In the second act of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, musing aloud, the heroine speaks that justly famous line: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” True enough—but The Tragedy of Fred and Juliet lacks a certain zing. Juliet’s lament aside, Shakespeare knew reality. We best remember those items rightly named.
That is as true in the military as any other line of work. And, it has more relevance today in an information age in which credibility often is suspect.
The proper term in Shakespeare’s day did not include operational code names. When the English marched to battle in France, it was known as the Agincourt expedition, or the advance of King Henry V, or the campaign of 1415, or what we did last summer. Of course, Henry’s command and control system consisted of an occasional meeting with a few dukes and a mantra of, “Do as I do.” When Henry moved, the English followed. When he stopped and held ground, his knights and archers did likewise.
But as militaries grew in size and scope—invigorated by messages first horse-borne, then telegraphed, then radioed and now tweeted—any old name for an operation would not do. With apologies to Shakespeare, by the time of the Great War of 1914-18, military plans gained code names—shorthand titles rapidly transmitted, quickly received, immediately understood by those who needed to know and at least potentially confusing to curious enemy listeners. Had it stayed there, all would have been fine.
Modern warfare, however, is not a sport of kings. Waging war today, especially for modern militaries such as the United States’, requires popular support and public funding. As Shakespeare knew well, to keep the audience interested names must do more than identify. You go with Hamlet, Lear and Romeo, not Bill, Joe and Fred. Names must resonate. They need to sell. They have to look good on T-shirts and websites.
Certain code names used in World War II never would be employed today. The 1945 Okinawa campaign’s operation Iceberg just would not do. You could almost see naysayers shaking their heads, reminding us it is a Pacific island so the optics are all wrong. Operation Shingle, for the 1944 Anzio landing, definitely would not fly—too flippant. As for operation Gomorrah—the fire-bombing of Hamburg in 1943—well, the military lawyers, public affairs flacks and nervous Nellies would be lined up six-deep to re-title that one. And that is before the politicians got wind of it.
During the Korean War, in the wake of the massive Chinese intervention that nearly did in the entire U.S. war effort, hard-bitten Gen. Matthew Ridgway, USA, got away with some starkly direct names such as Killer and Ripper. The labels matched the grim purpose. But even old World War I artillery captain President Harry S Truman and his inner circle eventually grew queasy. Follow-on operations were labeled Rugged and Dauntless. Not surprisingly, as with a lot of other things, this tendency got well out of hand in Vietnam. In 1966, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) troopers on operation Masher suddenly found themselves carrying out operation White Wing with the blessings of those in Washington, D.C. What the Viet Cong thought has gone unrecorded.
In recent decades, operations are planned under code names—often randomly assigned by computer programs and executed under more adroitly fashioned appellations. Thus, the 1989 Panama intervention was prepared as Blue Spoon and carried out as Just Cause. The initial response to the September 11, 2001, attacks went by Infinite Justice until judged potentially upsetting to faithful Muslims. Then it became Enduring Freedom. When events went sour in Libya in 2011, initial forces scrambled into action under Odyssey Dawn. That exotic moniker spawned widespread complaints and quickly gave way to the more staid Unified Protector. The great Prussian Gen.l Helmuth von Moltke observed that war plans seldom survive contact with the enemy. Military code names seem to suffer the same fate when exposed to focus groups.
Does it matter? Yes, it does. Both the men and women in our ranks and our fellow citizens expect the military to speak clearly, devoid of spin and outside the domestic politics of the day. Iraqi Freedom sounded great in March of 2003, but it did not age too well. Rather than settle for computer-generated nonsense terms or trying to apply slick advertising branding, the military will do well to choose code names that, when disclosed, remind everyone, including our foes, that we are serious. We know the good kind: Torch, Husky, Galvanic, Overlord, Cobra, Thunderbolt, Desert Storm. As a general supposedly remarked in 1989, nobody wants to die for the glory of operation Blue Spoon. A rose by any other name may well smell as sweet, but an ill-named combat operation just plain stinks.
Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.), is a former troop commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author of seven books and numerous articles, he currently teaches at North Carolina State University.