What Does the Phrase ‘Boots on the Ground’ Really Mean?
For U.S. Central Command, exactly what it says
“Boots on the ground” is one of those phrases that’s misused the more often it’s repeated. Politicians, generals, journalists. It means very different things depending on who’s saying it to the point of losing all clarity and coherency.
The White House is insistent it’s not putting boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria — despite the presence of American advisers … and special operators who have carried out ground attacks deep inside Islamic State territory.
At the Pentagon, “boots on the ground” – or more recently “combat boots on the ground” – has come to mean American troops engaged in active combat rather than just being in a war zone. But U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for American forces in the Middle East, has a far more common sense definition.
CENTCOM has clear rules that outline the health requirements for any of its personnel heading to the Middle East – referred to as its “area of responsibility.” The command published its most recent health policy in 2013, and its no-nonsense description of a “deployment” is the very first definition:
For medical purposes, the definition of a deployment is travel to or through the USCENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR) with expected or actual time in country (a.k.a. “boots on ground”) for a period of greater than 30 days, excluding shipboard operations, as defined in [reference] C.
Reference C is the Pentagon’s own instructions on “Deployment Health.” That document does not use the phrase “boots on ground” nor define the word “deployment,” turning instead to a third manual. Joint Publication 1-02, effectively the the U.S. military’s main glossary, offers a bare bones explanation of the term: “The rotation of forces into and out of an operational area.”
Regardless, CENTCOM’s “medical” definition does stands in stark contrast to statements from Pres. Barack Obama and other senior leaders. On Sept. 18, 2014, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest danced around the issue with regards to the fight against Islamic State at a daily press conference:
The question is whose boots on the ground is it going to be. They are not going to be U.S. boots on the ground engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Syria.
What we can do, and what the President believes we should do, is ramp up the assistance that we provide to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, ramp up the assistance that we provide to the Syrian opposition so that they can take the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own countries.
Given this sort of disparity, we asked CENTCOM to confirm and clarify a number of points of the policy. U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a spokesman for the command, provided the following response:
The definition of “deployment” is current, as it is applicable to this policy outlined. To give you some context, the “deployment” definition is a generic term, requiring the specification noted in the MOD to limit misinterpretation. The “boots on ground” qualifier was added to exclude travel time to and from CENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR).
Since the cutoff for “deployment” in this case is only 30 days, having 6-7 unexpected travel days can cause some confusion as to the status of a given individual if they were close to the line already. The use of “deployment” in this way is not uniform throughout the DOD [Department of Defense]. Other commands may have different standards and requirements based upon the resources and challenges of their areas of responsibility.
As to who this definition applies to, I’d refer you to Paragraph 15.B. which states “This MOD applies to military personnel, DOD civilians, DOD contractors all host nation (HN), local national (LN) and third country nationals (TCN), and volunteers traveling or deployment to the CENTCOM AOR.” That would, for medical purposes, include CJTF-OIR personnel in-place 30 days or more.
CJTF-OIR — or Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve — is the Pentagon headquarters in charge of operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And while the Pentagon might not have a single definition, similarly realistic definitions might be starting to seep back into the lexicon.
In February, Earnest again fielded questions about boots on the ground and presented a slightly more reasonable picture:
And in some cases, reacting promptly to contingencies may require ordering military action that does involve combat boots on the ground.
And again, the two most easily imagined examples are examples in which the President would order a military operation involving combat troops to go try and rescue U.S. hostages. The President has already done that once. And that put combat boots, U.S. combat boots on the ground in Syria in an offensive operation. They were running toward a target, firing at [Islamic State] fighters.
With such clear cut examples, officials in Washington may have an increasingly difficult time trying to offer more obtuse definitions of when American troops actually go off to war.