How many people does a ‘troop’ make?

Journalists take notice—troops and soldiers are not interchangeable terms.

Journalists take notice—troops and soldiers are not interchangeable terms

Somebody out there, help me: What do the media mean by troops?

Whether I’m listening to all-news radio or watching the nightly news, every so often a report comes on about a military conflict overseas, and I’ll hear that four troops were killed, or we’re sending in more troops, or 23 troops were injured.

I don’t have a military background, but invariably, I find myself wondering: How many people are we talking about?

What constitutes a troop? An individual? I’m not so sure. You don’t typically hear about a single troop.

  • The U.S. has sent a troop to Iraq. Nah.
  • The U.S. has sent another troop to Iraq. Uh-uh.
  • The U.S. has sent more troops to Iraq. Bingo.

I’ve done a bit of investigating to try to answer my question. So far I’ve learned that, in the 2008 fiscal year, the U.S. Army had a combined strength of 1,097,050 soldiers. This includes the Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve.

What I could not uncover was how many troops it had.

I consulted my good friend Webster, as in “Webster’s New College Dictionary,” which defines troop as: a group of things; a group of soldiers; military units; a unit of cavalry; a great many. You get the idea. Anyway it slices it, Webster’s considers troop as more than one.

I then referred to my buddy Roget, for whom troop is a military unit, a company or a group. Again, plural all the way.

I got to Googling, which led me to this Wikipedia pronouncement: A troop is a military unit, originally a small force of cavalry, subordinate to a squadron and headed by the troop leader.

Digging deeper, I learned that a troop comprises three to five platoons. The platoon contains from two to four squads or sections, each of which could have anywhere from eight to 14 soldiers. Which means the platoon might have more than 50 soldiers, which means a troop might include as many as 250.

Nowhere did I find a declaration that troop could designate a person, a single soldier. Why oh why, then, do the media favor using troops when they most probably mean the individual?

  • Four troops were injured when a bomb exploded beneath their truck

That’s one big truck, folks. In contrast:

  • Four soldiers were injured when a bomb exploded beneath their truck.

Now, I get the picture—and I can empathize, because we’re talking about individuals vs. masses.

Journalists have an obligation to report news accurately, objectively and fairly. The English language offers an ample array of words to enable them to paint a distinct picture, to tell a precise story. We consumers of news depend on them for just that. Especially in times of war, most of us have no choice but to rely on reporters to learn what’s going on—and to whom and how many. Therefore, why not be clear?

As far as I can tell, troops and soldiers are not interchangeable terms, and “four troops” is far different from “four soldiers.”

We deserve better reporting. And so do our troops.

Denise C. Baron is a director of global communications with Merck & Co., Inc.


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