This was something I noticed about the First Gulf War, way back when. Everybody started using the same little catch phrases. Although of course this kind of imitative speech is unavoidable, because how else do we learn to say anything anyway, I find it particularly irritating when accompanied by the drumbeats of war. If there's any time when human beings need to think for themselves and not just parrot what other people are saying it seems to me its during wartime or the days leading up to war.
In the First Gulf War, the phrase that drove me crazy was "hunkered down", which was the way Iraqi troops seemed to be perpetually described. No one else seemed to be bothered by this one, but to me this squatting opposition made the Iraqis sound cowardly and slightly less than human.
In the second Gulf War the phrase that always bugged me was "embedded". As in "embedded journalist". Although its a point of pride for many reporters to be able to say they were embedded with the military in some frontline situation, I never can get the idea of "in bed with", with all its overtones of collusion, out of my mind in relation to journalism whenever the phrase comes up.
With the looming possibility of air strikes on Syria, you can hardly avoid hearing the words "boots on the ground" in any media discussion of it these days. "Boots on the ground" is a phrase that was already in play, but it seems to be particularly accented right now, or rather "No boots on the ground" is. But it hasn't always been part of the common parlance. I thought I would try and find out when it first started being, well, deployed.
Wikipedia gives us the sense that the phrase extends further back in time than the written expressions of it. It tells us that the phrase "boots on the ground" goes at least as far back as the Malayan Emergency of 1948-1960 (and yes, I should know what this is, and you should too) when it was used by the British officer Robert Grainger Ker Thompson, who was one of the chief strategists on counter-insurgency. He later went on to advise Nixon in a similar way, so it's no surprise that the term began to crop up in relation to Vietnam a well.
It's interesting to realize that a phrase that was initially used to argue that there was no winning a war without boots on the ground has come to be part of a phrase reassuring the public of quite the opposite.
There turns out to be other complications around the phrase. For one thing, William Safire tells us that the slang for a new Marine inductee is a boot and so that the boot of the phrase refers to a soldier not footwear. This may not seem like such a big deal, but as Grammarphobia points out, if you use a phrase like "20,000 boots on the ground" you may mean 20,000 troops, or you could mean 10,000. Right?
In any case, the newspapers are already ahead of me on my particular topic here, once again. But at least Eric Zorn's article which is apparently from September 4th, just a few days ago, validates my empirical impression.
"Stories in the Tribune using the expression "boots on the ground" to refer to military men and women in a combat theater from the mid 1980s (when the digital record begins) until Sept. 24, 2001 -- Zero.
...from Sept. 25, 2001 to Jan 1, 2010 --- about 60
...from Jan 1, 2010 through today -- about 55
New York Times, similar search -- 3, 144, 161".
It would be interesting to know how many of these stories were about arguments for and how many were about arguments against. And when and if the preponderence shifted.