Vox Populi: Tribute to those who are in the “boots on the ground”

President Emeritus James Wrighta Marine Corps veteran and a fierce defender for veterans at Dartmouth and in higher education, published his third book on the American military experience, War and American Life: Reflections on Those Who Serve and Sacrifice.

Wright describes his latest work as “an octogenarian and a historian trying to share some thoughts about veterans, who they are, and what our obligations are to them, because I don’t think we do a very good job of remembering.”

In honor of this Memorial Day, Wright shared the following essay, first published in Atlantic in May 2016. It was written as election-year rhetoric about the US response to the rise of the Islamic State in Syria, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, often included calls to send more troops to the fight.

Remembering those who wore the “boots in the field”

By James Wright

In this election year of 2016, Memorial Day comes amid debates over how to respond to those who threaten the United States and its allies. A military response or preventive action is a common suggestion for dealing with threats. The rhetoric from candidates, political leaders, enthusiastic sections and pundits has been aggressive. Recent months have brought proposals for increased airstrikes, carpet bombing, the establishment and enforcement of no-fly zones, congressional declarations of war, authorization to torture suspects, and the arming and aiding those whose weapons now seem to be pointed in what America currently considers to be the right direction.

Some of those plans include the introduction of combat troops to fight ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) – calling for ‘boots on the ground’. It is without ambiguity a muscular assertion. Enemies, beware and friends, be reassured: American troops have landed.

(Brandeis University Press)

But “boots on the ground” is much more than a figure of speech, synonymous with deployment in combat. The metaphor obscures and encapsulates the humanity of young Americans sent on indefinite missions. Calling them “boots” substitutes leather for flesh and blood – flesh that will be torn and blood that will be shed. It is easier to advocate sending boots into hostile terrain than to suggest sending young men and women into a dangerous situation.

Calls for “boots to the ground” also conjure up images of what is commonly referred to as the “battlefield cross”. It is part of the unofficial military ceremony that men and women often hold, either in the field or at their base, to commemorate a fallen comrade.

This “cross” is not a cross but a field weapon, a rifle, with a fixed bayonet driven into the ground. A helmet sits on top of the butt of the rifle. This icon of the inverted rifle is at the center of a ceremony that allows comrades to pause, bend a knee, remember, cry, say goodbye. There is often a final roll call, knowing that one or more of the names called out will get no response.

At least as far back as the Vietnam War, this memorial has been further enriched and humanized by a pair of field boots sitting next to the weapon, helmet and bayonet. Many have seen this image or even just the empty combat boots placed in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and other sites to remember friends who served and died.

These boots are a powerful and personal reminder. The U.S. Army manual describing the field ceremony notes that the boots symbolize the “final march of the last battle”. Combat boots in the ceremony democratize a very old tradition in the military funeral of leaders – the riderless horse with empty boots reversed in the stirrups, following the caisson with the body of the deceased. This rattling saber is silently sheathed.

Memorial Day is a unique day, set aside for Americans to reflect and honor those they should reflect on and honor each day. It offers a symbolic opportunity to pause and consider those who serve in the military, and especially those whose sacrifice is eternal, symbolized indelibly by the silent markers of national cemeteries. But Americans must make this act of reflection an enduring commitment rather than a superficial salvation. If they have an obligation to remember these sacrifices when filming stops, they have a contract with those who serve to anticipate them before filming begins.

Unfortunately, there will be occasions when the United States will have to ask members of its military to take on a mission in hostile terrain. This may be a necessary action. And it may be an expected deployment for those who have volunteered to serve. They will go. But before such an order is issued, those requesting and authorizing such an assignment should carefully assess and explain it, to clarify what the military’s objective is and what the metric is to know that this force deployed has reached it.

Explaining these things has become much more complicated. Since World War II, America’s wars have been fought for political ends that are often general, usually ambiguous and ever-changing. Combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been referred to as “asymmetrical warfare”, engagements in which there is rarely a uniformed enemy on the ground. In these conflicts, US military forces must follow strict rules of engagement, recognize protected areas, respect and protect noncombatants, and seek to win the often fickle and always fearful hearts and minds among civilian residents. They must play the role of civic, economic and cultural advisers, as well as a police force aimed at controlling carefully and rarely openly. None of these actions is conventional military action and the public debate has not kept pace.

One way to change that is to move from metaphor to reality. Those urging this deployment should think not of the robotic drones, the firepower of shocking and frightening video games, or the walking boots and other bloodless euphemisms, but of the young compatriots involved. And to anticipate that these operations will inevitably result in real boots on the ground – empty boots sitting next to a rifle attached to a bayonet driven into the ground. With grieving loved ones at home and grieving comrades in the field.

Think about these boots and those who wore them on Memorial Day. And every day.

***

Of War and American Life: Reflections on Those Who Serve and SacrificeBrandeis University Press (2022), p. 195-197.

Originally published in AtlanticMay 30, 2016.

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