Let’s Start Calling Combat Combat

On Tuesday, a Special Forces soldier died and two others were injured in a skirmish with Taliban fighters near Marjah in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. Al Asad air base in Iraq currently hosts several hundred US Marines who regularly fire heavy artillery at Islamic State militants; the base came under attack from ISIL forces disguised as Iraqi soldiers early last year. High-level special operators are now conducting ground raids to kill or capture members of the Islamic State. The Pentagon’s spokesman for the campaign against the Islamic State has for months acknowledged that Americans are in combat against the organization that has redrawn the Middle East’s borders and taken over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Despite all this, the Obama administration continues to generally label such actions as “train, advise, and equip” missions (as with Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State) or “counterterrorism” (as in the case of Tuesday’s mission in Afghanistan), but they rarely rise to the level of “combat.” Yet, the same spokesman said that the fixation on those terms (“train and equip” versus “combat missions”) is just “people trying to make rhetorical hay, but not really understanding what’s going on.” Euphemisms and semantics aside, there may not be armored divisions sweeping east across the northern deserts of Syria toward Raqqa, or companies of Marines (re)taking Mosul door-to-door. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are American troops deployed in a combat environment. They receive danger and hazard pay and come away from their deployments with combat patches, and (partially) measure their success by kill counts.

As James Traub wrote in this week’s New York Times Magazine:

“Boots on the ground,” in short, once functioned as a statement of resolve. Now it has degenerated into a figure of speech meant to point to an ever-shifting, indeed arbitrary, boundary between “war” and “not war.” “Boots on the ground” signify war; the president has promised no more war; ergo, there are no boots on the ground. This is, of course, a distinction without a difference.

And of course, both he and the Pentagon spokesman are right. If you look at the facts on the ground, we are plainly fighting a war. It may not be formally declared as one. It may or may not have adequate constitutional authorization. But the reality shows that it is a war in every meaningful way. However, if the distinction is one without a difference, the reticence to use the term “combat mission” is all the more perplexing.

A reluctance to say that American troops are on combat missions when anyone who can read a news report sees otherwise does nobody any favors. The terminology doesn’t carry any legal weight; we would not suddenly be doing something illegal if we called a spade a spade here. Avoiding the term implies that the Obama administration will have satisfied a campaign promise to end George W. Bush’s wars. But it simultaneously ignores the reality that American troops are not done killing and dying in the US’s fight against terrorism that began after 9/11.

In the context of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, the distinction between “combat missions” and “counterterrorism missions” isn’t a particularly meaningful one. But if the difference is negligible and doesn’t impact either reality on the ground or the US’s legal obligations, why jump through hoops to pretend a mission where people engage in combat is something else? Why not use terms with the common meaning that best describes the situation?

In an age where media coverage seems surreal enough, not classifying American sacrifice in plain terms obscures perceptions and diminishes an already tenuous link between the military and the polity it serves. There are members of the military in far-flung parts of the globe, being targeted and actively working towards killing terrorists all in the name of protecting American interests. Perhaps the government and the people would feel more grounded if an updated AUMF was passed by Congress with White House support. Maybe the American people and Congress are alright with a background level of constant combat and Americans dying if it is done in the spirit of ongoing counterterrorism campaigns. However, if that is a cost that will be bared for the foreseeable future, it should be addressed in costly terms, real terms, and at the very least, using plain language that doesn’t conjure Orwell. If combat is required, it should be supported, debated, and incorporated into the dialogue. For the sake of strategy, political accountability, and civilian-military relations, euphemistic rhetoric for “combat” needs to be put to rest.

It is not even the case that we play into our enemies’ strategy by calling it combat. Whatever terms we use, our adversaries know that we are there and trying to kill them. The use of “combat” or “war” doesn’t mask America’s activities to either itself or its enemies.

As the administration enters its final year, the White House should start being more honest about where we are and what we are doing. It should acknowledge that it has indeed made good on campaign promises to dramatically scale back its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of American troops no longer occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. But it should also acknowledge that the fighting is far from over. It can start doing this by using language that reflects reality. 

About the Author(s)

John Reed

Managing Editor of Just Security (2014-18). Follow him on Twitter (@ReedJustSec).