The military is considered a tough, professional, and no-nonsense organization by American civilians. Still, some of the military’s tactical expressions and acronyms, which are a language of their own, can be completely confusing to civilians. And then there are the expressions and acronyms that have either been stolen by civilians or carried over by troops who have returned to civilian life.
Military and Tactical Expressions
Rank is irrelevant when it comes to these sayings. They are used up and down the military structure from the lowliest private in Basic Training to general officers.
And don’t think that only the American public is confused by them. I once had a foreign officer, who spoke fluent English, come up to me and tell me he was compiling a dictionary of American military slang.
So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s our list of military and tactical expressions.
Boots on the Ground
First used in the U.S. during the Iran hostage crisis, it is used to denote combat troops on the ground in a hostile area. President Obama frequently used the expression as did Presidents Trump and Biden.
The expression was looked upon derisively by many special operations troops who were deployed into harm’s way, but would hear people in Washington state, “we have no ‘boots on the ground’ in country A.” To this, they’d often reply, “Really MFer? What are we… invisible?”
Smoking and Joking
This one is frequently used by sergeant majors in the Army and Marine Corps denoting troops that aren’t doing anything particularly useful. The expressino is used to threaten such troops through their immediate superiors. “Don’t let me catch your troops standing around ‘smokin’ and jokin’ or I’ll find them something to do.”
Buy the Farm
This is one of the expressions that have been carried over to the civilian world. “Buy the farm” means to die.
No one exactly how this expression came to be. Some believe that it originated from the military paying a farmer when an aircraft would crash in his field. Others believe that when a pilot would die in a crash, the GI insurance paid out to the family would pay for the family farm. It was also used in John Wayne’s The Green Berets; (fast forward to the 56-second mark in the video below).
Getting the ‘Green Weenie’
This is a term for getting royally screwed over by the military in any way or fashion. It could mean getting the worst possible assignment. For example, “Yeah I put in for Okinawa, and they put me in SWC (Special Warfare Center) as an instructor, they totally gave me the green weenie. “
Or if an operation goes wrong, the troops believe that leadership will single out a lower-ranking troop or NCO for punishment. “Yeah, that operation was wrong from the start but they’ll pick someone to get the green weenie to cover their a$$.”
Here is another one that has transitioned from the military to the civilian world. This expression means to be criticized or punished for committing some sort of infraction or failing to accomplish something.
The origin of this expression is well known. Army Air Corps pilots fighting the Germans during World War II would talk about the heavy flak (Fliegerabwehrkanonen), or anti-aircraft artillery, that Germans would target them with. The flak was incredibly thick over Germany itself.
These expressions also originated from World War II. They mean “Situation Normal, All F***ed Up” and “F***ed up Beyond All Recognition.” SNAFU has become part of the civilian vocabulary as well.
The Army even made instructional videos/cartoons during WWII. These featured Private Snafu, who was voiced by Mel Blanc, the voice behind Bugs Bunny.
Screw the Pooch/F*** the Dog
The latter expression was initially used by NCOs describing lazy soldiers who were idling around trying to get out of doing any kind of meaningful work. Later the term was changed to the former expression as something or someone who has done something horribly wrong.
This first expression is now widely used by military and civilians alike. (See for example the Afghanistan exit and planning.)
Football Bat/Soup Sandwich
This is used to either criticize an order that makes no sense or to denote a worthless individual.
“This operation was a total soup sandwich, who thought this s**t up?” “That dude is more f***ed up than a football bat.”
Watch Your Six
This tactical expression means to “watch your back.” The military uses the direction of movement as the face of a clock. The direction a unit is moving is the 12 o’clock position, so the 6 o’clock is at the unit’s rear.
A worthless individual who constantly screws up and is a detriment to the unit as a whole.
A soldier who does not serve with the troops in the field and is frequently referred to as “in the rear with the gear.” Being called a Pogue/POG is the worst insult (other than oxygen thief) that one can be called while around troops in combat arms.
For brevity, oftentimes troops use the phonetic alphabet to communicate coded or shortened messages. Bravo Zulu means “well done.”
Another phonetic alphabet message this tactical expression means “continue the mission.”
Speaking of tactical expressions! This artful expression means to steal something, usually much-needed equipment or supplies that a unit doesn’t have access to.
“Where did your troops get those widgets?”
“No worries, sir, we sent out a search party and were able to tactically acquire them from the Navy.”
Another acronym that can be used with SNAFU, FUBAR, or the Green Weenie. It means, “Bend Over, Here It Comes Again.”
A few years ago, I wrote a story about stenciling “BOHICA” on equipment while in the 7th SFG.
I saved the worst of the military and tactical expressions for last. Personally, I always hated that expression. The different services have their own version of “hooah” and it also has different spellings.
“Hooah” can mean just about anything. It can mean “I hear you and will comply;” alternatively, you can use it to express your motivation. It can also be used to express derision for someone who is trying to shine when the leadership is around. “Oh look at Snuffy, isn’t he totally Hooah this morning when the Old Man is around for training.”
While I was an instructor in Special Forces Assessment and Selection, we banned the use of the term for the candidates, and it was akin to tying the hands of my family members at a gathering. No one was able to find the words to communicate.