When the American military's code name for the current intervention in Libya, Operation Odyssey Dawn, was made public, the name generated some jeers (comedian Jon Stewart pointed out that it sounded like an album by the progressive rock band Yes). Which made us wonder: how do operations get named? Bob talks to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg about how it works and how American war names have changed over time.
The Dambusters March
Artist: Eric Coates
BOB GARFIELD: The Libyan operation is called Odyssey Dawn, an appropriately impressive patriotic moniker. We take such naming for granted, but the practice dates only as far back as World War II. That’s when the Nazis pioneered the practice of giving grand, evocative code names to military campaigns and technologies. Hitler, for instance, insisted on changing the Nazi plan to invade the Soviet Union from the generic Operation Fritz to the much more awesome sounding Operation Barbarossa, after the German holy roman emperor, tipping the Russians off to the scale of the enterprise. Axis code names were more than once too illuminating by half. When the Germans devised an innovative navigation system they code named Wotan, which allowed their bombers to home in on targets with a new one-beam radar system, they should have had the strategic edge. But a scientist working for British intelligence recognized that Wotan was a mythic one-eyed god, a clue to the new technology that enabled the British to jam the Germans’ radar. From that, the Allies determined to keep their operational names vague enough to defy decoding. By that logic, the US military’s much-ballyhooed name for its operations in Libya, Odyssey Dawn, should qualify as a success. It’s vaguely heroic and tells us pretty much nothing. To discuss the process of naming big, explosive enterprises, we spoke to University of California at Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. Geoffrey, welcome back to the show.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, first of all, Odyssey Dawn? I don't know if it sounds like a dishwashing liquid or a - an exotic dancer.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Or, or a cruise ship.
[BOB LAUGHS] Well, you know, in a funny way I like that choice. Now, “Odyssey” maybe isn't the best word. It, it suggests these guys wandering around the Mediterranean for ten years. But this is one time when instead of trying to brand the operation, the way they have in previous wars, they just picked a name at random, and there’s no, at least, deliberate attempt at hype or propaganda.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me some examples of the more propagandistic military operations of recent times.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: It really began back with the Panama invasion in 1989, which was the one that they called Operation Just Cause, which The New York Times parodied as Operation High Hokum.
BOB GARFIELD: I always thought of it as Operation Just Cause, as in, why are you invading this tiny little country? “Just ‘cause.”
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Right. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: So what’s the history of these kind of grand, eloquent titles for sending in the troops?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, during the Second World War they had operation names but, while they didn't want names that were trivial, they didn't want names either that would suggest the nature of the operation, so things like Overlord and Market Garden and names of racehorses and figures from Greek mythology, and so on and so forth. That began to change in the 1950s when you began to get all these movies based on that practice. You got things like Operation Crossbow and Operation Petticoat and things like Destination Tokyo, Assignment Foreign Legion – Mission Impossible came in after that – where you put the modifier after the noun. And, at the same time, the military began to use names that were designed to fire up the troops. There were several of them in Korea, Operation Killer, Operation Masher, both of which got General Ridgeway in trouble because we were negotiating with the Chinese at that time, and they sounded a - a little too belligerent.
BOB GARFIELD: Heaven forefend that a military operation could be described in violent terms. That would just [LAUGHS]
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: – send all the wrong signals. [LAUGHING]
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: [LAUGHS] Right. There, there is this tension there because you want a name that really fires up the troops, but not one that might disturb your allies or the, the public at home, so they go back and forth on this. Now, in, in Iraq there was Desert Scorpion, Machete Harvest, OK Corral, Tiger Fury. There was Suicide Kings. I don't know what their thinking was there. The operations that were publicized at home were given names like Desert Shield and Desert Storm that were supposed to suggest these grand enterprises. The other point about Operation Desert Storm, the first Iraq war, is that this is the first time that an operation name of this type is given to a whole war. And these things come in at the same time that the cable news networks are starting to brand their stories, so that you’re getting things like Flashpoint Kosovo and the search for Chandra Levy, and so on and so forth, where this banner is, is run over the story from one day to the next. And the operations’ names have that same function of giving at least a narrative thrust to a series of discreet events.
BOB GARFIELD: Is this a Pentagon deal or is it a White House deal? Does the political operation of the White House get involved in coming up with these brand names?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Initially they were selected by midlevel staff officers. Then higher officials began to get involved. And, and certainly the White House has a say now, not when it’s a small operation in Iraq aimed at routing out some insurgents, but if it’s a major operation like Libya, you can be sure that the White House had something to say about it.
BOB GARFIELD: Sometimes I'm bemused by the names for these operations, which are simultaneously quite awe-inspiring and completely obscure, telling you nothing about really what’s afoot. On the other hand, in the intro we talked about Operation Wotan, which tips off the British to the Germans’ ability to field this single-beam radar. So I, I guess a little bit of obscurity works to your advantage.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, the Germans named one operation Sealion, which was in fact the plan, at least, for the invasion of Britain. The British figured out, hm, Sealion, wonder if that has to do with an invasion, and figured out what that was. The D-Day operation, of course, was called Operation Overlord. And just before that operation was scheduled to go off, a crossword puzzle appeared in a local paper that had the words “overlord” and “Utah” and “Omaha,” which, of course, were the names of the beaches, and everybody freaked out. And it turned out that it was just a complete accident. [LAUGHS] Somebody had just grabbed these words for a crossword puzzle and, and stuck them in there about ten days before the Normandy invasion.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] One of those zany invasion-of-Europe coincidences. Geoff, thank you very much.
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GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at the UC Berkeley School of Information.