Rallying the troops, tallying their losses

Military casualty reports can be confusing if you don't have the scoop on 'troops.'

Quite a number of readers have written in to ask about the use of the word troops in news reports. Well, two is a number.

The question is just how many make up a "troop" – and how many make up "troops." When we talk about "potentially 140,000 troops in Afghanistan," that's 140,000 individuals. But an individual is not "a troop."

Dictionaries define "a troop" as "a group of soldiers." Specifically, a troop is "an armored cavalry unit that corresponds to a company of infantry." That is, 62 to 190 soldiers.

But civilian news consumers seldom encounter this usage. Instead, in the drip, drip, drip of daily casualty reports, they hear things like "three troops killed." This may sound to some like three groups of whatever size, rather than three individuals. Clearly, it would be better to specify "three soldiers" or "three marines." But that's not always possible. So news organizations, including the Monitor, resort to "troops" as an umbrella term for all military personnel,

To make the case for this usage: News organizations have to track reports from many places where personnel from different service branches are deployed in various combinations. In today's equal-opportunity armed services, you can't just say how many "men" were lost. Neither can you say "soldiers" to refer to military personnel generally.

Monitor style is to uppercase the names of service branches (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) but to lowercase the terms for individual service members: soldier, seaman, airman, and marine.

We sometimes hear from former marines who want to see marine capped, even when it refers to individuals and not the branch. But the Marines are a special case. "Marines" refers to both the name of the branch and the people who make it up. People in the Army, by contrast, are not individually known as armies. Nor are those in the Navy known as navies.

I recall from the Patrick O'Brian seafaring novels, however, that sailors were designated by the name of their ship, e.g., crew of the HMS Surprise would be referred to as "Surprises," which I find somehow endearing: "Five Surprises were rescued," or whatever.

Extending that principle to the HMS Sparrow, another (actual) ship of that period, I suppose that any crewmen lost from that vessel might be known as fallen Sparrows.

Reading between the lines of one reader's message, I think she wants to see usages that express compassion for losses without exaggerating their extent.

Not long ago I had occasion to track down the number of casualties at Verdun. This World War I battle raged for most of 1916 in an ancient French fortress town 150 miles northeast of Paris. The Germans' plan was to "bleed France white." But they lost quite a bit of blood themselves. And neither side gained any strategic or tactical advantage.

Many have estimated the death toll there at 700,000. That's the equivalent of the entire population of the city I live in, Boston, plus that of our university neighbor across the river, Cambridge.

War is still hell. But I like to think that if we got into a battle like that today, we'd at least have a better idea of how many we'd lost. We still need a better term than "troops" to refer to single-digit numbers of losses. But I'm grateful that those numbers are no bigger than they are.

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