As the news of Saddam Hussein's capture blanketed the airwaves Sunday, we heard Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, refer to the deposed dictator's hiding place as a "spider hole." What's the origin of this military term?
The phrase refers to a hole in the earth, often used by an enemy for stealthy attacks. The term gained wide acceptance in this country during the Vietnam War, as William Safire noted in a New York Times op-ed today. But it also appears in numerous American accounts of the fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Japanese defenders in places such as Iwo Jima and the Philippines were often said to be hiding in spider holes.
Although the origin of the term spider hole is fuzzy, it may have something to do with an arachnid commonly known as the trap-door spider. This creature makes a burrow and then builds a tight-fitting removable lid of silk and earth, which it covers with soil or gravel to disguise the entrance.
In Vietnam, where the Viet Cong had an extensive network of tunnels, American GIs learned to dread the specter of enemy snipers popping up out of small spider holes, which were covered with camouflaged lids at ground level.
A personal Web page written by U.S. Vietnam veteran Bill McBride has this description:
In a cleverly disguised "spider hole" they would wait for days for boats or foot patrols. The spider holes were so well camouflaged that there are many stories of troops literally walking right over the hiding areas.
McBride describes how Viet Cong soldiers would lower large clay pots into the holes and hide in the pots themselves. If the containers broke, he says, the fighter might find himself sharing his space with poisonous snakes.
According to Lt. Gen. Sanchez, Saddam's spider hole was slightly more spacious. Sanchez told reporters yesterday that the former strongman's hiding place was about 6 feet to 8 feet deep and allowed enough room for a person to lie down.