Where “Ratline” Comes From

In a briefing yesterday, Gen. Tommy R. Franks defended a June 19 raid near the Syria-Iraq border that killed two civilians. The attack, he said, was designed to disrupt a “ratline” that was being used to shuttle Baathist officials in and out of Iraq. What are the origins of the word?

Ratline is a nautical term, referring to small lengths of horizontal cord that run between the shrouds, several strong ropes that affix the top of a mast to the vessel’s sides. The ratlines serve as crude ladder rungs, allowing the crew to scale the mast when necessary. In bygone days, scampering up the ratlines was a last, desperate recourse for sailors on sinking ships, at least if they were unfortunate enough to have missed out on the lifeboats. As a result, “ratline” became a synonym for “last-ditch escape route.”

When used in the military context, the word most often connotes an enemy’s getaway route, particularly one that’s clandestine or passes through an otherwise secure area. The most famous example is the post-World War II ratline that smuggled Nazis and their allies from Europe to South America. The underground was operated by a Croatian priest sympathetic to his nation’s fascist Ustashe movement. Among those who escaped was Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” who headed the Gestapo in France. (Barbie was extradited from Bolivia to France in 1983, and died in prison in 1991.)

As a military lifer, Gen. Franks is probably also familiar with an alternative definition of ratline, unique to the Virginia Military Institute. First-year students are subjected to a six-to-seven-month indoctrination program of marching, push-ups, mudcrawls, and verbal abuse. Because the freshman are called “rats” by the upper-classmen tormentors, the regimen is traditionally referred to as the ratline. There is no secret escape; students must endure or drop out.

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