Boots on the Ground: Shorthand or Subterfuge?


In his September 10, 2014 address explaining the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), President Obama spoke to airstrikes, support to the Iraqi military and the Syrian opposition, counterterrorism activities, and humanitarian assistance[i].  Since the President’s address, there has been debate whether this strategy should include “boots on the ground.”  This phrase is imprecise, and it means different things to different people.  As such, it confuses the debate among stakeholders and citizens.  In order to alleviate confusion, and ensure proper oversight, both a clearer definition and a joint congressional committee should be established in law.

The earliest use of the phrase “boots on the ground” can be traced to Army General Volney F. Warner during the 1980 Iranian Hostage Crisis[ii].  Although times have clearly changed since General Warner’s day, in the present case of Iraq and ISIL, one must ask:  “What does ‘boots on the ground’ mean?”  Does it refer to the presence of military members in Iraq?  If so, one could say the U.S. currently has boots on the ground in terms of the purportedly 1,600 military members deployed there[iii].  Is the phrase somehow related to the mission of a military unit being sent to Iraq, or is it focused on what mission that unit will perform when it arrives?  In that case, the deployment of 200 Soldiers from an infantry division is interesting as a traditional infantry mission is “to close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver in order to destroy or capture him, or to repel his assault with fire, close combat, and counterattack,” whereas these relatively few Soldiers, when deployed to Iraq, will “staff the Joint Operations Center and provide command and control of U.S. troops in the country[iv] [v].”  From Congress’ point of view, does any of the above meet the criteria of the War Powers Resolution?  This resolution speaks to the “introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities” though it leaves the term “hostilities” undefined[vi].  In the case of Iraq and ISIL, although the U.S. Armed Forces may not have a primary purpose of engaging in “direct ground combat,” I submit that hostilities are present[vii].

boots on the ground

What else can or does “boots on the ground” include?  Does the presence of Department of Defense (DoD) civilian employees or contractors count?  What about non-DoD civilian employees and contractors in Iraq operating at the U.S. Embassy under Chief of Mission authority[viii]?  What about personnel not located in Iraq but whose primary purpose is to conduct activities in support of the President’s ISIL strategy?  From a budgetary and oversight standpoint, how does one track the entirety of the Executive Branch’s efforts against ISIL, with activities and funding lines spread across multiple departments, agencies, and Congressional committees?  The answer lies in the establishment of a definition and a joint congressional committee.


Rather than use the imprecise shorthand of “boots on the ground,” or limiting the discussion to the DoD,  I suggest the following definition which borrows language from Chief of Mission authority, the definition of “contingency operation” in 10 U.S. Code section 101 [ix], and Section 1208 of the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act [x]:

“The term ‘national security activity’ means any activity conducted by executive branch employees or contractors to address threats posed to United States interests by foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals.”

This proposed definition focuses on the conduct of activities rather than organization, authority, funding, geographic location, or whether the threat is posed by a traditional armed force to be fought on a battlefield or an asymmetric threat to be addressed worldwide.

Oversight would be provided by the Joint Congressional Committee on National Security Activities.  Harkening back to language from the Atomic Energy Act of 1946[xi], which established the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, I envision:

“There is hereby established a Joint Committee on National Security Activities to be composed of nine Members of the Senate to be appointed by the Senate Majority Leader, and nine Members of the House of Representatives to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  In each instance not more than five members shall be members of the same political party.  The joint committee shall make continuing studies of national security activities, the personnel that support them, and problems relating to the strategic planning and execution of such activities.  All bills, resolutions, and other matters in the Senate or the House of Representatives relating primarily to national security activities shall be referred to the joint committee.”

The adoption of a single, authoritative definition and the establishment of a joint congressional committee would go a long way towards addressing the current confusion surrounding the imprecise shorthand of “boots on the ground,” and enable better oversight of whole-of-government efforts to address threats.  Words have meaning.  Precision is important, especially when threats are present, and lives are at risk.


[i] Transcript: President Obama’s Speech on Combating ISIS and Terrorism. (2014, September 10). Retrieved October 12, 2014, from

[ii] Safire, W. (2008, November 8). Let’s Do This. Retrieved October 25, 2014, from

[iii] Whitlock, C. (2014, September 19). Army chief of staff says U.S. may need more troops in Iraq. Retrieved October 25, 2014, from

[iv] The Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad (FM 3-21.8). (2007, March). Retrieved November 9, 2014, from

[v] Sheftick, G. (2014, September 25). ARMY.MIL, The Official Homepage of the United States Army. Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

[vi] 50 U.S. Code § 1541 – Purpose and policy. (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2014, from

[vii] Aspen, L. (1994, January 13). Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule. Retrieved October 25, 2014, from

[viii] 22 U.S. Code § 3927 – Chief of mission. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2014, from

[ix] 10 U.S. Code § 101 – Definitions. (n.d.). Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

[x] Section 1208 of Public Law 108–375. (2004, October 28). Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

[xi] Nuse, J. (1965, January 1). Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Retrieved November 29, 2014, from