After being criticized for recklessly threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea earlier this week, Donald Trump doubled down. On Thursday, he told the press that “maybe [the language] wasn’t tough enough,” then on Friday morning, he dialled up his attempts at intimidation with an early morning Tweet aimed at Kim Jong-un. Be warned, Trump tweeted, the U.S. is “locked and loaded,” with military solutions “fully in place.”
The message was undoubtedly meant to provoke thoughts of imminent military action. And, not surprisingly, it sent the internet into an instant tizzy. But what does “locked and loaded” mean, really? And do we have a legitimate reason to be worried about a near-future World War Three?
Most interpret the phrase “lock and load” as a military term that refers to preparing a firearm for use in short order. But how the term originated is unclear. One theory is that it stems from preparing a flint lock rifle. When loading this particular weapon, (unlike most rifles) the firing mechanism needs to be in the locked position so the gun doesn’t misfire.
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It sounds like a plausible explanation, but another theory suggests the phrase came to life accidentally—not on the battlefield, but on the silver screen. In the 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima, actor John Wayne was to deliver the line “load and lock” as a command for a soldier to ready his firearm. Of course, that’s not the line in the film. Rather, he says “lock and load, boy, lock and load.” That’s the first documented use of the phrase, offering a strong case that it wasn’t actually used in battle—at least not before 1949. Since then, lock and load has become a Hollywood mainstay across all genres—according to the move and TV screenplay website QuoDB, the phrase has appeared in close to 500 scripts over the years, from Platoon and Independence Day to Austin Powers and the Family Guy.
It’s more likely that “load and lock” is the proper military command. It’s widely believed that it became prominent in WWII in reference to loading an M1 Garland rifle and locking the round into place with a forceful blow using the palm of the hand.
The fact that Donald Trump chose a flashy, ultimately meaningless term, popularized by Hollywood, to describe his military intentions against North Korea seems comically appropriate for a man obsessed with showmanship and celebrity. Indeed, it would merit a laugh if it wasn’t so irresponsible and potentially dangerous. There is, however, some comfort in knowing that this isn’t the first period of heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Despite the lack of diplomacy this time around, experts on the matters have reason to seriously doubt the shouting match will end in nuclear war. Once again, it seems as though Trump’s rhetoric is more theatrics than substance.
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