Return to pieces on Sept. 11 attacks

A Name Too Far

Geoffrey Nunberg

From the San Jose Mercury News, Sunday Perspective section,
Sept 30, 2001

After nine months of behaving as if the US could go it alone internationally, the Administration is scrambling to accommodate the concerns of its allies, real and potential. Which means, among other things, that it is suddenly having to watch its language.

A week ago, the White House was forced to apologize for the President's description of the campaign against terrorism as a "crusade," when it was pointed out that the word still evokes unpleasant historical memories among Muslim nations. (The Arabic translation of crusade, "al-hamalat as-salibiyya," literally means "campaign of the cross," a connection that English-speakers are apt to overlook, particularly if their Latin is shaky.)

Then the administration blundered again when it dubbed the campaign Operation Infinite Justice, a name that seemed to some Muslims to promise what only Allah could deliver. The Pentagon quickly redesignated the buildup Operation Enduring Freedom, a name that manages to be both grandiose and dangerously ambiguous -- you can be sure that some parties will see an interest in translating it so that "freedom" comes out as the object rather than the subject of the verb.

It wasn't a problem that anyone had to worry about when the American military first started to give names to operations during World War II. Operations back then bore nondescript names like Avalanche, Market Garden, Mulberry, and of course Overlord, the name personally selected by Winston Churchill for the Normandy invasion. That name may have conveyed "a sense of majesty and patriarchal vengeance," as the historian David Kahn put it, but it was singularly uninformative about the mission. In fact Churchill himself urged that names be carefully chosen so as not to suggest the character of the operation, particularly after British intelligence intercepted references to a German operation called Sealion and guessed that it was a plan to invade Britain.

The Allied operation names were kept strictly secret, to the point where even an inadvertant mention could trigger an alarm. A few weeks before D-Day, the names Utah, Omaha, and Overlord showed up as answers in the London Daily Telegraph's crossword puzzle. Officers from MI5 rushed to Surrey to interview the schoolteacher who had composed the puzzles, but the whole business turned out to be a bizarre coincidence.

It wasn't until after the war that names like Overlord and Avalanche became household words (not to mention the model for the names of hundreds of movies, from "Operation Pacific" to "Operation Petticoat"). At that point the War Department realized there could be an advantage in creating a new category of unclassified operation nicknames for public-relations purposes. Even so, most of the postwar names were no more descriptive than the secret code names of World War II. President Eisenhower sent the Marines to Lebanon in 1957 under the name Operation Blue Bat, and the military operations in Vietnam tended to have names like End-Sweep, Pocket Money, and Abilene.

True, generals occasionally picked operation names that had more martial connotations, but that could backfire. When General Ridgeway named one Korea operation Killer, the State Department complained that he had soured the ongoing negotiations with the Chinese. Fifteen years later in Vietnam, General Westmoreland was forced to rename Operation Masher when President Johnson objected that the name didn't reflect the administration's "pacification emphasis." And the press came down on the Reagan administration when it dubbed the invasion of Grenada Operation Urgent Fury, which seemed an excessively bellicose title for a mission to rescue some medical students on a Caribbean island whose total armed forces were smaller than the San Jose Police Department.

The unhappy experience with the name Urgent Fury brought home just how important an operation name could be in determining the public perception of a military action. By the late 1980's, the administration was choosing its operation names with the media in mind. When the US sent troops to Panama in 1989, the Bush Administration named the operation Just Cause. The name irked some critics who had reservations about the legitimacy of the invasion -- the New York Times ran an editorial on the name entitled "Operation High Hokum." But a number of news anchors picked up on the phrase "just cause" to describe the invasion, which encouraged the Bush and Clinton administrations to make a policy of using tendentious names for their military actions.

Operation Just Cause was followed by operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the first time the word "operation" was swollen to apply to a full-blown war. Those were followed in quick succession by Restore Hope in Somalia, Uphold Democracy in Haiti, and operations in the Balkans that went by names like Shining Hope, Determined Force, and Provide Promise. ("Provide" is a favorite element in these names -- since 1989, we have had operations called Provide Promise, Provide Refuge, Provide Hope, Provide Transition, Provide Comfort, and Provide Relief.)

All of this has turned the naming of operations into a delicate art. In an article a few years ago in the quarterly of the U. S. Army War College, Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Sieminski offered several naming guidelines. First, he says, make the name meaningful. Don't waste a public relations opportunity -- remember that the operation name is the first bullet in the war of images. Second, identify and target the critical audience -- decide whether your name is intended to fire up the troops, win domestic support, allay the concerns of other nations, or intimidate the enemy. And finally, make it concise and memorable -- find a name that vividly evokes the characteristics of the operation that you want people to focus on.

Those guidelines are good advice whether you're naming a military operation or a new SUV: it all comes down to branding. And it's no accident that the new-style names like Just Cause were introduced around the same time the cable news shows started to label their coverage of major stories with catchy names and logos. That practice began back in 1979 when ABC packaged its special coverage of the Iran hostage crisis as a late-night program called America Held Hostage, which later evolved into Nightline. But it was left to CNN and then the other cable news networks to start routinely bannering every major story, high or low. "War in the Gulf," "Death of a Princess," "Flashpoint Kosovo," "Boy in the Middle" -- remember Elian? -- "Investigating the President," "Power, Politics, and Pardons," "The Search for Chandra Levy."

Like the Pentagon's operation names, the networks' title suggest a master narrative for what might otherwise seem a disorderly stream of events. It's a convenient way of packaging stories like Elian Gonzales or the Mark Rich pardon, which do have the feel of real-life miniseries. But the current crises are too far-reaching and open-ended to be comfortably wrapped by any banner.

You could see the networks struggling to find a unifying theme for their coverage as they went from one banner to another: Assault on America, America Unites, America Rising, America on Alert, America Fights Back. But the pathos of the slogans seemed to diminish the enormity of the attacks and the events they had set in motion, from New York and Washington to Vero Beach to Islamabad to Wall Street. And who knows where else, as events run their unpredictable course. I think of the lines from Robinson Jeffers' "I Shall Laugh Purely":

History falls like rocks in the dark,
All will be worse confounded soon.
But at least the networks can keep reframing their narrative from one day to the next. The military have to come up in advance with a name for an "operation" which is going be waged over many years in many different theaters, and whose outcome would be kindly described as murky.

"Operation Enduring Freedom" is not an auspicious choice. Even if you set aside its ambiguity, the name would have made Churchill uneasy. He was partial to naming operations after Roman gods, war heroes, or famous racehorses -- words that produced an agreeably heroic rumble without saying anything about the goals of the mission. And he warned specifically against using words that imply an "overconfident sentiment." He knew as well as anyone how history delights in throwing unforeseen ironies our way.


GEOFFREY NUNBERG is a linguist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and Stanford University. He is the author of The Way We Talk Now.