When the President of the United States promises America will have "no boots on the ground" in Iraq or Syria, military members and their families don't take that phrase literally. He can't be saying that no American soles will touch the soil of either nation, because they already do. Do most Americans know this statement is about mission, not actual footwear location? Do they know he means "no combat mission"? Military families do. They know plenty of boots -- combat or otherwise -- belonging to people they know and love are on the ground right now.
When my Air Force husband is deployed, his boots are truly on the ground much of the time, like those of many support troops. Neither he nor I would compare his position to service members who routinely go forward to meet the enemy with weapons at the ready, whether on the ground, at sea, or in the air. As a noncombatant, his job is not inherently dangerous, but he sometimes does his job in dangerous conditions, as do many service members with non-combat job descriptions. Military members and families understand the distinctions between these duties. Everyone in a combat zone operates at some level of danger; none are immune to danger by virtue of performing non-combat tasks.
So when the Secretary of Defense reiterates "no boots on the ground," military families don't breathe a sigh of relief alongside the rest of America. We know too much. Even without a stated combat mission against terrorist organizations overseas, we know our loved ones and their boots are already in ships, airplanes, and yes, even on the ground. More are likely to follow, to train and support indigenous forces.
Whether the Pentagon calls it a combat mission or boots on the ground won't matter much to those doing the job and wearing the boots. Call them advisers, trainers or support personnel. They'll do what the mission requires. Their families will hold the fort at home, knowing terminology won't matter much either to enemies who've shown they have few scruples regarding human life.
Unfortunately, the only ones misled by the words "no boots on the ground" may be American civilians. When politicians use that phrase, I fear they use it to placate voters, reportedly weary of a war they never fought. Military members and their families are weary too, but changing the name doesn't change reality. It only minimizes the courage of those who wear the boots whether those boots are on patrol, on a ship's deck, a tarmac, or an operating room floor.
I wonder if it also leads most Americans to believe our military can maintain a safe distance from the bad guys while fighting them. I hope they're paying enough attention to realize there's nothing safe or clean about war, on the ground or in the air. Ask those who pinpoint locations and provide coordinates for airstrikes -- from the ground -- if they operate in combat conditions.
On a Sunday morning news show, retired Army Gen. Carter Ham spoke with CBS journalist Bob Schieffer about what establishing a "no fly zone" over Syria means. Ham knows, having overseen a similar operation in Libya in 2011 as the commander of U.S. Africa Command.
"It's a pretty high risk operation," he said, "It first entails killing a lot of people and destroying the Syrian air defenses and those people who are manning those systems ... destroying the Syrian air force, preferably on the ground, in the air if necessary. This is a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties and increased risk to our own personnel."
Too bad he was only on Face the Nation. He would have had a much larger audience on House of Cards or Game of Thrones. Public interest in politics or bloodshed extends more to the fictional than the actual.
My husband has had his "boots on the ground" in hostile territory on multiple deployments. Yet, people who don't know any better -- and some who should know better -- throw around the phrase "no boots on the ground," as if boots like my husband's don't count. But they do. Boots are already on the ground, and they all have people standing in them.