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13 military phrases that sound ridiculous when used in politics

Politicians hold important positions of power, but their job looks boring as hell. Politicians and political writers like to spice up their stories by using military language like "ambush" while describing a heated discussion at the country club, or "the nuclear option" to explain a change in procedural rules in Congress.


The language definitely spices up the stories, but it sounds ridiculous to people who have actually been ambushed or had to contemplate a true nuclear option. Here are 13 terms that make politicians sound melodramatic.

1. Ambush

Photo: US Army Sgt. Daniel Johnson

An ambush is a surprise attack launched from a concealed position against an unsuspecting enemy. Some politicians have been ambushed like Julias Caesar or Charles Sumner. But this term gets used to describe things like Republicans proposing a law the Democrats don't like. That's not an ambush. It's just the legislative process.

2. Bite the bullet

Associated with battlefield medicine before anesthetic, to "bite the bullet" is to face down adversity without showing fear or pain. The term is thought to come from battlefield wounded biting bullets to make it through surgery while fully awake. Obviously, politicians on a committee finally doing their jobs shouldn't be equated with soldiers enduring traumatic medical treatment without anesthesia.

3. Boots on the ground

Photo: US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Andrew D. Thorburn

Boots on the ground has a relatively short history that the BBC investigated. Surprise, it's a military term. It is used by politicians and most senior military to refer to troops specifically deployed in a ground combat role. "Boots on the ground" numbers don't generally count Marines guarding embassies or Special Forces advising foreign governments.

What's surprising is that, though the term is used so narrowly when referring to military operations, it's used so broadly when referring to political volunteers. Any group of college students knocking on doors or putting up pamphlets can be called "boots-on-the-ground," even if the volunteers are all wearing tennis shoes and flip-flops.

4. D-Day

Not every "D-Day" for the military is the Normandy landings of 1944, but D-Day is still a big deal. It's the day an operation will kick off, when after months of planning some troops will assault an enemy village or begin a bombing campaign of hostile military bases. In politics, the terms is used to describe election day. This is weird to vets for two reasons. First, D-Day is the first day of an operation, while election day is the final day of an election campaign. But worse, D-Day is when friendly and enemy troops will meet in combat, killing each other. For politicians, it's when they get a new job or find out they better update their resume.

5. Front lines

The forward most units of a military force, pressed as close to the enemy's army as the commander will allow, form the frontline. This is typically a physically dangerous place to be, since that means they're generally within enemy rifle and artillery range. Contrast that with politicians "on the front lines," who may sit next to their "enemy" and exchange nothing more lethal than passive-aggressive banter.

6. In the crosshairs

Photo: US Marine Corps Cpl. Ryan Walker

Obvious to anyone who has used a rifle scope or watched a sniper movie, someone who is in the crosshairs is in peril of being shot very soon. Political parties who are sparring in the media do not typically find their leaders, "in the enemy's crosshairs," as Sarah Palin wrote in a Facebook post according to the Associated Press. Political parties generally fight through press releases and tweets, significantly less dangerous than using rifles.

7. In the trenches

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ernest Brooks

Politicians love to describe themselves as veterans who have spent years in the trenches. Trenches aren't used much in modern warfare, mostly because of just how horrible trenches are even for a winning army. Trenches fill with water, bugs, and rats. They're claustrophobic and are easily targeted by enemy artillery and bombers, so they're a dangerous defense to stay in. Politicians spend very little time in these. When politicians say they were "in the trenches," they're generally referring to fundraisers at local restaurants. Oh, the horror.

8. Line of fire

The Guardian once published an article titled "General in the line of fire," which sounds bloody and dangerous, but is actually about a bunch of attorney generals experiencing harsh criticism, not incoming rounds. The line of fire is the area where all the bullets are flying as enemies try to kill someone. Political lines of fire are just where reporters are asking a lot of hard questions.

9. Nuclear option

Photo: Department of Defense

Putin has a nuclear option. The U.S. Senate has some control over a nuclear option. However, when Congress changed the rules for a fillibuster, that wasn't the nuclear option. That was a change in procedural bylaws. It's easy to tell the difference. One destroys entire cities in moments. The other makes it harder to block a presidential nominee for office.

10. Scorched-Earth

scorched-earth political campaign is when a politician is willing to break alliances to win. True scorched earth though, comes when an army breaches the enemy border and starts destroying everything in their path. Atlanta suffered real scorched earth when Maj. Gen. William Sherman burnt the city nearly to the ground while destroying railroads on his way to Savannah.

11. Shock and awe

Like "blitzkrieg" and "all-out war" before it, "shock and awe" is now a popular phrase for describing a political struggle where one side has engaged every asset at their disposal. However, when political fights actually reach the level of blitzkriegs or Operation Shock and Awe, that's called a civil war. When a politician is spending a bunch of money or smearing an opponent, that's called campaigning. Completely different things.

12. Take no prisoners

Combat soldiers frequently have to decide whether to try and take prisoners or kill anyone who doesn't immediately surrender. Politicians, however, should never be in a situation where they decide to take no prisoners. They have an office job. They should only be deciding whether to take a phone call, or whether to take a dump.

13. The War Room/The Situation Room

James Carville and George Stephanopoulos ran President Bill Clinton's "War Room" for the 1992 elections while Wolf Blitzer anchors the news for CNN from The Situation Room, which CNN describes as "The command center for breaking news." First, while Clinton's 1992 run was tumultuous, nothing going into the War Room was on par with combat operations. Second, Wolf Blitzer is not the commander of anything. He's a photogenic TV personality. Carville was in a political strategy room. Blitzer works in a newsroom.

NOW: 15 cliches every military recruit from Texas hears in basic training >

OR: 35 technical errors in 'Rules of Engagement' >

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