Winston Churchill offered guidelines during World War II for the naming of military operations. “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.” He also noted the importance that names “do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo.’”

Following the Korean War, and operations as KILLER and RIPPER, and then Vietnam, host of Operation MASHER, the United States adopted the Codeword, Nickname, and Exercise Term system, otherwise known as NICKA. Its purpose is “to fully automate the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] requirement for maintenance of code words, nicknames, exercise terms, and reconnaissance nicknames data by the Joint Staff.” NICKA has largely served the armed forces and components of the intelligence community well, generating names and preventing duplication.

There has, however, been the occasional hiccup. During the run-up to the United States invasion of Panama, General James Lindsay, commander of Special Operations Command, called the operations officer of the Joint Staff with a good question: “Do you want your grandchildren to say you were in Blue Spoon?” After brief deliberation, the mission became JUST CAUSE, and a new era in clever marketing dawned. It was enormously helpful for any military operation to have such terms offered repeatedly on the evening news. Such phrases as “Restore Hope” and “Provide Comfort” and “Uphold Democracy,” repeated ad nauseum, were public relations boons for the military. The idea reached critical mass with Operation DESERT STORM, a name worthy of even the finest video games.

Like any PR campaign, however, there are occasional flubs. Removing names from the realm of computers and placing them in the hands of senior military leadership encourages the public to look for deeper meaning. This became most apparent in the days following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when Operation INFINITE JUSTICE was announced and almost immediately dumped—only Allah, it was argued, can deliver infnite justice. The banal ENDURING FREEDOM was thus chosen, leading this OEF veteran, at least, wishing they’d have just called it “the Afghanistan War,” or gone all-in and called it World War III. (Nobody would credit the officers behind IRAQI FREEDOM with a surplus of creativity, either.) A name with severity corresponding to the seriousness of the mission might have proven to be sustaining over the long term. The phrase “enduring freedom” is both insipid and meaningless, and has inspired precisely zero people to action or resolve.

After eleven years of war, there have been a lot of missions for planners to name. In most instances, the designations have been largely unobtrusive, and oftentimes rousing. Operation MOUNTAIN VIPER, for example, in which members of 10th Mountain Division and support personnel mounted air assault operations and killed 120 militants, conveys a sense of urgency, importance, and danger. Likewise COBRA’S ANGER, in which hundreds of Marines from 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and members of Task Force Raider were inserted by Chinook and Osprey to disrupt enemy supply lines and communication—no one would doubt that mission, even by name alone. In Iraq, DESERT SCORPION, IVY CYCLONE—even a basic holiday humanitarian mission called SANTA STRIKE—get the point across in two words each.

Sometimes, the names are drawn from popular culture to great effect. The most famous of such missions is Operation RED DAWN, conducted by Task Force 121 and 4th Infantry Divison, in which Iraqi madman Saddam Hussein was hunted and captured. Red Dawn is, of course, a movie from the 80s about a Soviet invasion of the United States, and the Americans who call themselves Wolverines that resist occupation. In the case of the Iraq mission, even objectives were called “Wolverine 1” and “Wolverine 2.” There’s cleverness to the mission’s name. It’s motivating without departing from seriousness, and has a certain brashness that doesn’t offend.

All of this might seem a bit silly—a bit surface—but like so many things in life, can be understood through William Shakespeare, who best explained this particular matter in Romeo and Juliet. The play is perhaps best known for its “What’s in a name?” speech, in which Juliet says, “that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” What’s often overlooked is that Juliet is wrong. The rest of the play—indeed, almost the entirety of Shakespeare’s works—demonstrate the simple fact that names count. Unfortunate though it might be, the ideal world and the real world clash, and even the most superficial of elements really matter. It’s an insidious move by Shakespeare; beneath the romanticism of the scene are the seeds of Romeo and Juliet’s destruction. ENDURING FREEDOM is a lousy name for the same reason that KILLER is a bad name, and for the same reason that ENDLESS WAR would never fly. Because what’s in a name? Everything.

D.B. Grady is the pseudonym of author David Brown. He is the co-author of The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army, and can be found at http://dbgrady.com or on Twitter at @dbgrady.

Related News

David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His next book, THE MISSION, will be published later this year by Custom House. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.