The War With No Name

Every president, along with the people who work for him, will tell you that they barely ever think about politics and public relations. "Good policy is good politics," they'll say, or "We believe that if we do the right thing, the politics will take care of themselves." Of course, it'll all baloney. Even in the most serious matters, like making war, appearances are never far from their minds. Which is why, every time we get ready to bomb or invade somebody, the military comes up with a super-cool name for the operation. Not only does it give the enterprise the proper triumphal air, it gives the media something to call it, so they can make their jazzy graphics and pick out the right musical accompaniment.

So why doesn't our new quasi-war have a name yet?

The idea of naming military operations began in World War I, but initially they were secret code names, intended to conceal rather than to boast. Winston Churchill was very concerned with the code names of military operations in World War II, and advised in one 1943 memo, "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." After World War II, the names of operations became more descriptive, since they were no longer classified. But it wasn't until the last few decades that we started to get really into the PR value of these names, turning them into their own form of propaganda. Perhaps none was more important on that score than Operation Just Cause (George H.W. Bush's invasion of Panama in 1989), a name that was neither a description nor a war-whoop but an assertion of righteousness (here's an article that traces this history).

Let's take a look at some of our prior hits from the 1980s onward:

  • Operation Eagle Claw (attempt to rescue hostages in Iran, 1980)
  • Operation Urgent Fury (invasion of Grenada, 1983)
  • Operation Just Cause (invasion of Panama, 1989)
  • Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm (Kuwait/Iraq, 1989)
  • Operation Restore Hope (Somalia, 1993)
  • Operation Uphold Democracy (Haiti, 1994)
  • Operation Deliberate Force (NATO bombing of Bosnia, 1995)
  • Operation Desert Fox (bombing of Iraq, 1998)
  • Operation Noble Anvil (the American component of NATO bombing in Kosovo, which was itself called Operation Allied Force, 1999)
  • Operation Infinite Justice (first name for Afghanistan war, 2001)
  • Operation Enduring Freedom (second name for Afghanistan war, 2001)
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq, 2003)
  • Operation Odyssey Dawn (bombing of Libya, 2011)

These are just the big ones; apparently, every time three soldiers go out for a bite, the operation gets a name. Even though it's the military that chooses these names, you might notice that the ones during Republican administrations have a particularly testosterone-fueled feel to them, while most of the Democratic ones are a little more tentative. Something like Operation Uphold Democracy just doesn't have the same oomph as, say, Operation Urgent Fury. If the Obama administration had really wanted to get people excited about fighting ISIS, they should have called it Operation Turgid Thrusting or Operation Boundless Glory.

But this military engagement was never given a name, and at this point it's probably too late to give it one. You might interpret that as symbolic of President Obama's reluctance to start it in the first place, but don't forget it's the Pentagon that picks the name. So what does it mean that they didn't come up with one? Maybe they're not so gung-ho about it either.