How Military Operations Get Their Code Names

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© Hannibal Hanschke/dpa/Corbis

Last month the world watched rebel forces pour into Tripoli under the banner of Operation Mermaid Dawn. While watching the news, I was struck by a curiosity many of you might have shared: just where exactly do these names come from?

It’s a relatively new practice, actually—less than a hundred years old. The Germans pioneered it during World War I, and the idea took hold in the interwar period, especially as radio became a predominant means of communication.

Before the U.S. even entered the war, Operation Indigo saw U.S. Marines land on Iceland to secure it against possible Axis invasion. Nazi Germany was simultaneously planning its invasion of Soviet Russia, which to this day is the largest military operation in history. It was originally named Operation Fritz, after the son of one of the planners. Hitler must have sensed the inadequacy of the name and upped the ante with a more regal moniker: Operation Barbarossa. The title came from Frederick I Barbarossa, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who “extended German authority over the Slavs in the east and who, legend said, would rise again to establish a new German Empire.”

Churchill's Rules

Winston Churchill, who personally named the Normandy invasion, warned against the dangers of revelatory code names. At one point in the war, he insisted on personally approving every operation name before it was carried out. He quickly realized the impossibility of such a large task and settled for listing some guidelines in a 1943 memo:

1. Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code words which imply a boastful or overconfident sentiment. . . . They ought not to be names of a frivolous character. . . Names of living people--Ministers and Commanders--should be avoided. . . .

2. ...the world is wide, and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which do not suggest the character of the operation or disparage it in any way and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called "Bunnyhug" or "Ballyhoo."

3. Proper names are good in this field. The heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses, names of British and American war heroes, could be used, provided they fall within the rules above.

The names were kept in strict confidence—even the smallest compromises were call for alarm. In the months before the D-Day landings, the crossword puzzle of The Daily Telegraph displayed the code names for each of the landing beaches: Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah, Omaha. After that came the code name for the entire mission: Overlord.

British intelligence officers raced to Surrey and interrogated the crossword creator (a schoolmaster), only to find out he knew nothing. For decades it was thought to be a bizarre coincidence. But in 1984 Ronald French, who had been a schoolboy of 14 in 1944 (and one of the crossword creator’s pupils), claimed he inserted the words into the puzzle after hearing American soldiers talk about the invasion.

A Name for Everything

By the end of the war, the practice was well-established on all sides, with code names given for everything from post-war Nazi insurgencies (Operation Werwolf) to psychological mail campaigns (Operation Cornflakes) to fake missions altogether (Operation Mincemeat). In most cases, names were chosen by mid-level officers in charge of planning, but frequent interventions took place when tagging significant campaigns.

After World War II, the use of code names spread to the CIA (Operations Ajax and Zapata). The practice bloomed further during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, although the results were sometimes less artful than Churchill would have liked. Several missions that drew attention for the wrong reasons included Operations Killer, Ripper, Masher, and Moolah. On the Korean peninsula, Operation Paul Bunyan put a decisive end to the most contentious tree dispute between two neighbors in history.

By the end of Vietnam, Department of Defense officials recognized the need for further instruction to prevent negative responses to inopportune names, which were now being released to the public immediately after the missions began. In their 1972 guidelines, the DoD cautioned officers against names that: "express a degree of bellicosity inconsistent with traditional American ideals or current foreign policy," "convey connotations offensive to good taste or derogatory to a particular group, sect, or creed," "convey connotations offensive to allies or other Free World nations," or employ "exotic words, trite expressions, or well-known commercial trademarks." The Pentagon also required that all names feature two words.

Computers were added to the mix in 1975. NICKA, as the system is known, validates and stores all operational names. Each command of the U.S. military is given a series of two-letter prefixes. The first word of every operational name must start with one of those prefixes. For example, the U.S. Africa Command (based, of course, in Stuttgart) was allowed to choose between three groups of letters when naming the Libyan air campaign: JS-JZ, NS-NZ, and OA-OF. By choosing OD from the third list, they arrived at the word “Odyssey.” The second word may be chosen at random.

For the next several years, military operations assumed random names (Operation Golden Pheasant, anyone?) as a consequence. It wasn’t until 1989 and the invasion of Panama that a new trend was born. With the rise of cable and the 24-hour news cycle, the military saw operational names as an outlet for public relations work.

After complete success in having the press adopt “Just Cause” as the sobriquet for removing Noriega, a decade of well-intentioned but slightly overwrought moralisms were forced on the public: Operations Restore Hope, Uphold Democracy, Shining Hope, and six different missions that were supposed to “Provide” something: Comfort, Relief, Promise, Hope, Refuge, and Transition. Despite these overreaches, the result is probably preferable to the fallout from a dud like Operation Killer.

© Sgt. Jose D. Trejo/CORBIS

In the past, operation names covered single actions within a larger framework of conflict. Now the practice has grown to encompass entire wars. Nowhere is this more evident than the Gulf War, which is synonymous with Desert Storm. Had General Norman Schwarzkopf gotten his preferred choice of names for the lead-up to war, we would have never gotten a name like Desert Storm. It was only after the Joint Chiefs nixed Peninsula Shield, then Crescent Shield, that Operation Desert Shield (and then Desert Storm) became a reality.

Despite all of these evolutions, it seems impossible to completely escape controversy in naming operations that are, at their core, violent and often messy. In 2001, when President Bush launched the War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan was initially called Operation Infinite Justice (a name Churchill might have taken issue with). Critics cried out that its divine connotation might offend many Muslims whose support America wanted. The name was quickly changed to Operation Enduring Freedom. Then in 2003, the president’s press secretary referred to the Iraq war as Operation Iraqi Liberation, providing fodder for conspiracy theorists everywhere with the acronym O.I.L.

So ... Mermaid Dawn?

As it turns out, "mermaid" has long been a nickname for Tripoli, which helps explain Operation Mermaid Dawn. Although the rebels might have not given us the best name to bandy around in the press, it certainly fared better than Operation Ripper (Part II: The Final Rip) would have. That would have sent the wrong message to almost anyone—except maybe Qaddafi himself.

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September 8, 2011 - 10:32am
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