America’s New War Still Doesn’t Have a Name
Politics trump taxonomy
After weeks of bombing the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon still doesn’t have an official name for its new war. Political concerns at home and abroad are almost certainly the reason for this unusual delay.
As a general rule, all American military outings—even ones where no combat occurs—get colorful nicknames. Official policies and informal traditions provide some guidelines for picking certain monikers over others.
“At one time, operation names were semi-random code words designed to conceal intentions from hostile intelligence and deceive the enemy,” according to Dr. Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
After the Cold War ended, the Pentagon began choosing terms more and more “for political purposes by using them to declare noble intent,” Biddle explains.
But “targeted operations against ISIL terrorists” is currently the only official nomenclature for the air strikes in the Middle East, according to the Defense Department’s Website. Washington prefers the acronym ISIL when referring to the Sunni extremists.
“There are names being considered for this operation against ISIL,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters recently. “As far as I know … there haven’t been any names proffered to the Pentagon to consider, to weight in on, to choose from.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, American commanders have rejected at least one name—Inherent Resolve. The simple act of naming the campaign is apparently fraught with its own kind of danger.
“There is probably not a single reason for the absence of a name for the operation,” says Dr. Elizabeth Saunders, a professor at George Washington University and author of Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions.
The Pentagon’s most immediate hurdle could just be the sheer volume of past named operations in the same general area and around the world. American troops and aircraft have been fighting in and around Iraq—or were poised to do so—on and off for more than 20 years.
In the 1990s, “hundreds of operational names were applied to an apparently bewildering array of deployments [around the world],” former U.S. Army historian Frank Schubert writes in his book Other Than War: The American Military Experience and Operations in the Post Cold War Decade. “Similar and highly optimistic names … abounded.”
The administration of Pres. Barack Obama would definitely want to avoid any negative word association when naming the ongoing fight against the brutal insurgents. As a result, military officers could take a lot of terms off the table immediately.
For instance, an American-led coalition that included Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia also fought in Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi forces in 1991. Desert Fox—a Clinton-era campaign of limited aerial attacks against Baghdad—is similar to today’s campaign in a lot of ways, too.
But Desert Storm is perhaps best known for how fast it came and went. The current aerial bombardment of rebel positions in Iraq and Syria could continue for some time—and possibly expand into a new ground offensive.
On the other hand, American politicians and pundits criticized the Desert Fox strikes as ineffectual—and a distraction from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sen. John McCain and others already complain regularly that Obama isn’t doing enough to address the threat from Islamic State.
Any chance that the Pentagon would choose to go back to nicknames starting with “desert” for this new Middle East skirmish are probably slim indeed. The word invites too many uncomfortable historical comparisons.
On top of this, the president and his generals also have to make sure to distance this new mission—and themselves—from the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the painful occupation that followed, initially dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Toppling Saddam Hussein was a “war of choice,” the commander in chief has consistently stressed. After his election, Obama promptly changed the name of the Iraq mission to the optimistic-sounding New Dawn.
Moreover, the Bush-era nickname reflected Washington’s opposition to the Iraqi government at that time. The United States now publicly supports the regime in Baghdad and wouldn’t want to imply that the Iraqi government is failing in any way.
Obama’s more hopeful, forward-looking war label expired in more ways than one after the last U.S. occupation forces departed in 2011. After American forces departed, Iraq’s Shi’ite government made multiple policy decisions that angered the country’s Sunni communities and helped set the stage for Islamic State’s rise.
“The [Obama] administration may not want to endow the current strikes with the same standing as other missions, given its previous emphasis on getting U.S. forces out of Iraq,” Saunders suggests. In that sense, not naming the present operation could be a smarter political move.
That said, Washington could look to the 2011 Libya air campaign for ideas. The Libya operation was a “time-limited, scope-limited military action,” rather than a war, White House press secretary Jay Carney explained at the time.
Unfortunately, the outcome of that North Africa mission has failed to live up to expectations. Militias continue to challenge the government in Tripoli and the country is essentially in a state of civil war.
The Pentagon has borrowed words from other languages to name recent military deployments. Tomodachi—meaning “friendship” in Japanese—was the codename for American military assistance in Japan after the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami.
After Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines last year, the Pentagon chose the Tagalog word Damayan—translated as “help in time of need”—for the aid mission.
An Arabic name might similarly help focus attention on the regional efforts against Islamic State. Unfortunately, such a label could also easily draw unwanted criticism from conspiracy theorists, many of whom already believe Obama is a secret Muslim.
Whatever happens, the United States needs to find a solution quickly or it may find itself alone among its Western allies in the naming department. London and Paris have already chosen names—Shader and Chammal, respectively—for their attacks on Sunni fighters.
Australia will pick their own title soon, a military official told War Is Boring. Canada—which recently announced plans to send fighter jets to join the new air war—has a tradition of named operations, too.
In early October, one reporter questioned how invested the Pentagon really is in its unnamed campaign against Islamic State last week. Spokesman Kirby was unequivocal. “Anybody that might suggest that we aren’t willing to own what we’re doing in Iraq and Syria is clearly misinformed about the degree to which we’re all working very, very hard on getting at this very real threat,” Kirby said.
A good name might help the military make this point.