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How Many Boots on What Ground?

The elusive truth about the American military role in Iraq

Don't worry, is no war. It's just a few boots. How many? Hard to say. (Photo: U.S. Army/flickr/cc)

At the moment, there are a maximum of 3,870 U.S. military personnel (or 7,740 actual boots on the ground) in Iraq supporting the war against the Islamic State.  That’s the “official cap” imposed by the Obama administration, because everyone knows that the president and his top officials are eager to end American wars in the Middle East, not expand them.  Of course, that number doesn’t include the other 1,130 American military types (or 2,260 boots)—give or take we don’t know how many—who just happen to be there on what’s called... er, um... “temporary deployments,” or are the result of overlap from rotating deployments, but add up to perhaps 5,000 trainers and advisers, or maybe, for all we know, more, including 200 Special Operations forces whose numbers are officially acknowledged by no one but mentioned in press reports.  And naturally that 5,000 figure doesn’t include the American private contractors also flowing into Iraq in growing numbers to support the U.S. military because everyone knows that they aren’t either troops or boots on the ground and so don’t get counted.  Those are the rules.

Do keep in mind that this time around the whole American on-the-ground operation couldn’t be more limited.  Though the numbers of U.S. trainers, advisers, and Special Ops types continue to creep up, they are, at least, helping the Iraqi military reconstitute itself on Iraqi bases.  In other words, this round of Washington's Iraq wars bears no relation to the last one (2003-2011), when the Pentagon had its private contractors build hundreds of U.S. bases, ranging in size from American towns to tiny combat outposts.  This time, the U.S. military has no bases of its own, not a single one... er, um... at least it didn’t until recently when an American Marine, a specialist in firing field artillery, died in an Islamic State rocket attack on what turned out to be an all-American Marine outpost, Fire Base Bell, in the northern part of the country.  The artillery operations he was involved in supporting the Iraqi army in its (stalled) drive on the country’s second largest city, Mosul, are not, however, “combat operations” because it's well established that no American troops, Special Ops units possibly excepted, are in combat in that country (or Syria).  In fact, U.S. officials point out that artillery doesn’t really count as combat.  It’s more like U.S. air operations against the Islamic State except... er, um... it takes place on the ground.

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And by the way, according to Nancy Youssef of the Daily Beast, the U.S. actually has two bases in Iraq (the other in al-Anbar Province) and is planning to add more in the future, but these will most certainly not be old-style “fire bases.”  In fact, the one where that Marine died has already been renamed the Kara Soar Counter Fire Complex and it seems that any future... er, um... post established in Iraq will also be a “counter fire complex,” not a base, and will only engage in air-strike-style operations on or just above the... um... ground.  And the reason for that has nothing to do with the possible reaction of Americans to the new realities of Iraq. As Youssef points out, it's the fault of the touchy Iraqis:  “The new name notably did not include the word ‘base,’ as some Iraqis fear the return of any U.S. footprint that resembles the eight-year war that began with the 2003 invasion.”

In this spirit of renaming, the Pentagon and the Obama administration follow in a proud American linguistic tradition. As the Bush administration was completing its invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in April 2003, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon was planning to build at least four major installations for the future garrisoning of that country, though “permanent bases” was a phrase being avoided at all costs.  ("[T]here will probably never be an announcement of permanent stationing of troops," wrote the Times reporters.)  At the Pentagon, these massive outposts were instead labeled “enduring camps."  And tradition matters. So all is well in... er, um... that country in the Fertile Crescent.  You know the one I mean.   

It’s true that, in these years, American English has taken some casualties, but the good news is that none of these have happened “in combat.”  Just think of them as necessary adjustments to an increasingly difficult-to-describe world, one that retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore catches to a T in “What Is the Meaning of Failure, A Dictionary of Euphemism’s for American Decline” on this country’s post-9/11 war of words

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

nation_unmade_by_war.jpgTom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's His sixth and latest book, just published, is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).Previous books include: Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (with an introduction by Glenn Greenwald). Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (co-authored with Nick Turse), The United States of Fear, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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