combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2003

What's in a Name?

They send us places we can't spell, where there are people we don't understand, and they tell us to do things that we can't talk about ... except indirectly, and with each other. It's no wonder that we have variously called ourselves webfoot, snuffy, and grunt.

We hump the ruck into the boonies carrying pigs and bloopers ... knowing that we are indistinguishable from the ancient ground-pounders known as hoplites and legionaries, velites and kerns, myrmidons and janissaries. Our riflemen are descendants of harquebusiers, fusiliers, and musketeers; and our snipers are successors to sharpshooters. Slingers and archers have evolved into grenadiers. Hussars, chasseurs, and cavaliers became cavalry, and dragoons became horse-soldiers; and all have developed into sky knights who ride an air assault against their foes. Pikemen, halberdiers, and swashbucklers went out of fashion, but their obsolete techniques would still work in modern low-intensity conflicts. The perdu has become a commando, and the evzone are now rangers. The berserkers forming the van of battle are now called shock-troops. The picket has become a sentry, and the sapper has become an explosives expert. They cannot change the game by changing the name. Foot-sloggers are the same timeless men, with different faces and ever-changing uniforms.

We report to bases called Fort Beginning and Fort Useless, The Rock and The Citadel, FSB Ripcord and FOB Dogpatch. We serve in units called Rainbow or All American, and express our ambiguity by nicknaming them Poison Ivy and Electric Butter Knife, Big Bloody One and Crazy Horse, Flower Power and Electric Strawberry, Puking Buzzards and Leaning Shithouse. We take orders from leaders known as Iron Duke and Blackjack, Young Napoleon and Little Corporal, Swamp Fox and Gray Ghost, Vinegar Joe and Grumble Jones, Ol' Fuss 'n' Feathers and Ol' Rough 'n' Ready. Our ranks are peopled with G.I. Joe and Sad Sack, Sergeant Rock and Lieutenant Fuzz, Corporal Cruel and Colonel Blimp, Lieutenant Loser and Captain Crazy, Major Mess and General Nuisance. We depend upon Doc and Sparks for essentials, and endure the ministrations of Short Round and Boy Wonder.

The operational radio traffic uses call-signs like Pick-ax and Hatchet, Sledge and Spike, Bear and Bull, Scorpion and Snake. We disparage the bad guys by calling them Hun or Boche, Gook or Gomer, Commie or Cong, Kaffir or Slovak, Wog or Firangi; and we disguise our acts with labels like zap, ace, and waste. They pin fruit salad on us if we show-up on time at the right place, and gong us with bolo badges and red weenies if we're not too much trouble. We maneuver on beachheads and airheads called Omaha and Torch, Utah and Market Garden, Cyclone and DZ Easy, Red and Green, Junction City and Urgent Fury. Even though these terms try to hide the reality, everyone who's ever been there knows that a battlefield by any other name is still a killing field.

In the realm of uniformity, jargon is pervasive; so we adopt and adjust for this peculiar institution. Everyone knows that the latrine is a toilet, the messhall is a cafeteria, and the motorpool is a garage. The strict nomenclature dividing rifles from guns, submachineguns from carbines, and cover from concealment eventually makes sense within the logical set of the armed forces. Given these strictures, the distinction between zero and oh, between roger and wilco, between over and out becomes essential. That skirmish now refers to a firefight, or that wappenshaw has become a command inspection is merely another convention. When a vocabulary interferes with understanding, then the thousand names are abandoned for clarity and precision. And, when the ugly names are too realistic, we devise euphemisms, like recon-by-fire and collateral damage, to conceal the truth from ourselves.

