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Defining 'Boots On The Ground'

The phrase "boots on the ground" is used ubiquitously among journalists and politicians, but how is it actually defined?

Defining 'Boots On The Ground'
U.S. Army / CC BY 2.0
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The phrase "boots on the ground" gets tossed around a lot these days. 

CNN"Whether you're talking about boots on the ground..."

RT: "No boots on the ground as he's putting it."

‚ÄčFOX BUSINESS: "But boots on the ground in Iraq..."

KGTV: "No boots on the ground in Iraq."

Politicians like to use it too.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria." (Video via The White House)

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: "Very specifically this is not a combat boots on the ground operation." (Video via C-SPAN)

But how do you define boots on the ground? Because if you listen to Hagel earlier in that same talk he gave in India, he says:

Hagel: "The president has authorized me to go ahead and send about 130 new assesment team members up to northern Iraq."

Doesn't that count as "boots on the ground"? Not quite. At least not by modern standards.

White House National Secuirty Adviser Ben Rhodes told Time that the role of the forces Hagel was authorized to send "is not one of re-entering combat on the ground. In terms of kinetic actions that are being taken, those are in the form of airstrikes."

So, how do we tell the difference between "combat boots on the ground" and "boots on the ground"?

Hayes Brown took on the wide use of the phrase in a ThinkProgress article where he uses Hagel's specific mention of there being no combat boots on the ground to drive home his point.

"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."

According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, the U.S. has almost 150,000 military personnel stationed outside the United States in more than 150 countries — with only a handful being used in military operations. 

Brown uses the example of how, while the Obama administration said there'd be no troops on the ground in Libya, there were in fact military personnel guarding embassy staff members in Tripoli up until they were forced to evacuate due to violence. 

Those personnel, called Marine Embassy Security Guards, number at around 1,200 worldwide according to National Defense Magazine, which wrote a piece detailing the position after the 2012 Benghazi embassy attack.

As for the 170 personnel Hagel sent to Iraq — a Pentagon statement released Wednesday said that, thanks to U.S. airstrikes, a rescue mission in the region is "far less likely." 

this video contains images from Getty Images.