Military operations: Calling the shots

Panther's Claw. Desert Storm. Overlord. Frequent Wind? As the Iraq war is given a 'rebrand', Rob Sharp explains how the military top brass name their operations

In 1943, always circumspect about his place in the history books, Winston Churchill sent a memo to his top military commanders. He was addressing the issue of how the British Army should name its military operations. At the time, names were selected at random. But the nomenclature of war, he insisted, should strike a tone between the boastful and banal. At all costs, he wrote, they should not "enable some widow or mother to say their son was killed in an operation called Bunnyhug".

These days the question of what to call your invasion, liberation or peace-keeping force is trickier than christening a baby; a suitable name for an angelic newborn might not be appropriate when it becomes a troublesome teenager. Keen to keep the public onside, the US administration has announced that, in acknowledgement of the gradual withdrawal of its troops, Operation Iraqi Freedom – the umbrella term for all US operations in Iraq – will now be rebranded Operation New Dawn. "It sends a strong signal that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended, and that our forces are operating under a new mission," wrote US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in a memo leaked to ABC News.

On the battlefield, names really do matter. For instance, Operation Enduring Freedom, the name for US operations in Afghanistan, looks pretty snappy rolling along the bottom of CNN's rolling news coverage. Operation Frequent Wind, the name given to the 1975 evacuation of US civilians from Saigon, strikes a rather more farcical note.

The method by which top brass name their operations varies from nation to nation. "The Americans are keen to weigh down what they are doing with ideological baggage," says Nick Hewitt, a historian in the department of research and information at London's Imperial War Museum. "Other countries tend to be a bit cleverer about how they use them for PR purposes, trying to ingratiate themselves to those who might be affected by any upheaval. Without resorting to national stereotypes, often it's just a logistical thing. For example, colours are often used as a code to define US weather reports, so were never traditionally used by them; this isn't a problem shared by the Germans, for example."

The history of modern code names really began with the Germans in the First World War. In part, this was due to the development of complex operational warfare where such names could help reduce confusion. Spring offensives on the Western Front in 1918 borrowed from religious, medieval and mythological sources, giving history Operations Archangel, St George, Roland, Mars and Achilles.

In the Second World War, the US military decided to use a system borrowed from the British in which they randomly selected names from a list of 10,000 common nouns and adjectives (Cornflakes, Magic). But in exceptional cases, Churchill stepped in to name operations himself. Operation Overlord, the label given to the 1944 invasion of western Europe that began with the Normandy landings, went on to become one of the war's most memorable monikers.

During the Second World War, names of operations were only known to a small number of key military personnel before being made public at a later date. But gradually, the US military cottoned on to the power of names to shape public perceptions. Operation Crossroads, the name given to atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll Pacific islands – communicating the great responsibility associated with the event – was one notable early success. Another later victory was the US 1989 invasion of Panama, known as Operation Just Cause. The name sought to contrast the noble motives of the US with the injustices of the regime they were fighting. News channels like CNN began packaging their special coverage of news events with snappy names (War in the Gulf; Death of a Princess; Flashpoint Kosovo). "Like the Pentagon's operation names, the networks' titles suggest a master narrative for what might otherwise seem a disorderly stream of events," says American linguist and war commentator Geoffrey Nunberg. "It's a convenient way of packaging stories that have the feeling of a real-life miniseries." Such tactics opened the floodgates for various other bombastic American battle brands. With the 1990 Gulf War came Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Then there was Restore Hope in Somalia (protecting humanitarian relief in 1991), and various Balkans operations in the Nineties with names like Shining Hope, Determined Force and Provide Promise.

The Brits still opt to select names randomly from a computer database and then have military leaders vet them. British military operations in Iraq are snappily entitled TELIC, derived from the Greek word telikos, or "final". For Operation Moshtarak, the NATO-led pacification foray, with Afghan army participation, in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, moshtarak means "together" or "shared" in both the Afghan Dari language and Arabic; it communicates a more touchy-feely approach.

The battlefield of history is littered with notable naming mistakes. In 1940, the British deduced the intent of the Germans' Operation Sea Lion (a marine invasion of Britain) from its name. Operations like Masher and Killer during the Vietnam War did little to win over the US public and media. Then there are the downright ridiculous: Urgent Fury was applied to the 1983 US invasion of the sleepy Caribbean island of Grenada (one wag said Reluctant Necessity was more apt). Operation Wrath of God was the somewhat over-the-top name given to the assassination by the Mossad of those behind the 1972 Munich massacre. Operation Beaver Cage was another Vietnam classic. As ever, it seems, Churchill had it right. No one wants to go down in history – as did the commander of an Australian operation in Fiji in 1987 – as the guy in charge of Operation Morris Dance.

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