The language of war

On 26 February 2009, novelist and journalist Nick McDowell began his embed with the United States Army’s 1st Cavalry Division in Mosul, northern Iraq. He was to spend two weeks researching a report for Time magazine and his book The End of Major Combat Operations. Most of that time was spent accompanying the units he was assigned to on counterinsurgency missions and grappling with a language he had no understanding of – military slang. A common experience among journalists new to the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq is their shock at how difficult it is to understand not what the locals are saying, but the coalition forces.

While some military jargon may have entered common parlance through its use in film and video games, for the most part the staggering array of acronyms and nicknames can be bewildering to the layman. During his brief tour with the First ID (1st Infantry Division) McDowell relied heavily on Sergeant Gustavo Nogueira (‘Gu’) as an interpreter. Nogueira was a dual Brazilian/US citizen whose mother, an undocumented worker, worked as a housecleaner in Boston. Any thoughts McDowell had of his patois being informed by TV shows like The Wire were quickly dispelled. In The Wire, which might as well be a war series, a burner is a pre-paid mobile phone that is used to conduct narcotics transactions prior to being discarded. In Iraq and Afghanistan, a burner is a gun.

Burners are mostly aimed at Hajji. In Arabic this word is an indication of piety and used to refer to someone who has made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. In Iraq, the Americans use Hajji as a collective term for ‘enemy’, just as they used ‘Charlie’ in Vietnam, or ‘Jerry’ in World War Two. Most of the everyday slang used by soldiers is relatively simple. Vehicles are victors, planes are birds, helicopters are helos (though the Blackhawk is so easy to shoot down infantrymen awaiting dust-off refer to them as Crash-hawks). Heavy-duty armoured victors are called MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected) – hopefully enough to withstand the explosion of an IED.

Improvised Explosive Devices are the main source of casualties among coalition forces and have become a media buzzword in the wake of films like The Hurt Locker, although terminology has become more specific in the time since Kathryn Bigelow’s movie was released. More common are VBIEDs (Vehicle-Borne IEDs) or SVBIEDs (Suicide Vehicle-Born IEDs). COIN is a generic term for Counterinsurgency, an ironic link to the actual ‘coins’ that LTCs (Lieutenant Colonels) award to soldiers who have taken contact; in other words, been fired upon by often unseen assailants. Medals are generally only awarded when lives have been lost or saved.

McDowell’s exposure to American military language was limited by his short embed. Vanity Fair writer Sebastian Junger spent much longer living with soldiers for his documentary Restrepo, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, which was made into a George Clooney vehicle in 2000, spent almost a year in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley embedded with the 503rd Infantry Regiment. Accompanied by photographer Tim Hetherington, they gathered footage for their documentary at remote firebase Restrepo, named after Private Juan Restrepo, the medic who was the first American to die there. Restrepo is the most advanced US military outpost in Afghanistan, perched precariously on the side of a mountain range that ends in Pakistan. Taliban forces attack the outpost constantly. Munitions pour across the border under cover of dense forest and impenetrable rock. If Osama bin Laden is alive or exists at all, this is where he is likely to be ensconced. The Korengal Valley is currently one of the most dangerous places in the world.

In such a deadly environment, there are, predictably, a lot of slang military terms denoting disaster:

FUBAR – Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition
FUBB – Fucked Up Beyond Belief
FUGAZI – Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In (as in, zipped into a body bag)
DILLIGAFF – Do I Look Like I Give A Flying Fuck
LLMF – Lost Like a Motherfucker
NFG – No Fucking Good
SOS – Same Old Shit
SNAFU – Situation Normal, All Fucked Up
SSDD – Same Shit Different Day
SFUS – Standard Fucked Up Situation
TARFU – Things Are Really Fucked Up
YMRASU – Yes, My Retarded Ass Signed Up (USARMY backwards)
WTF – What The Fuck (said as ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ on radios)

Part of the reasoning behind the creation of acronyms for this excessive foul language is that soldiers are technically not permitted to swear over the radio to ensure information is relayed clearly. There is, also, a sexualisation of language that is equal parts amusing and disturbing.

BCD – Birth Control Device (refers to Army-issue eyeglasses)
Hard Leg – Penis
Cock Holster – Mouth

Other usages are more inventive. 7.62 Poisoning indicates being shot by an AK-47, which fire 7.62 calibre bullets. Ackbar defines a person who acts heroically in a trying situation, keeping their head to organise others. (This is based on the character of Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi, who leads the Rebel Alliance in an assault against the Death Star.) Green Meanies are what regular soldiers call Green Berets, as training by these men is often fraught with difficulty. Alpha’d indicates being harassed. Tracking means understanding, i.e. ‘I’m tracking you now.’ Oscar Mike means ‘on the move’. I got your six indicates that you ‘have someone’s back’ or are monitoring attack from the rear. Death Blossom is used to describe how Afghani Army forces react in combat, by shooting their weapons randomly in all directions rather than aiming at a specific target, often resulting in friendly fire casualties. (This expression has its provenance in the 1984 science fiction movie The Last Starfighter, in which a video game expert is recruited into an alien space fleet to fight an invading armada. ‘Death Blossom’ is his last resort weapon used to take out as many of the enemy as possible.) Perhaps the most casually terrifying term however is FISH and CHIPS, commonly employed in urban combat zones – Fighting In Someone’s House and Causing Havoc In People’s Streets.

Junger’s documentary presents the realities of everyday life in a combat zone without passing judgement. The Taliban are an elusive presence throughout the feature, never glimpsed by the ragged men of the 503rd Infantry, despite coming under fire every day. The mood among the soldiers is one of frustrated confusion. The reasoning for being in such a hostile place remains obscure to them: the locals do not want them there and the enemy is an unseen, unknown force whom they cannot negotiate or reason with. Their creation of a new language is a coping mechanism, a means of owning a conflict that makes no sense and seemingly has no end.

The absurdity of FISH and CHIPS ops is summed up in one telling scene. A Chinook transport helo takes contact while dropping off supplies to OP Restrepo. Muzzle flashes are sighted coming from the top window of a house at the edge of the insurgent-held village of Laui Kalay. Deemed to be foshizzlehajizzle (for sure Hajji) by a soldier who has glassed the location (sighted it through binoculars) fiddies (fifty-calibre machine guns) are put on Red Con One in an attempt to schwack (kill) the enemy, peppering the house with rounds. An hour later, when a crash-hawk drops off the battalion sergeant major and also comes under fire, the Apache gunship escort swoops down to investigate. When the same individual fires at the Apache, compliments surface on the lips of the men at OP Restrepo. Firing an AK-47 at an Apache is akin to throwing sticks at a dragon. The Apache unleashes a stream of cannon fire at the window, shaking the house. After a moment’s silence, the individual pops up again to shoot back at the helicopter. ‘Jesus,’ one of the soldiers mutters, ‘that takes balls.’

The Apache makes several more passes, pouring 30 calibre rounds into the house before eventually giving up and flying away. Once the dust settles the people in the building, made from dense shelf rock and huge cedar timbers, emerge onto the roof to stare up at the men of Restrepo, their immovable object having just met America’s unstoppable force, everyone acutely aware that in such a contest there can be no winner.

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