Military code names and public opinion

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While secrecy about military operations goes back to the beginnings of war, the systematic use of military code names for operations accelerated in World War II. Code names were rarely if ever known to the public before the operation took place, but, especially by the Western allies, disclosed after the start. True planning code names are discussed under compartmented control systems.

World War II

On 8 August 1943, Winston Churchill issued a directive to avoid names that could offend public opinion.

Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives ought not to be described by code words which imply boastful and overconfident sentiment, such as 'Triumphant', or, conversely, which are calculated to invest the plan with an air of despondency, such as 'Woebetide', 'Massacre', 'Jumble', 'Trouble', 'Fidget', 'Flimsy', 'Pathetic', and 'Jaundice'."

This would have applied to the bloody Dieppe raid, Operation JUBILEE. "Churchill also objected to "names of a frivolous character" and therefore banned Operations Bunnyhug, Billingsgate, Aperitif and Ballyhoo.

"'After all,' Churchill added, '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'.'"[1]

Proper use of code names, before an operation, protects information. There may be levels of sensitivity and multiple code names. For example, while the Normandy Invasion is often called Operation OVERLORD, OVERLORD was the general code name for operations in Western Europe. Far more tightly held was Operation NEPTUNE, the code name for the invasion proper.

While German code names sometimes inappropriately suggested the meaning, such as Operation Sea Lion for the amphibious invasion of Britain, Allied code names sometimes had meaning only to the initiated. For example, Churchill changed the name of the strategic deception plan, under the London Controlling Section, intended to mislead Germany about where the main invasion would strike, from Plan JAEL to Plan BODYGUARD, commenting "in war, truth is so precious she must be guarded by a bodyguard of lies."[2]

Recent U.S. practice

Especially since the 1990s, the U.S. has made a practice of publishing names that give a desired public image, often changed from the internal secret name used for planning. It is the U.S. convention to put code names in ALL CAPITALS.

Some have been less appropriate than others. The 2003 Gulf War very briefly had the code name of Operation IRAQI LIBERATION, before someone noticed its acronym would be the unfortunate OIL. It was changed, quickly, to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

Event Internal code name(s) Public code name(s)
Main 1965-1968 air operations against North Vietnam CINCPAC OPLAN 37-64 Operation ROLLING THUNDER
1983 U.S. intervention in Grenada Operation URGENT FURY
1989 U.S. intervention in Panama BLUE SPOON Operation JUST CAUSE
1991 Gulf War
1998 air campaign in Kosovo Operation ALLIED FORCE; see the article for multiple code names of preparatory operations of lesser force
Afghanistan War (2001-)
2003 Iraq War POLO STEP Operation IRAQI FREEDOM

In the spirit of the earlier and acceptable Operation DESERT SHIELD, Operation DESERT STORM, and Operation DESERT SABRE, an individual, believed to be on the White House staff, designated a U.S. retaliatory raid on Iraq as Operation DESERT FOX. That individual apparently did not realize that Erwin Rommel was known, in WWII, as the Desert Fox.

Other contemporary use

Robert Fisk observed that Israel chose the code name for the 2009 Gaza conflict poorly; Operation CAST LEAD has unfortunate connotations.

"Cast Iron" I might understand, though it would woefully misrepresent Israel's policies since they will in due course talk to the "blood-soaked terrorists" of Hamas when it suites their purposes just as they eventually talked to the "blood-soaked terrorists" of the PLO.

Armies like to tell us that their operational names come from a computer though I always doubted this. Operation Iraqi Freedom did not come from a computer. Operation Litani – Israel's hopeless 1978 invasion of Lebanon – didn't come from a computer either. Nor did Operation Peace for Galilee – the even more hopeless 1982 invasion of Lebanon that took the Israeli army to Beirut and infamy at Sabra and Chatila. Besides, the real military name of Peace for Galilee was Operation Snowball. And as we all know, snowballs get bigger as they roll downhill.[1]