Afghanistan’s Battlefield Slang.

War slang is always interesting; I’m familiar with the lexicon of Vietnam (being the grandfatherly baby boomer that I am), but I wasn’t up on the equivalent for UK troops in Afghanistan, so I was glad to find this BBC News piece. Soldiers, like mathematicians and jazz musicians, are masters at brilliant repurposing of ordinary words, e.g.:

ALLY Term for a battlefield fashionista – desirables include having a beard, using a different rifle, carrying vast amounts of ammunition, being dusty and having obscene amounts of tattoos and hair. Special forces are automatically Ally.
[N.b.: This does not actually belong under this heading; as ajay explains in the comments, it is not the word ally but an abbreviation for alumin(i)um, and rhymes with “valley.”]

CROW New soldier recently out of training. Hardly a term of endearment.

And abbreviations are always in fashion: HLS Helicopter Landing Site, IDF Indirect fire, TIC Troops in Contact (used to relay over radio when troops come under fire). But they don’t explain the origin of BARMA “Drills and procedures for searching for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), normally using a vallon detector”; anybody know?

Comments

  1. “Ally” apparently comes from “aluminium”. The British Army used to issue enamelled-steel mess kits – except to the airborne troops, for whom weight was crucial, and who got aluminium instead. Now, the paras (as the article notes) have always thought of themselves as a cut above the rest. So aluminium mess tins (or “ally”) were the thing to have – they were lighter, and they implied that their owner was a para, or an ex-para, or had trained with the paras, or in some way had come close enough to acquire their mess tins and (by extension) some of their mystique. You were, in fact, a bit “ally airborne”, which became shortened to “ally”. (Pronounced to rhyme with “valley”, not as in the singular of “allies”, by the way.)

    “Crow” for a recruit I don’t know, but I would guess it might have something to do with Crowborough Camp in south-east England, where I think army recruits used to be trained. Like “ally” it’s not specifically Afghan, it’s been in use for decades.

    “Ugly” was not only the nickname for Apache gunships, but actually their callsign: over the radio an Apache would be addressed as “Ugly Two Four” or “Ugly Four One” or whatever. (FACs used to wear T-shirts with an Apache silhouette and the slogan “GO UGLY EARLY”.)

    The RAF Regiment which provided security patrols for Kandahar airfield were (derisorily) known as the Short-Range Desert Group – reflecting their high opinion of themselves and the fact that they never went very far from base, and playing off the legendary special forces pioneers in WW2, the LRDG.

    BARMA, as far as I know, is not an acronym for anything. The Army code for clearing a route for potential IEDs was “Operation Barma” (generally “Op Barma” in common use). It’s just a randomly generated codeword. And Vallon is the name of the company that makes mine detectors.

    Camp Bastion, incidentally, was named after HESCO Bastion, the (British) company that makes those wire cages filled with rubble that form the walls of every coalition base in Afghanistan…

  2. Probably not relevant, but I found this definition for Barma in “Grammar and Vocabulary of Waziri Pashto”:

    Barma {s.f) carpenters* drill and bow, native brace and bit.

  3. Stephen Bruce says:

    Reminds me of an earlier era:

    “If you’re a P-V-T, your duty
    Is to salute to L-I-E-U-T
    But if you brush the L-I-E-U-T
    The M-P makes you K-P on the Q-T”

  4. According to the book Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan, it was randomly assigned by a (MoD) computer.

  5. “bar ma” is common Turkic phrase which means “have you got it?”

    And answer is “yok” (no, I haven’t) or “bar” (yes, I have)

    In context of “Drills and procedures for searching for IEDs”, it almost makes sense…

  6. The British Army used to issue enamelled-steel mess kits – except to the airborne troops, for whom weight was crucial, and who got aluminium instead.

    I wonder if the airborne troops have a higher incidence of Alzheimers…

  7. Those “wire cages filled with rubble” are called gabions. I associate such things more with modern highway construction so had always assumed the word was a recent coinage or even a trade name, but they are apparently of more ancient lineage being formerly wicker baskets filled with earth with the word derived ultimately from latin cavea, cage.

