the semiotics of militarism
Sun, 30 Sep 2001 16:15:46 -0400
The Random Military Operation Names Generating Device
Operation War Language
How the Pentagon Mints Its Campaign Monikers
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2001; Page C01
First the U.S. military operation to lash out at Osama bin Laden was
officially nicknamed Infinite Reach. Then Noble Eagle. Then Infinite
Justice. But yesterday, that last name was being rethought because
some Muslims might find it offensive, according to Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
What shall we call it, then? In another time, David Letterman's Top 10
List writers would have had a heyday with the question.
Not now. The language of war is a serious, singular, often inscrutable
and important art.
"People have such complex associations with words," says Deborah
Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "I'm not
surprised that some Muslims objected to 'Infinite Justice.' It shows
that the associations are not always predictable."
And the fact that naming this campaign is like tacking mercury to a
tree illustrates what a slippery business this war on terrorism could
prove to be.
Giving nicknames to operational thrusts is a relatively new pursuit in
the history of warfare, going back to the middle of the 20th century.
Nowadays, the choice of operation names is made using
computer-suggested terms, says a Pentagon source.
Since 1975, the process has been aided by various software called the
Code Word, Nickname and Exercise Term System. "Basically what
happens," says the Pentagon source, "is that each of the theater
CINCs -- the commanders in chief, that is the admirals and generals in
charge of regional theaters -- is given a database of words."
He continues: "A name is randomly selected -- normally a word that is
pertinent to that region -- like 'desert' in Desert Storm and Desert
Shield," for operations in the 1991 Gulf War.
The commanders are then presented with a new database of words. They
choose another word they like and pair it with the first. They are
given some leeway, but they are instructed about which two letters to
use first. In 1983, for instance, when the United States invaded
Grenada, the Atlantic Command was asked to come up with a name whose
first two letters were U and R, for complex reasons of cyber-military
protocol. The result: Urgent Fury.
The officers then send that two-word phrase "up the chain of command,"
the source says. Unacceptable phrases are weeded out, one after
another, by people in charge. Ultimately the Joint Chiefs of Staff and
the secretary of defense pick one.
Between 1975 and 1988, names were pretty meaningless, writes Gregory
Sieminski in the August 1995 issue of Parameters, the U.S. Army War
College quarterly. The Libyan raid in 1986 was named Eldorado Canyon
and the 1988 airstrike campaign against Iranian ships and oil
platforms was dubbed Praying Mantis, as a guarantee against
In his 1991 book "The Commanders," Bob Woodward writes that when Gen.
James Lindsay, head of the Special Operations Command, learned in 1989
that the United States was planning to invade Panama, he phoned Lt.
Gen. Thomas Kelly, on the Joint Chiefs staff, to talk about the name.
Lindsay said he did not want the campaign to have a silly name. "Do
you want your grandchildren to say you were in Blue Spoon?" he asked
After the call, Kelly summoned his deputy for current operations,
Brig. Gen. Joe Lopez.
"How about 'Just Action'?" Kelly said.
"How about 'Just Cause'?" Lopez suggested.
Sieminski writes: "Since 1989, major U.S. military operations have
been dubbed with an eye toward shaping domestic and international
perceptions about the activities they describe."
For example: Operation Provide Comfort in Turkey and Operation Uphold
Democracy in Haiti.
For centuries, humans waged military campaigns that were more or less
anonymous, leaving the naming to historians. The practice of soldiers
naming martial operations apparently began in Germany near the end of
World War I. In America, the War Department used color names for
operations just prior to World War II.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill harbored strong convictions
on the subject, according to Christopher Chant's 1985 Encyclopedia of
Code Names of World War II.
"Operations," Churchill said, "ought not to be described by code-words
which imply a boastful and over-confident sentiment." And names "ought
not to be names of frivolous character. They should not be ordinary
words." And "Names of living people should be avoided."
Perhaps this is what made Rumsfeld reconsider "Infinite Justice." "The
U.S. doesn't want to do or say things that create an impression on the
part of the listener" that the campaign is against the Muslim
religion, he said at a news conference yesterday.
But in the mid-1940s, the U.S. Army began to use nicknames to inspire
the troops and the populace. And many of Churchill's rules applied.
W.H.P. Blandy, a vice admiral and commander of the joint task force on
atom bomb testing on Bikini Atoll in 1946, called the endeavor
Operation Crossroads. He chose the name carefully, he told a Senate
committee, because "sea power, air power, and perhaps humanity itself
. . . were at the crossroads."
In Korea, operations received tough names: Roundup, Courageous and
Killer. During the Vietnam War, bellicose names were softened by
shifting public sentiment. Operation Masher became Operation White
As the Gulf War neared, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf chose the name
Peninsula Shield from a list of possibilities for the U.S. defensive
mission, Sieminski writes. The name was rejected by the Joint Chiefs
because it did not properly portray the region's terrain. Operation
Desert Shield was born. Schwarzkopf also hand-picked Operation Desert
Storm for the offensive stage of the war.
At the end of his article, Sieminski offers four guidelines for naming
operations in the future.
1. Make it meaningful.
2. Identify and target the critical audience.
3. Be cautious of fashions.
4. Make it memorable.
Now Rumsfeld might add a fifth: If it doesn't work, rethink it.