20 March 2010

What's In a Name?

Overlord. Eagle Claw. Rolling Thunder.

Military history is replete with names of legendary operations. Indeed, choosing an adequate name for a military operation is just as much an art as, well, war. Yet, for every "Praying Mantis" or "Power Pack", there's a "Sharp and Smooth" or "Tangerine Squeeze". The Washington Post covered this issue in depth today, highlighting the difference between named operations spearheaded by "shock and awe" commanders, and those led by the diplomatic counterinsurgents.

During the initial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, planners proposed names such as "Operation Infinite Justice" (rejected because Muslims believe that only Allah can provide justice) and "Operation Iraqi Liberation" (rejected because it spells "OIL"). In a few instances, named operations were allegedly the subject of jokes after being translated into Arabic. In 2006, the 101st Airborne Division launched their largest air assault since the invasion of Iraq, "Operation Swarmer". Designed to seize al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, "Swarmer" not only fizzled in the desert, but it also reportedly translated into "insects attacking" (see slide 10 from this presentation created by a major from the 4th Infantry Division).

Nevertheless, overly-dramatic and violent names often made the local population wary of American intentions. Disturbed by the negative perception caused by bellicose names, then-Colonel H.R. McMaster charged one of his officers with creating more politically-correct operational names, often seeking the input of local sheiks. This set the course for operations with names like "Glad Tidings of Benevolence" and "Together Forward".

With battle plans often being drawn up by junior officer and NCOs, snide commentary often comes in to play. One veteran of the 101st Airborne Division recalled drawing upon ancient history, proposing "Operation Actium", named for the final stand of Mark Antony against Octavius. However, he noted, he named the battle for the sole purpose of labeling one objective "Hot Spot Cleopatra". Surprisingly, hilarity did not ensue.

Indeed, while boredom often tempts officers to insert snide humor into operational names, the military has a long-standing tradition against such names. An article appearing in a 1995 issue of the Army War College's Parameters invokes Winston Churchill:

[1.] Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code words which imply a boastful or overconfident sentiment,. . . or, conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency. . . . They ought not to be names of a frivolous character. . . . They should not be ordinary words often used in other connections. . . . Names of living people--Ministers and Commanders--should be avoided. . . .

2. After all, the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called "Bunnyhug" or "Ballyhoo."

3. Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above.[24]
Nevertheless, training exercises often allow military officers to add their own brand of personal humor to the otherwise tedious process of planning massive operations. Units often publish naming conventions--guidelines which govern the naming of objectives, landing zones, engagement areas, and air corridors. A unit might dictate that landing zones, for example, might all be named for birds of prey, for football teams, or for US presidents.

With a little creativity, a planner can sometimes create some interesting double-entendres and cultural references, particularly when combined with ill-conceived acronyms. In one training exercise, we had so many objectives--which we decreed would be named for planets--that we had exhausted the traditional nine (or eight) planets in the solar system. Not to fear, as we simply created "Objective Tatooine", "Objective Hoth", and "Objective Endor". On another occasion, our naming convention involved birds. After exhausting all possible puerile puns on "Objective Swallow", I simply chose two different names: "Objective African Swallow" and "Objective European Swallow".

Focus: Words can create powerful images, be they good or ill. What operation names have you used in the past that sounded great? Have you ever inserted puns or in-jokes into your naming conventions or acronyms?


Mike said...

When Bravo Company 1-32 was attached to 3-71 Cav in Charkh (some locals pronounced Shark) District, Logar Province we came up with names like Charkh Attack, Charkh Week. Even better was when we had the Czech's PRT with us... Czech Mate, Czech Mark etc...

Eric C said...

This post is classic. I know he word penetration, being mostly a military term, has been used in many operations as an unfortunate double entendre.

Starbuck said...

During one exercise, we drew upon the glorious history of the 101st Airborne Division to create a unit callsign. Thus, the defiant one-word answer in response to a German demand for surrender at Bastogne served as our rallying cry: "Nuts".

Combine that with the fact that we used planet names for routes and that we were conducting an air assault and you have instant hilarity. I mean, we had to insert nuts into Uranus. How classic is that?

Course, when the enemy started firing artillery at us, we had little to fear, as we merely located the point of origin, declaring that we had discovered the POO on Uranus.