Military meaning of "In Country"

In her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz makes the claim that “In Country” is a shortened form of “Indian Country,” meaning in essence enemy territory filled with savages who must be conquered.

Her footnote goes to an article Enemy Territory as “Indian Country”, which cites a 1991 Gulf War article saying “Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal referred to Iraqi-held territory in Kuwait as ‘Indian Country’ when reporting the rescue of an F-16 pilot Feb 17.” And “Lt. Col. John Tull, a spokesman for the US military Central Command in Saudi Arabia, said ‘Indian Country’ is a term that was used in Viet Nam to mean hostile territory.”

I know that “In Country” was often used in Nam, although it sometimes seemed to mean just being there instead of in the states and sometimes meant active combat duty instead of being in Saigon. I never came across anyone describing the term as short for Indian Country. And the cite doesn’t say that either. It would be just as possible to infer that Indian Country was backformed from In Country or that the two similar phrases were coincidental.

Searching online takes me right back to Dunbar-Ortiz’s book.

Can any of our military people back her up?

Well, with no cite save my military career, in-country means you were not in the US. Even if you were not in combat, at least you were in country.

I have never heard the term “Indian country” used outside of a movie.

FWIW, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “in-country” (so spelled) as “in the country; in a contextually specified country”, and references the preposition “in”, with no mention of Indians. It lists five citations from 1953 to 1973, most of which seem clearly to be the usage you are discussing:

1966 N.Y. Times 1 May iv. 3 In South Vietnam, in what is called in Saigon the ‘in-country’ war, …
1969 Daily Tel. 20 Nov. 5/3 This will reduce America’s ‘in-country’ military strength to 484,000 troops.
1973 Daily Tel. 13 Mar. 5/2 American in-country troop strength [in Vietnam] stands at 7,170 men.

It also seems extremely unlikely linguistically for “Indian country” to be contracted to “in country”. There are plenty of English phrases using the term “Indian” – have any of them ever been contracted to “in”?

I would say this is another example of folk etymology finding racist connotations in phrases whose origin is unrelated to race, like you sometimes hear about “picnic” or “buck naked”.

Such a coinage is contrary to hundreds of years of American policy. Indians (Native Americans) DON’T have a country. At best, they have territory.

I know you’re making a point here, but in case anyone misunderstands the term “Indian Country” goes back to at least 1732 and was in constant use thereafter. Indian Country, with all the negatives that implies, is as deeply American as a phrase can get.

“Indian Country” is a term widely used by Native Americans to describe their territory, people or perhaps culture. There are a number of sites that report on Indian Country news for the residents.

Yeah, it’s like “queer” and “bitch” and other derogatory terms that have been reclaimed by the oppressed groups.

But that doesn’t in any way answer my question.

Agreed, in American colloquial usage you’d just keep the phrase. As did the OP-quoted officer when referring to being actually out in the bush getting shot at.

But with “in/country” specifically the usage is always “deployed in-country” or “operations in-country” or “I was posted in-country” that is, the phrase is a modifier, not a nominal phrase.

Going with Mr. Occam, it’s most obviously a way to indicate activity or presence in the foreign country where operations are ongoing.

I concur that this looks like purely a retroactive folk etymology at best, or being blinkered by preconceptions (or agenda) at worst.

Agreed. 27 years in the military. I started with a bunch of Vietnam vets as my leadership and ended with Iraq and Afghanistan. Not even a hint that in was short for Indian. In country didn’t even have the connotation that you were in a particularly hostile part of the country. I was “In country despite being in the Green Zone.

For my entire military career and growing up as an “Army brat”, I’d always heard “in country” to mean “in a specific country”. My best guess is someone decided to use “Indian Country” as a means of referring to an area which has hostile forces. Stupid move on his part.

Another vet’s POV:

In-country means “inside (conflict-ridden) country” and refers to a place where conflict is happening, rather that the safe areas farther back. In the modern world, one could be “in-country” in e.g. Iraq or Afghanistan or Ukraine, but not in Germany or the UK or the US.

Consider “I was in-country when Fallujah went down.”, meaning “I was in Iraq when that battle started.”

Zero to do with “Indians” as in Native Americans.

At least in 1980s USAF, “Indian country” was a slang phrase for “enemy airspace”. As in “Tomorrow our mission is 300 miles into Indian country to hit the missile complex at Laputa.”

I’ve been out of USAF a very long time now and that term may have fallen into disuse. But it was real back then.

Bottom line: “In-country” and “Indian country” were / are(?) absolutely positively utterly unrelated. But both were / are(?) used.

I think that captures it. Now I’ll just throw in “down range” as another expression with a similar meaning.

Sadly, I still hear it in central Arizona at times. However, the words are complete, I’ve never heard in-country refer to Native American territory, only to being boots down in the country at war.

Agree completely. Dunbar-Ortiz could have easily made her point without confusing the meaning of “in country”. The fact that the term “Indian country” is still used at all is problem enough.

“Indian country” is a legal term in US law. See for example 18 USC 1151, where it is defined to include all reservations, allotments, and dependent Indian communities. The US Supreme Court has issued several recent rulings on whether Oklahoma state courts have the power to try people accused of committing crimes on tribal lands in the state, e.g., or whether those lands as Indian country fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of federal and tribal courts.

Yeah, I have a couple of friends who served together in the Army in Iraq (2008), and when they have said “in country” it was strictly and specifically meaning they were in Iraq, while “down range” generally meant the same thing as “deployed”. Like being in Iraq or Kuwait were both “down range”, while Iraq specifically was “in country”.

Of course, it being the military, they have no shortage of absolutely non-PC terms for anything and everything. But “in country” and “down range” weren’t in that list.

Thanks everyone. I was sure this was wrong, but I needed to check it out.

All the more reason that it’s use as a synonym for “hostile area” or “non-permissive area of operation” is so problematic.

The phrase “as full as a Christmas goose” comes immediately to mind.

And what about “up country” like in the song, “I’m goin’ up country…”