The Peculiar Language of Soldiers

What jargon says about armies, and the societies they serve

Toy soldiers in a police station occupied by U.S. soldiers and Afghan National Police in Kandahar City, Afghanistan (Rodrigo Abd / AP)

JERUSALEM—“We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” Listening to the Israeli military frequencies when I was an infantryman nearly two decades ago, it was (and still is) possible to hear sentences like these, the bewildering cousins of sentences familiar to anyone following America’s present-day wars. “Vegas is in a TIC,” says a U.S. infantryman in Afghanistan in Sebastian Junger’s book War. What does it all mean?

Anyone seeking to understand the world needs to understand soldiers, but the language of soldiers tends to be bizarre and opaque, an apt symbol for the impossibility of communicating their experiences to people safe at home. The language isn’t nonsense—it means something to the soldiers, of course, but it also has something to say about the army and society to which they belong, and about the shared experience of military service anywhere. The soldiers’ vernacular must provide words for things that civilians don’t need to describe, like grades of officers and kinds of weapons. But it has deeper purposes too.

I was drafted into the Israeli army in 1997, when I was 19, having moved to Israel from Canada a few years before. I served until 2000. In those years Israel controlled a strip of Lebanese land along the Israeli border and fought a long war there with guerrillas from Hezbollah—a war which involved IEDs, videotaped hit-and-run attacks, and the wearing down of a modern military by Muslim guerrillas operating in a failed state. It was thus a prologue of sorts to the kind of warfare Americans have seen in the 21st century. (I just spent a few years writing a book about it.) When I happened to land in this conflict after high school, I found a hazardous reality described not just with the usual acronyms and numbers—“APC,” “81 mm”—and with the energetic obscenities one would expect, but with a language that seemed drawn from a horticultural handbook.

The sentence with which I opened means, “We have two wounded and one dead. We need a helicopter.” At the army’s isolated outposts inside Lebanon in the ’90s you heard a lot about something called “Buttercup,” a radar that alerted us to incoming mortar shells, and also about the “Artichoke,” a night-vision system for tank gunners. Not much in our verbal arsenal was warlike—not our call-signs, the names of our bases, or the names of our weapons. There was very little in the spirit of “Hellfire” or “Predator,” names of a U.S. missile and drone.  Our base, a rectangle of trenches and machine guns, was called Outpost Pumpkin. The artillery battery that helped us out when necessary was called Sycamore. Near us were outposts Basil, Citrus, and Red Pepper.

In the Israeli army you’ll occasionally find aggressive names like “Samson,” for an infantry battalion, but it’s not common. There is a unit of soldiers sent undercover after terrorists; it’s called “Cherry.” Another elite outfit is “Pomegranate.” And the infantry is replacing the M-16, the American rifle with its cold scientific designation, with an Israeli one that has a typical Israeli name—“Tavor,” a pretty hill in Galilee.

What does this say about Israel’s military? Perhaps something about the agricultural preoccupations of the kibbutz and of the socialist militias that spawned the army in the early years of the state. Even after he became the country’s most famous general and the defense minister in the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan used to say his profession was “farmer,” the point being that war was to be treated as something you were forced to do though you’d rather be plowing. This is still close to what I experienced as the Israeli military’s ideal approach to soldiering or command. The brigade where I served, the Fighting Pioneer Youth, was once responsible for farm work as well as military missions, and though this isn’t true anymore the brigade’s emblem still features a sickle and a sheaf of wheat.

According to the Israeli linguist Ruvik Rosenthal, author of a recent book on military language, the floral euphemisms reflect the fact that while Israelis recognize the necessity of war, they don’t celebrate it and would rather not think about it. The fact of the country’s mandatory draft means that people are too close to the army to wax romantic about the institution or what it does. There are no military parades here and haven’t been for years. So though as soldiers we did violence and had violence done to us, we were armed with peaceful language. A forward operating base sounds dangerous; a “pumpkin” doesn’t. And what harm could be done by something called an “artichoke”?

The origins of a military language, particularly one spoken over the radio, Rosenthal said, lie in a practical need for secrecy and brevity. But, at least in the Israeli army, the language isn’t secret and many of the code words—like prachim, flowers, for ptzu’im, casualties—are no shorter than the word they’re hiding. The explanation lies elsewhere. “This is partly about beautifying things—a ‘flower’ is prettier than a wounded soldier,” said Rosenthal, who lost his only brother in the 1973 war. “And it’s partly about expressing the discomfort that the country feels with war and with the military.”

