Noms de Guerre

Q: What do great poems and wars have in common?

A: They don’t need fancy names.

George-W.-Bush-Mission-accomplishedShakespeare didn’t title his sonnets, and I’m fairly sure that no one fighting in the Wars of the Roses thought of them in flowery terms. (The name came along 400 years later.) Now, though, we can barely roll out the tanks before we need to come up with a marquee name, something to blaze across the sky in block capitals and declaim in a stentorian baritone. The latest, our push against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is now officially dubbed—drum roll, please—INHERENT RESOLVE.

Say what?

Well, maybe we need to review how we got here. I’ll miss a few tricks (see my omission of the yarmulke allusion in Israel’s Iron Dome), but my understanding is that war-naming began with the Germans in World War I as they attempted first to code-name secret operations and then to lift the troops’ spirits with names like Archangel, Mars, and Valkyrie. Our own names began in World War II purely for security, and originally came from a list of names that would not suggest activities or locations. So we had Operations Gray, Olympic, and Flintlock. The capture of German scientists, along with the technical plans for German rocketry, was known as Operation Paperclip. The only one seeking higher inspiration was Winston Churchill, who had studied the German names extensively and thought “names of a frivolous character” were damaging both to morale and to history. We have Churchill to thank for changing the name of Operation Soapsuds, an American bomber raid on Romanian oil fields, to Operation Tidalwave.

And thus, I suppose, for ushering in the modern predilection for grandiosity in noms de guerre. Though even code names like Overlord, Churchill’s choice for the 1944 invasion of Europe, were top secret, after WWII we went back to the Germans’ PR tactic. The Korean War got names like Thunderbolt, Roundup, Killer, and Ripper. After running into antiwar resistance at home following Operations Blast Out and Masher, Vietnam name-givers resorted to more peaceful patriotic handles: Junction City, Niagara. After Vietnam—partly as the result of an attempt to automate the system by randomly assigning the first initials of the two-word name and leaving the rest to bureaucrats’ imagination—the names ricocheted from Main Street to Armageddon: Urgent Fury (the invasion of Grenada), Praying Mantis (air strike against Iran), Brother Sam (support for the Brazilian coup), Just Cause (invasion of Panama).

Then came the Deserts. Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Desert Snowplough, Desert Scorpion, Desert Thrust, Desert Siphon. We know what these are all about, and how well they went. Some 21st-century efforts at statesmanlike language—Productive Effort, Restore Hope, Earnest Will—sound weirdly, to my ears, like names given by exhausted Puritan mothers to their 13th and 14th children. But the rest have tried feebly to evoke Lawrence of Arabia.

And I guess, this time, whoever has this impossible job at the Pentagon decided the public wasn’t going to swallow any more sand. Inherent Resolve, though initially described by at least one senior officer as “bleh,” covers a lot of angles. There’s Inherent, meaning “existing in something as a permanent and inseparable element,” which I suppose could refer either to our supposedly rock-solid commitment or to the Obama administration’s policy of “leading from behind,” having the effort inhere in the culture itself. Then there’s the hedge in Resolve, a far cry from, say, Enduring Freedom (the Bush administration’s catch-all term for anti-Islamist operations) in its refusal to name the end goal. It’s the journey, one might say, not the destination.

It’s a sad, bitter chuckle one gets at such names, in the end. Better to go back to the poetry. Here’s the latest list of titles from Dog Ear Publishing, where you can shake a fist at Shakespeare with your own proud title, like Living the Dream, A Lost Hero Found, Angelfish, Hockey Cat, Tangled Ashes. More fun, and less harm done.


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