As the U.S. ramps up the number of military advisers deployed in Iraq, a large amount of the conversation has revolved around whether the Obama administration will place “boots on the ground” in support of its current mission. That term — and the debate around it — are inherently useless, and probably detrimental, when it comes to actually understanding just what the United States is doing overseas.
As far as phrases go, “boots on the ground” is almost inescapable these days when it comes to reporting on military action. To give a sense of how ubiquitous it is, Amazon lists over 900 books using it in their titles (including what looks to be one saucy romance) to provide a shorthand to readers that the work talks about some aspect of the military. So when news broke on Tuesday evening that the United States was deploying an additional 175 military advisers to Iraq, bringing the number to nearly 1,000 total, eyebrows were rightly raised given the previous promises from the White House and other parts of the Obama administration that there would be “no boots on the ground” during this mission.
Specifically, those new advisers include Marines and Special Forces who landed near Mount Sinjar in Iraq on Wednesday to help facilitate the evacuation of tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority. Last week, Obama cleared the use of airstrikes to help pave a path for aid to be delivered to the Yazidi, but placing forces on the ground in Iraq to actually facilitate that movement — and determine whether it would be done by land or by air — is a new step. “There are dangers involved in any military operation,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a briefing on Wednesday, when asked if this meant the administration was shifting its stance, “but [the president] is confident that we can have a limited military objective.”
“I think the President’s comments made very clear he has a broad range of options, and I was just making clear that doesn’t include boots on the ground,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said in June. “The president has not taken any options off the table, except that he did reiterate again in his statement that under no circumstances would he be sending American troops, boots on the ground, back into combat in Iraq,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said just last week.
Hagel made the same point again on Tuesday at an event speaking with U.S. military personnel. “As the president has made very clear, we’re not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat mission dimensions that we once were in, in Iraq. Very specifically, this is not a combat boots-on-the-ground operation,” he said, emphasis added.
That distinction, no combat boots on the ground, is extremely important and part of what makes the phrase so useless these days. When used generally, the phrase has become a shorthand for combat operations, engagements where the U.S. soldiers are actively shooting at people who are definitely shooting back. But in actuality, the U.S. has “boots on the ground” currently all around the world, carrying out a multitude of missions. Aside from the Special Forces operations that are deployed globally, and the sheer number of countries where the U.S. is present in Africa alone, there are the lesser known missions like the one in Egypt, helping patrol the Sinai.
To give an example of how specific the phrase has become in context, one need only to look to Libya. Following the air campaign in Libya to remove dictator Moammar Qaddafi, the U.S. pledged that the mission would not entail deploying ground troops. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates assured reporters that “the president has been quite clear that in terms of the United States military there will be no boots on the ground.” But things change. Until recently America actually did have military personnel deployed on the ground in Libya, with the job of protecting the U.S. embassy in Tripoli amid heightened violence. Those forces left along with the U.S. embassy staff they helped evacuate last month under the cover of darkness.
There’s also the fact that many of the operations that fall outside of the scope of “boots on the ground” actually do require a military presence on the ground to be successful. Airstrikes, the preferred method of taking military action without using ground forces, still require someone on the ground to help determine targets, unless pilots are able to see the target themselves from the air, like in the case of ISIS convoys and artillery. If the U.S. wants to go more granular, say targeting a building where ISIS leaders are meeting, then that ideally will include both intelligence from electronic interceptions as well as confirmation from humans on the ground.
It isn’t just the administration that loves to use the phrase. Reporters often use it as shorthand when questioning officials about what the end goal for military operations are, helping to perpetuate its narrow usage. When President Obama first announced that military advisers were heading for Iraq, one White House reporter asked if “the number of advisors that you’re planning to send in may just be the beginning of a boots-on-the-ground scenario down the road.” This gave Obama the opening to answer, “I think we always have to guard against mission creep, so let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.” Which, again, focuses on the combat aspect more than the actual presence of footwear touching the earth.
It hasn’t always been this way. As far as phrases go, its popularity in news stories is a relatively new phenomenon. Using the New York Times’ Chronicle tool, which searches word and phrase usage in Times stories going back to 1851, it appears that the first example in the Grey Lady’s pages of “boots on the ground” to refer to soldiers deployed isn’t until 1999. In a ‘Week in Review’ article on the winning war without casualties, Former Marine Corps general Bernard E. Trainor is quoted as saying: ”In the final analysis, ‘if you want to radically change the behavior of your opponent, it takes boots on the ground to do it.” From there, usage continued to grow until hitting a peak last year with 153 articles using the term.
In an odd inversion, however, the phrase has grown in usage in one non-combat situation: deploying troops to the southern border amid the current immigration crisis. “Since 2004, the number of ‘boots on the ground’ along the Southwest border has increased by 94% to nearly 21,000 Border Patrol Agents today,” a briefing document from the White House read. Nobody is assuming that Border Patrol Agents are engaged in active combat, thankfully, when using the phrase. Going back to using the term that expansively, so to better capture the full range of U.S. military activity, would be useful.