Because so many words establish our actions ... in a sense, pre-defining our terms of existence ... we are sensitive to the ones which are fungible. Authentic nicknames are confounding and disagreeable, since they invariably represent our worst traits or most embarrassing episodes. Given the opportunity, each of us will adopt a favorable or flattering signifier, but we rarely have the chance. Military necessity requires concealment of one's personal identity with a codename, but the nom de guerre is usually assigned at random or by function. The person using Bruiser Six Actual might disdain the connotations of monster or beast, and would positively disavow any association with lummox or Thersites! This distinction holds true for differentiating between Scrounger and Trashman, between Tripwire and Hair-Trigger, between Rascal and Rogue, between Hang-Dog and Swingin' Dick. There may be little to choose between Attack Rabbit and Harebrained, but it will be imputed despite one's protests. The name ascribed by the enemy is not polite, but often true and enduring. Sometimes the attributed sobriquet is disproven, and later retained as a mark of distinction, having acquired spiritual power. Each of us is born into a national circumstance, which allows us the privilege of choosing the comrades with whom we'll share the ordeals of contention; but our true character is best known by our enemies, who need not be tactful or charitable.

The only way we can be immune to the insults of our detractors is to be honest with ourselves. The only way we can detect their deceptions and propaganda is to trust our own integrity. If the distinction between them and us is paramount, then our methods as well as our objectives must be different. If we counter lies with more lies, escalating the exaggerations, then we'll never know when we've deceived ourselves ... and this ignorant self-delusion will make us vulnerable.

The memory of reality tends to become legendary, being always a sustained distortion, but sometimes corrupt in its revision. It is the privilege of the victors to write the politically-correct history of a contest, hence the disparity between the Great Patriotic War and World War Two, between the War of Northern Aggression and the Civil War, between the Second Indochina War and the American War. Those of us who have earnestly obeyed our nation's bidding with blood and sweat on distant shores know that history is hollow, and that words cannot tell the most important parts of the story. Names in a book are unnecessary torments to innocent students, who find them meaningless without context. Battlefields have become tourist attractions, and wars generate unattractive monuments for decorating public parks. Participants don't need a memorial to remember; and non-participants don't appreciate the public works project erected as a monumental token.

They can start a war and call it a police action; and they can create desolation and call it peace ... but those names are just another donation to our opponent's arsenal. When characterizing the enemy, it's important to justify the causes for war, but not to create an illusion that will not be validated when prisoners are captured for interrogation. Ironically, the soldiers on both sides of a conflict have more in common than they do with their own politicians and journalists. Rumors can be both insidious and invidious, but their illegitimacy can only be refuted by experience. Proving a negative can be impossible, but disproving lies is simple. It only takes courage. If the war story is too good to be true, then it simply isn't true. A fantasy about deeds done and promises kept is a betrayal of genuine sacrifices. Most combatants can detect deception from the inauthentic details ... which is why veterans laugh their way through most war movies. But our adversaries are smart, and they learn from their mistakes.

The professional phonies, hysterical wanna-be's, and other self-promoters research and rehearse diligently ... putting forth the kind of effort that would've achieved authenticity if properly directed. And when detected in their deception, they repair their errors. It would be nice if historians were as remedial. It would be nice if the close of one climactic chapter was not the provocation sufficient to write a new book, to right a new account. If the dilettantes and deceivers simply did their duty ... but that would be too simple, too courageous, too honorable. Because standards have been debased and devalued, mere existence has been exaggerated, such that performance now has every excuse and acclaim. It's true that heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but that definition is beside the point. Hero is just a name given to someone who has no choice ... they serve in a role and have a duty to perform, which is either done or not done. Heroism is not the conquest of fear, but performance despite fear; and as such, has devolved from community altruist to selfish individual. The modern hero is anyone without ulterior motives; and the antihero is everybody's ignoble fool.

Words have been imbued with the power to intimidate and alienate, to provoke and harm, to persuade and inspire. If the names we use do not discriminate, then our symbolic pledges are devoid, and our solidarity is vacant. If the warrant given to justify war is not true, then every lie will be a vindication, every heroic victory an atrocity, every honorable defeat a reprisal. If we cannot recognize good and truth, honor and justice, then we are condemned to endlessly quarrel and dispute. Our vagrant passions and empty words will lead us into eternal war. The difference between them and us must be more than just an incoherent guttural, more than a vicious curse, more than a legalistic indictment. Our names must be comprehensible and explicable.

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!
Isaiah 5:20 Bible

by Erin Galloglass
... who is a combat disabled veteran, a bookseller, and freelance writer.