  8. Yes, a lot of old siege terminology is still in use. The glacis is no longer the angled slope in front of a fortification but the angled armour on the front of a tank. Fascines are still used for ditch crossing but they’re bundles of plastic drainpipes, not bundles of sticks. Gun mantlets, too.

  9. A glacis nowadays is also a neutral state that borders on a belligerent or quasi-belligerent state, effectively protecting it from attack on that side (unless the enemy ignores neutrality, as in several infamous examples). Ironically, Afghanistan was a glacis state for the Soviet Union.

  10. Ginger Yellow says:

    “Crow” for a recruit I don’t know, but I would guess it might have something to do with Crowborough Camp in south-east England, where I think army recruits used to be trained. Like “ally” it’s not specifically Afghan, it’s been in use for decades.

    And there I was hoping it was a Game of Thrones reference, “crows” being a nickname for the (mostly inexperienced) members of the Night’s Watch.

  11. Those “wire cages filled with rubble” are called gabions. … they are apparently of more ancient lineage being formerly wicker baskets filled with earth with the word derived ultimately from latin cavea, cage.

    Discussed at LH here — and what do you know, there’s ajay in the comments:

    Gabions, although not so called, are still used by the military – UK bases in Afghanistan are surrounded with Hesco Bastion, heavy-gauge wire baskets lined with plastic sheeting, shipped as flat-pack units, erected and filled with sand, gravel or earth. The main base in Helmand, Camp Bastion, is named after the product.

  12. I don’t have very much actual relevant knowledge so when I can I like to spread it around…

  13. “I wonder if the airborne troops have a higher incidence of Alzheimers…”

    They should live so long.

    My favorite US coinage out of Afghanistan is “fobbit” what’s the los? > “los” as a noun that means “the relevant facts.”

  14. Wow, that comment got chopped into nothingness.

  15. I went into the edit box but didn’t see anything more than what’s there.

  16. And another one: “gen” meaning “this is true, I’d stake my reputation on it”.

    “I hear Kathleen Jenkins is visiting next week.”
    “Gen?”
    “Gen!”

    And its even more emphatic relation, “gen robocop”, meaning ” I am so sure about this that, if this turns out not to be true, you can shave my head forward of a hypothetical vertical plane intersecting the ears, making me look like Robocop with his helmet off.”

  17. Is that with hard (g) or soft (j) g?

  18. And another one: “gen” meaning “this is true, I’d stake my reputation on it”.

    I assume this is from ‘genuine’.

    It wouldn’t seem to be related to the old slang term ‘gen’ meaning information.

  19. Ginger Yellow says:

    Which lives on in cryptic crossword clues.

  20. Yes, soft G as in “genuine”. It’s not particularly interesting from an etymological point of view, I just think “gen robocop” is funny.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    latin cavea, cage

    …That must be where German Käfig “cage” comes from, except that the ending still doesn’t make sense.

    The main base in Helmand, Camp Bastion, is named after the product.

    An etymologist’s nightmare.

  22. Camp Bastion doesn’t come from the name of the company Hesco Bastion, but from the unit crest of the Royal Engineers, 62 Works Group that did the design and oversaw the build of Camp Bastion 1. I was attached to them at the time and their CO named the camp.

  23. Thanks, it’s always good to hear from people with personal experience.

  24. arthur mcclench says:

    ‘Crow’ comes from the 1970s camouflage ‘combat caps’ issued to new recruits at Parachute Regiment depot, to be worn until the new boys have earned their red beret. The long peak (or ‘bill’ for our US cousins) of the Afrika Korps-style caps (which, universally disliked, were only issued briefly in the army) might be thought to resemble the beak ( or bill…) of said corvid, as represented in the fine motion picture ‘Dumbo’.

    So, as new boys at the depot were known as ‘crows’, so a young soldier, fresh from the depot, arriving in a battalion and having to earn his place all over again, has come to be known as a ‘crow’.

    Gen.

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