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The evocative history of the military ‘spider hole’

Washington, Dec. 16: Even in an age fraught with military euphemisms, when phrases such as “high value target” and “improvised explosive device” haunt us with their very vagueness, there is occasionally a term of great evocative power and, yes, beauty a term such as “spider hole.”

Used by a military spokesman to describe the tiny, camouflaged hole-in-the-ground where Saddam Hussein was found over the weekend, the phrase conjures the lair of a sneaky, ugly, menacing creature, a thing so dumb and degraded it lives only to kill and be killed.

On the food chain, the arachnid is below the dog, the pig and even the rat, the most popular subhuman beings we use to label folks we really don’t like. Is Hussein a mighty dictator, or just an eight-legged creature that eats flies for lunch'

Of course, “spider hole” was not concocted to describe Hussein’s hideout. According to two historians, the term goes back at least to World War II, when it was used by Marines and army troops fighting in the Pacific.

“It was very common for Japanese troops to dig very small, one-man concealed foxholes,” says William L. Priest, who wrote Swear Like a Trooper: A Dictionary of Military Terms and Phrases. The man in the spider hole would wait for an enemy soldier to pass by and then would pop up, often shooting the soldier in the back.

“It’s a suicide mission,” Priest says. “Take out as many men as you can from behind before you’re taken out.”

The phrase was also used in Vietnam to describe similar underground sniping holes used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, according to the US army Military History Institute.

Applied to Hussein, the term is somewhat misleading, since Hussein reportedly was using his hole for concealment rather than sniping, and he surrendered without a fight. In metaphorical terms, he was more like, well, a chicken in a basket. But spider hole is more accurate than foxhole, which Chuck Melson of the Marine Corps History and Museums Division says goes back to the Civil War, and which typically describes a hole dug quickly, not camouflaged and used by soldiers to protect themselves from enemy fire.

In contrast to Hussein’s tiny hideaway, which appears to have been uncomfortable even in comparison to his rat’s nest of a farmhouse nearby, an actual spider hole is pretty cool because it is lined with silk and kept quite clean. About 3 per cent of the “38,000 described species of spiders” are underground burrowers, and many of these are tarantulas or similar to them, says Jonathan Coddington, the curator of arachnids and myriapods at the National Museum of Natural History. The holes may be as big as three inches across and are sometimes camouflaged with leaves.

The trapdoor spider, found mainly in tropical regions, creates a hinged door of silk and soil above its hole, and it waits patiently below ground until it detects the subtle vibration of an insect walking nearby. It gets its fangs ready.

Then “it sticks its cephalothorax out, grabs the prey really fast and then pulls it back into the burrow,” says Linda S. Rayor, an assistant professor of entomology at Cornell University. “Very, very neat.”

Rayor houses about 60 tarantulas in her office, keeps a photo on her website of her face framed by tarantulas and runs an outreach programme to nearby schools with what she calls her “eight-legged ambassadors.” She was somewhat troubled by the term “spider hole” when she heard it for the first time after Hussein’s capture. “I thought it was kind of an abusive term,” she says — meaning, of course, abusive toward the arachnids, not Saddam Hussein. It seems even spiders don’t want anything to do with him.

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