! Do you understand me Major?” He was right, at any given time, it could have been any one of those alternatives. Regrettably, for me, I responded with a trained and reflexive – ‘Hua Sir.’
So, the briefing was cut short that morning as we all, including the Colonels, quickly scurried to our safe zones throughout the building. I quickly learned to moderate my staff responses with either a clear and declarative ‘Yes Sir,’ or ‘No Sir.’ But that took some getting used to.
The HUA Major
It wasn’t too long, and I mean minutes, as rumors of another’s discomfort travels at light speed down the staff hallways, I received my first email sent to ‘Major Hua.’ I quickly received some notoriety from the other staff victims and became known as the Hua Major, even the Senior Staff enjoyed tugging at my discomfiture. It’s the Army, what’s one to do! Just roll with the body blows!
The General, well, in reality, he was a stud of leader and I had great respect for him. He was just having a bad day as we tend to do on occasions. And, like a spouse one professional absorbs the significant other’s bad days with charm and dignity, and then drives on! It’s business.
The next time I saw him in the hallways as he strode to the bathroom, he asked how I was. I cautiously responded with ‘Well Sir’ (my normal response would have been ….. You guessed it ‘Hua Sir’). He just smiled with a twinkle in his eye. As he opens the bathroom door to enter, I could hear him say “Hua” as he broke out in a stifled laugh.
Ass chewings! I think the world could be a much better place if we all learned how to give and receive more effective criticism, without being offended.
Post Script – there are many lores about the origin of the word ‘Hua.’ The one I like best is that it comes from an old RTO (radio / telephone operators) brevity code for ‘Heard, Understood & Acknowledged.’ I don’t know if this is right, but I like it, so I’m sticking with it.
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