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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

boots on the ground

(1990’s | miltarese | “infantry,” “combat troops,” “invaders”)

The army has been the butt of jokes for a long time. In my childhood, we all learned the “biscuits in the army” song, and as an organization it has long been associated with inefficiency, rigidity, stupidity, profiteering, etc. For those reasons and others the army is seen as the least appealing branch of the service. The navy is also pretty plebeian but has better uniforms and goes on voyages, the Air Force has its own lofty glamor, and the Marines are our badass fighting force, taking on the jobs no one else will take. These rough distinctions form part of the background for this week’s expression.

In the 1990’s, it came to the attention of policymakers that the Cold War was over, and the basis of our military strategy for the last fifty years had vanished. That didn’t bother anyone too much (somehow the money kept rolling in, despite ominous talk of a “peace dividend”), but debate over the proper response to this revolting development smoldered for a few years. One prong of it boiled down to a conflict between the Air Force, touting the virtues of long-range warfare relying on satellite missile guidance and precision airstrikes, and the Army, for whom there is no substitute for sending lots of soldiers and tanks to slog through the mire to victory. Clinton’s foreign policy predictably developed a strong preference for avoiding U.S. combat deaths, which meant fewer mess tents and more smart bombs. We all know that sending in platoons of grunts means more casualties, more brutality, billions of dollars down the drain, and quagmires. Who wouldn’t prefer a nice, clean missile? But presidents who try to pull troops out of combat zones usually find themselves putting them back in sooner or later. Boots on the ground have never quite gone out of style; missiles and drones have their cachet but can’t do it all by themselves.

“Boots on the ground” began to appear in the mid-1990’s among military officials and their pretorian guards — members of Congress, think-tank warriors, and journalists. By 2000, it was making its way into everyday life; the expression was evocative and easy to understand, and readers and hearers were quick to grasp it. I was surprised to see recent examples in a variety of civilian sources, not just law enforcement, for which the military analogy is obvious, but wherever efficient action is needed to counter a threat: disaster response, political campaigns, trade missions, NASA (I’m serious), even hospitals. Here’s one fresh from a Frontline Technologies press release (June 21, 2016): “Teachers are the ‘boots on the ground’ in your school district. More than anyone, they have their finger on the pulse of the student body, they look at the data and know the student needs in their particular building, and they know the areas where they need to grow as educators.” It conjures images of dedicated people fanning out and getting the job done. The notion of response to a direct threat is fading; sometimes the phrase is little more than a way of saying “taking action” or “doing something about it.” Available as a hyphenated adjective for a long time, but I’ve never seen it used as a predicate complement. (As in “That’s very boots-on-the-ground.”) The speed with which the phrase has spread is impressive.

An unfortunate and now forgotten assistant secretary of the Army, Sara Lister, was forced to resign in 1997 after saying, “I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines are. The Marine Corps is — you know, they have all these checkerboard fancy uniforms and stuff. But the Army is sort of muddy boots on the ground.” She noted that the Marine Corps was more prone to political extremism than the Army, which may well have been true. The relations between the military and the rest of us were much discussed in the nineties; some commentators were concerned that our men and women in uniform were becoming hostile to American society, because it was too soft, or liberal, or heathen, or whatever. The trend is unlikely to have changed since then. There is plenty of evidence that eliminating conscription has led to a definite rightward shift in the politics of the average soldier, but it is no longer fashionable to point it out.

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