In choosing its battle names, the military must know its target audience

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010

In the hypercharged rush of combat, the adrenaline flows and the rhetoric soars. After the "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq, many of the names the military gave early battles were pugnacious: Operation Scorpion Sting, Operation Iron Hammer, Operation Ivy Serpent.

But as the military changed tactics, trying to win over the local population with on-the-ground diplomacy, some nicknames started to soften. Hence Operation Glad Tidings of Benevolence and Operation Together Forward.

Names are important, especially in war. Like a good advertising jingle, war names must be catchy and concise. But above all else, they have to sell -- all sorts of things, to all sorts of people: inspiration to the troops, righteousness to Americans at home, partnership to allied countries, peace and promise to non-combatant civilians.

And, to the enemy: We're-coming-to-kill-you aggression.

The key question: "Who is your target audience?" said Brig. Gen. Sean Macfarland, who is credited with helping turn around the insurgent violence in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq's Anbar province. "If it's just internal consumption, you want to give a name the soldiers and Marines will get pumped up about. But if it's more for Iraqi consumption, it has to translate well. And if it's going to be in newspaper headlines and be commented about on op-ed pages, then you have to give it a more politically correct name."

So when the military's top officers decided recently that the denouement of the Iraq war merited a name, they treaded carefully, no doubt mindful of the chortling that followed President George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" announcement in 2003.

Last month, the Obama administration decided: As of Sept. 1, Operation Iraqi Freedom will become Operation New Dawn, a name designed to symbolize the dramatic drawdown of U.S. forces that is planned and to "recognize our evolving relationship with the government of Iraq," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrote in a memo.

Few recognized how intertwined the arts of public relations and war were as well as Winston Churchill, according to Gregory Sieminski, who wrote about operation names in Parameters magazine, a publication of the Army War College. Churchill developed guidelines during World War II that said battle names should not "imply boastful or overconfident sentiment" or "be names of frivolous character."

Adolf Hitler took operation names seriously, too, changing the name of the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union from "Fritz" to "Barbarossa," after the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the architects of the war in Afghanistan sought a different approach. They wanted something lofty, a name with sweep and grandeur to evoke the American spirit. The initial offering, Operation Infinite Justice, was swing-for-the-fences big, to be sure. And it had a certain poetry to it, while at the same time conforming with Pentagon regulations that prohibit, among other things, names that "express a degree of bellicosity inconsistent with traditional American ideals or current foreign policy."

But infinite is awfully long, even for the most patient taxpayer -- and the word offended Muslims who believe such benevolence can be provided only by Allah.

After some called that name too propagandistic, the Pentagon changed to Operation Enduring Freedom, which quieted critics and turned out to be accurate, too. As then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in announcing the name: " 'Enduring' suggests that this is not a quick fix."

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