Writing for the Military-Industrial Complex

It’s not what you see on television.

A friend suggested I discuss working for the Department of Defense (DoD), which is its own special animal within the technical writing world. It’s worth taking the time, because the military—even if you’re a civilian contractor who’s never so much as held a rifle—is its own special culture, and not everyone is suited to it. I have a good friend, for example, who absolutely refuses to work for DoD on pacifist/moral grounds. I don’t begrudge her position, I’m a rather nonviolent person myself. However, I’ve also grown up with family members who served in the armed forces for a different set of moral reasons. 

The hot-button issue here, of course, is that the military exists to defend the nation with armed force, up to and including killing other human beings and destroying their property. I could go into a long dissertation here on whether it’s moral to be willing to give your life (in the process of killing/harming others) for the sake of protecting your fellow citizens (we have similar discussions about the police in this country), but I’ll leave that to you, the reader, to sort out the matter for yourself. I grew up with a profound respect for the military, and so I had no problem working for them. If writing about hardware (or software) that could be used to destroy gives your conscience a headache, don’t work for them.

As it happens, I worked for a company that handled petroleum and water logistics, power systems, transport (truck) maintenance, and security systems…practically everything exceptthe stuff that kills people and breaks things on purpose. 

The Work

Before being hired for a defense company, you will have to meet certain minimum requirements:

  • U.S. citizen. In some cases, citizens of closely allied countries (Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand) who already hold a clearance with their country can get a clearance here as well.
  • Ability to obtain some form of security clearance, which will require a background check. For the lowest-level clearance, this involves a criminal records check and a credit check, nothing more. If you want to handle the really secret stuff, the background checks can be exhaustive, taking months to complete.

Once you get your clearance—whatever is required based on the sensitivity of the information you’re handling—you’ll find yourself taking extra precautions not to share your work with outsiders, which could mean friends and family, other companies, or even other people within your company. The “need to know” is very much a guideline for handling your communications. You might find your physical files, your computer, or your emails encrypted. 

Along with the clearance will come a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), the sort you’ll find in almost any company nowadays, which you will sign to promise not to disclose the information in your head or files during or after your employment. Failure to do so carries with it a lot of potential consequences, including being fired or sued by your employer as well as being charged with espionage by the government. 

If you are hired as a technical writer in the DoD environment and have no military background, odds are that you’re being hired to write proposals, marketing materials, websites, or other outreach content. While I’ve edited technical manuals for some of the hardware, most often a former operator of the hardware will be hired to write them. The logic of that is simple: if you’ve handled the equipment before, you know what the reader’s needs are, what their skill levels are, and what they need to know to operate safely. You may, however, be tasked to assist the expert, especially if the project has a short deadline. And often you’ll get to play with, or at least study up close, some really cool toys.

As a contractor supporting one or more units within the Armed Forces, you’ll come to learn the needs, constraints, and politics of your customers. There are a lot of rules and regulations governing how DoD interacts with civilian contractors to prevent things like fraud or corruption, and those rules are—so far as I saw (and a recent Pentagon audit showed[1]) effective. 

The Workplace Culture

Many defense contractors—called “Beltway Bandits” or “Highway Helpers” in the Washington, DC, area—are often heavily staffed with retired military personnel. That means they are predominantly male, if only because up until recently, the U.S. Armed Forces were a male-heavy enterprise. Carrying over habits from their former military careers, these people maintain hierarchical (top-down) organizations that can still sometimes be sexist and prone to male/macho humor. Given the higher percentage of women in the armed forces now, and the Federal laws that prohibit this sort of behavior, NSFW comments have all but disappeared. There are also individuals who are just politer than others. In any case, the environment can require a little skin thickening.

Military retirees come in from all ranks, from sergeants and Navy Chief Perry Officers all the way up to generals and admirals. They tend to carry their military behaviors over into the civilian world as well. (A military friend who reviewed this post noted that a retired general we worked with didn’t expect it, but then he wouldn’t correct you when you did call him “sir,” either.)

I recall a manager asking me soon after I moved over to NASA what the biggest difference was between the two. I said, “People talk to you in the men’s room [at NASA].” In general, you’ll find the higher the need for secrecy, the less extraneous chat you’ll hear.

All this snark aside, you can get a better understanding of how these retired military personnel think by how they approach their work. They might throw around a lot of harsh language and joke around, but when it comes to the work, they are dead serious. This is often because in their previous lives, they had beenthe soldiers using the equipment they are now supporting as the contractor. Their lives and careers depended on that equipment functioning well in the field, they know what can go wrong, and they apply this knowledge to making the equipment as good as possible. There are some advantages to the “revolving door” between the government and contractor worlds.

As a civilian in this mix, I had to learn some of the conventions the hard way. One of the more useful lessons I learned was from a former general. The lesson being: when a problem occurs, whether it’s my fault or not, is not to offer excuses (“No excuses, sir”); just snap to and fix the issue. One can also find oneself the target of good-natured ribbing, much like a new recruit. If you’re told to go on a hunt for a snipe, a gallon of prop wash, or a ten feet of flight line, odds are, someone is pulling your leg.

Another thing that I picked up from listening to the banter among “the boys” is that you can joke about the mission, the hardware, or the situation; however, you don’tjoke about the service (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard) unless you’re in the service. You also don’t joke about your leadership or the people being sent to doa mission. Mind you, that might just be what I internalized as one of the few civilians in that particular company. I worked for a much larger defense contractor and the level of humor was practically nil. Just as in any other new job, start your first few months listening before contributing to the merriment. 

Lastly, having interacted with U.S. veterans ranging from Vietnam to the 9/11 era, I acquired even more respect for the men and women serving in our armed forces. They volunteered and are well trained to go into or lead other soldiers/sailors/airmen/marines into dangerous situations. They take their responsibilities very seriously; are fiercely loyal to these United States; and while often smart-alecks as only Americans can be, are nowhere nearthe stereotypes portrayed in the media, TV, movies, etc. Their attitude can be contagious, and that’s a good thing. At least it was for me.


[1]Mehta, Aaron. “Here’s what the Pentagon’s first-ever audit revealed.” Defense News.16 November, 2018 https://www.defensenews.com/pentagon/2018/11/15/heres-what-the-pentagons-first-ever-audit-found/.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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