Saturday, September 7, 2013

boots on the ground


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.

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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.

        

37 comments:

  1. Oddly enough, I find "boots on the ground" only mildly offensive. That's because it's more precise than that almost always useless "on the ground," which has no purpose other than demonstrate its idiot user's seriousness.

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  2. Peter, I actually don't find boots on the ground offensive at all. I just bugged when everyone suddenly starts using the same phrase, and I do think it's a signal of laziness.

    The problem with the "on the ground" phrase is gone into over at that Grammarphobia link as well. I don't mind it as much as either you or Grammarphobia does, because I think it means, "As opposed to you toffs who never get out of the newsroom, I am actually here on location."

    But that is just my own interpretation.

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  3. I have found journalistic use of "on the ground" redundant. And I have just finished reading a novel by John Lawton, so I have renewed acquaintance with "toffs."

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  4. Grammarphobia agrees with you on the redundancy. And I agree that it is a phrase that is used to inflate the importance of the one who uses it.

    I notice that I have my own war cliché in the post, though. "Drumbeats of war" is being bantered about a bit right now too. Although it's so hackneyed as to be almost invisible. At least to me.

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  5. Yes, "drumbeats of war" is probably too over the top to catch on except ironically or as humor. I presume it refers to the old use of drums to keep marching rhythm on the way to battle.

    I further presume that anyone who uses it today thinks it's a metaphor for a clamor calling for war (if anyone who would use such an expression thinks of it at all).

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  6. A quick google scan shows that it or some form of it is being used quite a lot in relation to Syria right now. Which probably where I got it.

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  7. Oh, there's always a drumbeat for war somewhere. But if I'm right about the expression's origin, it moved sometime in the past from live to dead metaphor.

    How about something more contemporary. The guitar riffs of war, perhaps. The glissandos of war. The twenty-five-minute John Bonham drum solos of war.

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  8. Some sort of digital sound, I imagine.

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  9. Yeah, something like that. Thanks.

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  10. Plenty of boots-on-the-ground sounds there.

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  11. I enjoyed this discussion and video!

    Well, I'm sure we'll find out PDQ which way the United States is going to go in this SNAFU.

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  12. Oh, and ten minutes ago I read a newspaper column that used "boots on the ground." I can't in which newspaper.

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  13. Way to outdo me in the military lingo, guys!

    "Boots on the ground" is probably in every newspaper in America today is my guess.

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  14. I'm reading stories by Martin Limón at the moment in preparation for Bouchercon. He served twenty years in the Army. I should ask him what he thinks of boots on the ground and drumbeats of war.

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  15. Is he on one of your panels, Peter? I haven't gotten to him yet, sadly.

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  16. Yes, I'll moderate a panel on crime fiction set during and after WWII with him, James R. Benn, John Lawton, R. Robert Janes, and Susan Elia MacNeal.

    Maybe I can work "drumbeats on the ground" or "boots of war" into one of my questions.

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  17. Yes, I remember the others, I just didn't remember he was one of them.

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  18. I'm thinking about working North Korea into one my questions for him. I did work Iraq and Kuwait, Afghanistan, and U.S. military involvement into a question for him on a Bouchercon panel two years ago.

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  20. I like "Drumbeats on the Ground" and "Boots of War."

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  21. I like "Dogs of War." How come one never hears about budgies, cats, parakeets, or gerbils of war?

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  22. That's because Shakespeare coined it. That guy had a way with words, huh? He probably hadn't met too many gerbils of war. Or gerbils in general.

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  23. The "boots on the ground" and "no boots on the ground" phrase has been WAY overused in this Syria mess by politicians and media. It seems that they cannot go more than 2 minutes of speaking without using that phrase!

    I appreciate the arguments of what they are referring to but it's getting a bit overused. Kind of like the whole "really?" or "totally" phrase!

    Thank you for the post of the history and how it originated.

    Rae S.
    Nashville,Tn.

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  24. Rae, I couldn't agree more. I always feel skeptical when pundits and reporters start bouncing the same phrase back and forth, because it starts to sound like parroting rather than thinking. Like they've accepted the propaganda in some way.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment here!

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  25. Glad to know someone else found "embedded" really annoying. It always reminded me of a toy plastic dinosaur squashed down in hot asphalt.

    Thanks for the reminder about "hunkered down". We use it so often now in our battles against winter. We wrap up in quilts, make chili, and read paperbacks when we are in that condition.

    Grammar and syntax were out of fashion when I was in my Wonder Years. "Boots on the ground" seems like a container for the thing contained. Alas, it also reminds me of Boot Hill.

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  26. "Hunkered down" is a perfectly good phrase in the sense you use it, Collagemama. It would have been fine for a few mentions of those Iraqi boots on the ground as well, just not the endless number of times I heard it in the final days of that particular war.

    Grammar and syntax were not so big in my school days either, although we did do the occasional sentence diagramming. Which I always found confusing.

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  27. I don't care for this phrase or any others that attempt to desensitize what is really going on. In this case, Human lives in combat.

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  28. OK! OK! Let's go with "ground troops" and be done with it!

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  29. Anonymous, I have a feeling that when we start hearing ground troops instead of boots on the ground, it will mean that there are actually ground troops on the ground. So maybe the hypothetical sense in "boots on the ground" is a good thing.

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  31. I mentioned this in a comment somewhere else, but I developed a limited sympathy for "boots on the ground":

    "I thought of including boots on the ground, much overused these days, in 2) above, but Ricks sheds some incidental light on why that particular phrase, rather than some other, is the self-serious instant cliché in the current debate about Syria. In the 1950s, Ricks writes, the future of the U.S. Army was in doubt. Many in the army and out believed that sea and air war would render ground troops and the army itself obsolete. So boots on the ground may reflect bitter relearning of a lesson Donald Rumsfeld did not know or pretended not to know: that warfare still requires troops, sometimes in massive numbers."

    Just plain on the ground is nothing but corporate/political/journalistic bluster. You know, I'm grittier and savvier and more attuned to reality and closer to the heart of things than you are because you just know the problems, but I know the problems on the ground.

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  32. Right, but I have a bird's eye view, Peter.

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  33. There is general agreement that airstrikes are not going to settle complex conflicts like that in Syria.
    There is also agreement that a lasting settlement can only be achieved by having boots on the ground.
    This raises the question: whose boots on whose ground and with what strategy?
    If we have learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan it is that an invading army is never welcome and always meets with resistance.
    The only solution is to have a global security force, sufficiently armed to disarm opposition, under UN command.
    This would not be a foreign army, come to fight a battle, but our own security force , come to restore peace.
    How could this happen? See: http://www.garrettjones.talktalk.net

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  34. There is general agreement that airstrikes are not going to settle complex conflicts like that in Syria.
    There is also agreement that a lasting settlement can only be achieved by having boots on the ground.
    This raises the question: whose boots on whose ground and with what strategy?
    If we have learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan it is that an invading army is never welcome and always meets with resistance.
    The only solution is to have a global security force, sufficiently armed to disarm opposition, under UN command.
    This would not be a foreign army, come to fight a battle, but our own security force , come to restore peace.
    How could this happen? See: http://www.garrettjones.talktalk.net

    ReplyDelete