The Bunker: Fighting Words!

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This week in The Bunker: War of the words — how come only a Marine, among all individual members of the U.S. military, rates a capital letter; what should we call all of those in U.S. military uniforms; and more.


How do we label uniformed fighting people?

Surely like many of you, The Bunker spent the Thanksgiving break reading Mark Esper’s A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times. Esper, President Trump’s penultimate Pentagon chief, made it abundantly clear in his 749-page doorstop that he didn’t care for his boss. But that isn’t what captured The Bunker’s eye. Rather it was this sentence (PDF): “A soldier, sailor, airman, guardian, or Marine who feels included, respected, and valued will work harder, stay longer, and fight better.”

Once again, only the individuals serving in the smallest service get their label — Marine — capitalized.

This comes after decades of pushing by the other services to get their individual members so recognized: Soldier (Army), Sailor (Navy), and Airman (Air Force, for both genders). Joining the push are the Guardians of the U.S. Space Force, created in 2019.

General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff in 2003, vainly urged both the Associated Press and the Merriam-Webster dictionary to promote “soldier” to “Soldier.” But “[w]hile military officials may be able to order public affairs personnel to change their releases, they do not have any command over the English language,” as Stars and Stripes duly reported.

And dang. If a former Army Ranger like Esper doesn’t give an “S” when it comes to soldiers, why should anybody else?

The Navy, which ferries Marines around the globe, apparently was the first service, other than its passengers, to demand the upper-case construct. “Capitalize ‘Sailor’ and ‘Marine’ when referring to members of the U.S. Navy or U.S. Marine Corps,” the Navy ordered (PDF) in 1996, trying to piggyback on what the Devil Dogs already had.

Then the Army sought equality with their fellow ground-pounders. “The change gives Soldiers the respect and importance they’ve always deserved, especially now in their fight against global terrorism,” the service said in 2003 (the service even occasionally goes so far as to capitalize “Soldier” but not “marine” (PDF) — or “sailors” or “airmen”).

The Air Force soon joined the fray. “When we see a capital letter, our minds automatically emphasize that word, and we bestow an increased importance on that person, place, or thing,” General John Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, wrote in 2004, advocating “Airman” with a capital A. “It is time to formally add our profession to that list of important and special nouns.”

Seeing Esper’s lower-case “soldier” was jarring (obviously, it doesn’t take much to rouse a well-fed Bunker) given Esper’s background. He is a West Point grad; he served in the Army and reserves for 21 years; he was the Army’s top civilian leader from 2017 to 2019, and then he spent 16 months running the Pentagon before Trump fired him a week after the 2020 election.

So why is “Marine” singled out for capitalization? Well, as President Truman noted (PDF) in 1950, the Marines “have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.” He wrote that a year after the Soviet Union’s first test of a nuclear weapon. So, it was kind of like President Biden saying today that the Marines “have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Putin’s.” Impolitic, to say the least (“Give ‘em hell Harry” apologized (PDF) a week later).

The other services just can’t capitalize on such PR prowess.

The Associated Press said in 2020 (PDF) that it capitalizes “Marine” because it “is part of a proper name. The others are not.” Of course, the most recent AP stylebook (PDF) tells reporters and editors that “Space Force members are ‘Guardians.’”

Looks like when it comes to consistency, the Pentagon and the press are on the same page.


What should we call those who defend us?

Any reporter unfortunate enough to call a “Marine” a “soldier” will never forget it. As Bunker readers know, the two are not the same — soldiers serve in the Army, and Marines are in the, well, Marine Corps. This presents those who write about the U.S. military with a challenge: what’s the best term for all the folks who wear U.S. uniforms? Headline writers default to “troops” — it’s short, and gets the job done. The Defense Department prefers terms like “service members,” which is even blander than “troops.” It’s why Pentagon reports read like auto-repair manuals.

The labels have evolved following 9/11, bouncing among various candidates. “Combatants” sounded too legalistic, and “fighters” too pugilistic. So “warrior” took the early lead. It is now threaded throughout the U.S. military, from the Army’s “Warrior Ethos” to the Pentagon’s “Warrior Games,” where wounded vets play wheelchair basketball and other sports.

“Wounded Warrior” outfits sprouted up as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on. “Historically, veterans who were wounded in war were commonly known as disabled veterans, but ‘wounded warrior’ latches on to the most sacred military symbol, the warrior, and re-purposes it,” sociologist Sidra Montgomery noted in a 2018 study. “Curiously, the term has only been used to describe those who have served in the post-9/11 era; it is not used for other generations of wounded veterans, like Vietnam-era veterans.” (The term has caused its own headaches, because the U.S. government’s Wounded Warrior units, which mend ailing, ahem, troops, also include wounded warriors who aren‘t wounded in combat. And don’t confuse them with the non-profit Wounded Warrior Project.)

The latest nom-du-jour-pour-troupe is “warfighter.” The Pentagon embraces the term because it suggests the 1.3 million active duty U.S. troops have only one job — winning wars — and not all those other things, like peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, that consume most of their time. “Agency Delivers Thanksgiving Meals to Warfighters,” a November 21 Pentagon headline reads. And it often crops up in defense contractors’ radio advertisements hyping hardware (a downside to living in and around the nation’s capital).

Following World War II, Congress, sensitive to public opinion, changed the Department of War’s name to the less-bellicose Department of Defense. Seventy-five years later, it may be time to replace warfighter with defender.

Now, if we can only figure out what to do about Arlington Cemetery’s multi-service Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


Here’s what has caught The Bunker's eye recently

ZEUS Alors!

The Navy has launched the Zumwalt Enterprise Upgrade Solution (ZEUS) to try to improve its flubbed fleet of three Zumwalt-class destroyers (cost: $8 billion apiece), Justin Katz reported November 22 at Breaking Defense.

Follow the money…

The new Congress is likely to push for better tracking of the billions in U.S. aid to Ukraine, the Washington Post said November 27, echoing a call made by Danielle Brian, chief here at the Project On Government Oversight, six months ago.

Lightning strikes twice

The Air Force’s F-35 Lightning II remains barred from flying within 25 miles of lightning, Breaking Defense’s Valerie Insinna reported November 21.

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