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.