Conquered by dullness, today's military code names lack flair of past monikers


WASHINGTON -- They beckon from the past, the great military battles and their still-stirring code names: Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion of Europe. Operation Torch, the U.S. landing in North Africa. Operation Anvil, the Allied liberation of southern France.

Now fast-forward to the 1990s:

* The U.S. intervention in Somalia was called Operation Restore Hope.

* The U.S. rescue effort in Rwanda was named Operation Support Hope.

* The American intervention in Haiti is known as Operation Uphold Democracy.

* And last month's urgent U.S. mobilization to prevent Iraqi troops from invading Kuwait again was Operation Vigilant Warrior.

"Not the sort of thing they'll remember in the year 2021," a Pentagon strategist conceded.

The disparity points to a paradox: While the quality of U.S. forces and their weapons have risen to an all-time high, the art of finding inspiring code names for what they do has become an unexpected casualty of East-West peace.

Even former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell, himself no stranger to the plain-vanilla turn of phrase, found Operation Productive Effort -- the name proposed for a U.S. humanitarian aid mission to Bangladesh in 1991 -- too humdrum to let out of the Pentagon.

Defense Department planners eventually changed it to Operation Sea Angel, but that was inspired by the Bangladeshis, who first used the term to describe the Marine helicopter pilots who delivered relief supplies.

It was not always this boring. Winston Churchill, the great communicator of World War II, placed special importance on the need for bold-sounding code names for military operations.

He favored monikers such as "Overlord" -- which he approved personally -- in hopes that they might inspire Allied troops (and presumably entice historians as well). In 1943, he even laid down guidelines that still serve as a standard for would-be battle-dubbers.

The U.S. Defense Department maintains a military-wide computer database -- known, in typical Pentagon style, by the initials NICKA, for Codeword Nickname and Exercise Term System -- that seeks to prevent duplication by allocating specific initials to individual commands.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Edwin A. Shuman, who heads the NICKA unit, said combat commanders are assigned a series of double-letter blocks -- from EB through EW, for example -- with the first word (say, "Early,") already provided.

Commanders fill in the second (Early Bird through Early Wake-Up, to continue the example). In a high-profile operation, the names are reviewed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Once taken, a name is not used again for another two years.

All this is just to develop two-word nicknames, which are designed to inspire the troops or to send some sort of message to the public. The actual code names used by the military are only a single word long and are classified as top secret.

Still, too many of today's code names are lackluster, uninspiring, not very stirring and just plain dull.

One exception -- Operation Desert Storm, the name given to the 1991 Persian Gulf war -- isn't bad by historical standards. But the buildup that preceded it was labeled Operation Desert Shield, a name that, perhaps justifiably, already has been all but forgotten.

The name "Vigilant Warrior," for the most recent U.S. deployment to Kuwait, has not found a permanent slot in many memories either, and that operation took place barely a month ago.

Although no one knows precisely when military forces began using code names routinely, the late New Zealand etymologist Eric Partridge reported that the practice already had become entrenched during Elizabethan days, when London recorded almost 200 military code names.

Mr. Partridge's research showed that many of the code-names of that era were applied to people or institutions. Lord Burghley, for example, was said to have used signs of the Zodiac, such as "Cancer" and "Leo" for top officials of that day.

Soldiers, a U.S. Army publication, suggested that Churchill may have set the standard. Acutely aware of the value of symbolism in maintaining fighting spirit, he rejected names that he thought too boastful, frivolous, depressing or mundane.

"The world is wide," he wrote, "and intelligent thought will readily supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names which . . . do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called 'Bunnyhug' or 'Ballyhoo.' "

Today's list is generated entirely by computer, which may explain how the selection got to be so dull. In recent months, the NICKA program appears to have been stuck on the words "provide" and "restore," as in operations Provide Comfort and Restore Hope.

Some analysts suggested that what may be needed now is a new effort dubbed Operation Provide Better Choices, followed by Operation Restore Pizazz to the Pentagon's code names.

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