When Did the Defense Department Begin Giving Wars Patriotic Names?

History Q & A

Mr. Solomon, the author of The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media, writes a nationally syndicated column, Media Beat (mediabeat@igc.org).

Marketing a war is serious business. And no product requires better brand names than one that squanders vast quantities of resources while intentionally killing large numbers of people.

The American trend of euphemistic fog for such enterprises began several decades ago. It's very old news that the federal government no longer has a department or a budget named "war." Now, it's all called "defense," a word with a strong aura of inherent justification. The sly effectiveness of the labeling switch can be gauged by the fact that many opponents of reckless military spending nevertheless constantly refer to it as "defense" spending.

During the past dozen years, the intersection between two avenues, Pennsylvania and Madison, has given rise to media cross-promotion that increasingly sanitizes the organized mass destruction known as warfare.

The first Bush administration enhanced the public-relations techniques for U.S. military actions by "choosing operation names that were calculated to shape political perceptions," linguist Geoff Nunberg recalls. The invasion of Panama in December 1989 went forward under the name Operation Just Cause, an immediate media hit. "A number of news anchors picked up on the phrase Just Cause, which encouraged the Bush and Clinton administrations to keep using those tendentious names."

As Nunberg points out, "it's all a matter of branding. And it's no accident that the new-style names like Just Cause were introduced at around the same time the cable news shows started to label their coverage of major stories with catchy names and logos." The Pentagon became adept at supplying video-game-like pictures of U.S. missile strikes at the same time that it began to provide the big-type captions on TV screens.

Ever since the Gulf War in early 1991, people across the political spectrum have commonly referred to that paroxysm of carnage as Operation Desert Storm -- or, more often, just Desert Storm. To the casual ear, it sounds kind of like an act of nature. Or, perhaps, an act of God.

Either way, according to the vague spirit evoked by the name Desert Storm, men like Dick Cheney, Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell may well have been assisting in the implementation of divine natural occurrences; high winds and 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs raining down from the heavens.

Soon after the Gulf War a.k.a. Desert Storm ended, the Army's chief of public affairs, Maj. Gen. Charles McClain, commented: "The perception of an operation can be as important to success as the execution of that operation." For guiding the public's perception of a war -- while it is happening and after it has become history -- there's nothing quite like a salutary label that sticks.

In October 2001, while launching missiles at Afghanistan, the Bush team came up with Operation Infinite Justice, only to swiftly scuttle the name after learning it was offensive to Muslims because of their belief that only Allah can provide infinite justice. The replacement, Enduring Freedom, was well-received in U.S. mass media, an irony-free zone where only the untowardly impertinent might suggest that some people had no choice other than enduring the Pentagon's freedom to bomb.

If you doubt that the Executive Branch is run by people who plan U.S. military actions while thinking like marketers, you're (no offense) naive. It was a candid slip of the tongue a couple of months ago when the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, told the New York Times: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." Not coincidentally, the main rollout of new-and-improved rationales for an upcoming war on Iraq did not take place until September.

Looking ahead, the media spinners at the White House are undoubtedly devoting considerable energy to sifting through options for how to brand the expected U.S. assault on Iraq. Long before the war is over, we'll all know its reassuring code name. But we won't know the names of the Iraqi people who have been killed in our names.

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Corine Jackson - 12/3/2003

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Herodotus - 11/9/2002

The author fails to address his core question. I kept waiting for some historical perspective. When _DID_ the Pentagon begin giving patriotic-sounding names to large scale operations? Was it a conscious decision? By whom--the political leadership or the soldiers? Does it date back to World War II (as I suspect), to the Cold War, or to the Gulf War of 1990-91 as he suggests?

Oh, and on the changing of the name of the new Defense Department-- how about the fact that it couldn't be called the 'War' Department because the intention was not to subordinate the Navy and the Air Force to the Army.

Mr. Soloman is given his essay back and is asked for a rewrite.

jpalermo - 11/8/2002

I find it so offensive to see MSNBC referring to the war as "Showdown with Saddam" and fearture segments titled: the "Showdown Lowdown" to update its viewers. What kind of a civilization is it that views war as a "brand?"

jpalermo - 11/8/2002

I find it so offensive to see MSNBC referring to the war as "Showdown with Saddam" and fearture segments titled: the "Showdown Lowdown" to update its viewers. What kind of a civilization is it that views war as a "brand?"

Dave Tabaska - 11/8/2002

First off, Mr. Solomon, in the second paragraph, trots out the tired cliche of how the War Department was renamed the Defense Department, completely disregarding the fact that the old War Department was the equivalent of today's Department of the Army, and that the DoD was set up as an umbrella organization for the Army, Navy, and newly created Air Force departments.

Second, just what, exactly, does Mr. Solomon propose be done? The nice thing about code names is that they allow those in the know figure out exactly what is being talked about, while leaving those that you want left out (preferably, the enemy) having to figure out what is meant by the code name. I imagine we could, as an alternative, use the names of U.S. cities, as was done for a time in Vietnam, or brands of beer, as objectives were labeled during the Gulf War (as Operation Desert Shield/Storm is known today).

Jim March - 11/5/2002

...CNN wouldn't use "Operation Kick Their Sorry Asses".


Frank Lee - 11/5/2002

I wonder whether the origins of war-naming aren't much earlier than the 1980s: "Operation Overlord" for D-Day etc..

In any event, rather than leave the choice of nomenclature in the hands of "chickenhawk" salesmen, spin doctors, and con artists, it would be wiser to go straight to the horse's mouth and quote General W. T. Sherman: "War is hell".