If truth is the first casualty of war, perhaps language is the second. I am thinking about “troop,” a veteran English word that is daily misused by the media. As I write this, for example, the USA Today Web site carries a headline “Military: Eight American troops killed in Iraq.” The story begins: “Iraq's prime minister and two top American officials flew to the blistering western desert … hours before the military reported the deaths of eight U.S. troops.”
According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the noun “troop” indicates either a great many or a group of people, animals, or things. More specifically, it may designate a group of soldiers, a fighting unit (such as a cavalry troop), or a unit of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts under an adult leader. In the plural, it refers to soldiers or military units. In strict usage, if eight American troops were killed, then a very substantial massacre occurred, perhaps involving 100 or more individuals.
Whatever a “troop” is, it is not an individual. One would certainly not say that a cavalry troop consisted of twenty troops or that Boy Scout Troop 16 has 25 troops. We do not see wives on television fretting over their husbands deployed to Iraq and saying, “I pray that my troop comes home safely.” And I have never heard a soldier refer to “my fellow troops.”
Why, then, is “troop” regularly, if erroneously, used in news reports to refer to individuals? Certainly, in times past, we would hear of our “soldiers,” “men,” or “boys” being casualties of war. In Iraq, however, the casualties may not all be male, and they may come from different services. An infantryman and a marine cannot really be described as “soldiers.” If speaking of similar individuals, one can imagine reporters using “soldiers,” “sailors,” “marines,” “airmen,” or even “men.” “Boys” is more problematic these days, and, if African-Americans are being referred to, is completely unacceptable. “Girls” would offend women, and it must be said that reporting the death of “two of our women” carries some emotional baggage not entailed by “two of our men.”
The obvious general words that could be used all starkly emphasize what our troops—I use the word properly here—are really about: “warriors,” “fighters,” or “combatants.” Other possibilities abandon objectivity or indulge in irony: “aggressors,” “occupiers,” “referees,“ “peacekeepers,” “nation-builders,” or “hapless victims of President Bush’s obsession.”
One can see why reporters continue to misuse “troops.”