The jargon I spoke during the years of my service differs from what I know of the language of American troops, some of which seems to embrace, rather than obscure, the violence required of them. This is a different but very reasonable way to deal with it. Brian Castner’s memoir The Long Walk, which recounts his time defusing bombs in Iraq, features squads with call-signs like “Cougar,” “Bayonet,” and “Psycho”—names that make their members feel scary, which is preferable to feeling scared. At the same time, some of the more perilous and awful parts of the soldiers’ lives are concealed under acronyms of bureaucratic triviality: a “VBIED” sounds a lot safer than a car bomb, for example. A “KIA” might be a tax form rather than a human being killed in action.

“I thought it was human nature, but maybe it’s just an American thing?” Castner said when I asked him about this. “We’re full of bravado when alive, but we shirk from the word when killed. When a wounded soldier dies on the medevac back to base, helicopter crews say they have a ‘hero’ on board. And later, we don't send that dead American home in a coffin. We fly back ‘remains’ in ‘transfer cases.’”

I recently read Barney Campbell’s 2015 novel Rain, about British soldiers in Afghanistan, where Campbell served as an officer with the Household Cavalry. His characters speak a clinical language similar to that of the Americans, using acronyms like “KIA.” British soldiers in the field also refer to dead comrades as “T4,” Campbell told me, and to the badly wounded as “T1,” identifying the people in question over the radio never by their names but by a mix of letters and serial numbers. “So it’s ‘Charlie Alpha 6243 is T1,’ not ‘Tom’s lost his legs,’” Campbell said. “You need the jargon so that an 18-year-old can say it and not be overwhelmed by what he’s saying.”

Much of the language of Campbell’s troops is in the American tradition, down to call-signs like “Tomahawk,” but here and there he describes stabs at a distinct identity. The troops’ vehicles are called “Scimitars,” for example, a name with echoes of swashbuckling Oriental exploration and conquest in the old British style, more dashing than American vehicle names like “Bradley.” As Campbell’s fictional soldiers embark on an operation against insurgents, the commander insists “on a bit of Britishness in the proceedings,” so the phases of the operation are named “Bow,” “Arrow,” “Spear,” “Chariot,” and “Sword,” the weapons from William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem.”

This is an example of how language can add some dignity to grim business, and by doing so becomes an intangible but important weapon in a soldier’s mental arsenal. My uncle Colin Affleck, who served around the world as a peacekeeper during a career in the Canadian military, spent time at a base on Cyprus called OP Vimy, named for the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a heroic success by the Canadians in France in World War I. A base used in the NATO intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s was FB Ortona, named for a Canadian assault in Italy in 1943. These names signal to soldiers that they aren’t just peons in some squalid huddle of tents and wire, but part of a grander story.

Names can also make a threatening landscape seem less so. Colin remembers patrolling with an FN rifle near the Suez Canal in Egypt, a bewildering place for a young man from Ontario—but the road he was on had been named Moose Route. Later he found himself on a route which cut through the war zone in Bosnia, and which the Canadians called Maple. The British soldiers of Campbell’s novel, for their part, get around Helmand Province on routes named Bristol, Glasgow, and Canterbury. The sentence that Sebastian Junger overheard in Afghanistan, “Vegas is in a TIC,” refers to an outpost named for Las Vegas which was engaged in a battle (“troops in contact”).

Sometimes an army’s linguistic exertions yield gleams of strange poetry. To describe lethal attacks by Afghan troops against Americans, for example, someone came up with “green-on-blue,” which has to be one of the only beautiful things to come of the Global War on Terror. (The term originates in the colors used to signify friendly and neutral forces on military maps.) The loveliest example I can remember from my time as a soldier at Outpost Pumpkin referred to the daily alert that had us up every morning before first light, peering over sandbags until sunrise in case guerrillas attacked. This ritual could have been called Morning Alert or some forgettable acronym. Instead, it was called “Readiness with Dawn.” It’s as unwieldy in the original Hebrew as in the English, yet it never succumbed to abbreviation. That odd “with” was never dropped.

“Readiness with Dawn” was a reminder—or so it seems to me years later—that not everything must be utilitarian. There was another world out there where some inconvenient beauty might be allowed in, a place where flowers were flowers. You’d get back there. The body had sandbags and the soul had words, and together all of it would get you through to the other side.

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