What makes a suitable military code name?

RAF airmen in 1939 Image copyright Getty Images

The US mission in the Middle East is without a code name. How do you choose a title for a military campaign, asks Jon Kelly.

There is no "Operation Inherent Resolve". The code name was suggested for the latest US mission in the Middle East by US military strategists, according to reports. But it was rejected, apparently because it was judged to be "kind of bleh".

Coming up with a title for a military mission is a delicate task. There have been many memorable ones - Desert Storm, Overlord, Rolling Thunder. Others have attracted attention for the wrong reasons. Operation Killer, a US Korean war counter-offensive, was widely criticised for being distasteful. Operation Masher, an American campaign in Vietnam, was considered so ill-judged it was re-named. The US build-up in Afghanistan after 2001 was initially code-named Infinite Justice. But after it was pointed out that the name was considered offensive to the Islamic faith, it was changed to Enduring Freedom.

The practice appears to have begun with the German high command during World War One, according to Gregory C Sieminisky's seminal article on The Art of Naming Operations. The Kaiser's forces borrowed religious and mythical titles - Archangel, Mars, Achilles. During World War Two, Winston Churchill was aghast to learn an attack on Romanian oil fields was to be code-named Soapsuds. Names of missions should never be frivolous, he said - he did not want "some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called 'Bunnyhug' or 'Ballyhoo'". But he also believed they should not be "boastful or overconfident". He recommended references to Greek and Roman mythology, the stars and constellations, famous racehorses and British and US war heroes. Operations Market Garden, Mincemeat and Bodyguard are all names from WWII that have lived on in the popular imagination. Churchill came up with Overlord himself.

Today the US military, like other forces around the world, has protocols for naming operations. The tone for modern titles was set by the 1989 American invasion of Panama - initially titled Blue Spoon, but eventually christened Just Cause because, according to Gen Colin Powell at the time, "even our severest critics, when attacking us, will have to say 'just cause'." In its wake there was Allied Force (Nato's bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia) and Neptune Spear (the killing of Osama Bin Laden). Desert Storm is the apotheosis of this kind of operation name, says James Dawes, professor of American literature at Macalester College and author of The Language of War. It is "grandiloquent without sounding too grandiloquent". It references the theatre of action and implies a sense of inevitability. By contrast, not having a name at all conveys a "sense of indecision". But for the Pentagon it's an improvement on Operation Bleh.

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