Good Mission, Bad Name

Why bring the movie Red Dawn into it?

Chatterbox is delighted that U.S. troops have captured Saddam Hussein, the murderous former dictator of Iraq. But couldn’t they have given this military operation a better code name than “Operation Red Dawn”?

Red Dawnis a campy Cold War-era movie depicting the invasion of the United States by Soviet and Cuban troops. A band of youths from a small town in Colorado (including, pre-Dirty Dancing,Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey) name themselves the “Wolverines” and mount a guerrilla resistance against the totalitarians who murdered their families. (“Don’t cry, man. Let it turn into something else.”) The tip-off that Operation Red Dawn was named deliberately after the movie is that the two hiding places scouted out by the combat team were code-named “Wolverine I” and “Wolverine II.” (Saddam was found near Wolverine II.)

The problem with calling Saddam’s capture Operation Red Dawn is that it subverts the righteousness of our action with Orwellian Newspeak. (By sheerest coincidence, Red Dawn was released in 1984.) The U.S. military isn’t mounting an insurgency against a foreign invader. It is the foreign invader. The real insurgents in Iraq—its Wolverines—are the Baathists and Islamist extremists who continue to wage guerrilla war against the American occupation and its Iraqi collaborators. By stating this, Chatterbox does not mean to insult our troops or pay any sort of compliment to the Iraqi opposition. In this particular situation, Huge Invading Force = Good Guys, and Scrappy Wolverine Resistance = Bad Guys. Even the most vocal critics of the war usually concede this point. Now the Pentagon has undermined this clarity by introducing an unhelpful vocabulary that invites disaffected Iraqis to make stupid comparisons between the United States and the former Soviet Union. How inept can propaganda get?

Chatterbox knows that the naming of a military operation is one of its least important components. But why do we have to muck this up again and again? The Clinton-era Pentagon named a 1998 bombing operation against Iraq (“Operation Desert Fox”) after a German general who fought for our Nazi enemies during World War II. The previous Bush administration gave its 1989 invasion of Panama the pathetically embattled name “Operation Just Cause,” as if to say, “We are too allowed to arrest a foreign leader for violating U.S. law.” Two years ago, a Slate “Explainer” column by Emily Yoffe reported that all names for military operations must be reviewed by both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. But that doesn’t appear to be enough. Maybe it’s time for the Pentagon to create an Office for Rhetorical Competence.

[Update, Dec. 16: In today’s Los Angeles Times, John Milius, the director and co-author of Red Dawn, is in a hilarious snit  because he hasn’t yet been asked by Daily Variety or the Hollywood Reporter to comment on Saddam’s capture. (“If it had been called Operation Forrest Gump, I think that would have been front-page news.”) That the plot of Red Dawn is an awkward trope to describe the seizing of a foreign leader seems entirely lost on Milius:

“The movie has a definite following in [military] sectors and is very, very, very well liked,” said Milius, 59. “It’s a patriotic movie; it’s a very American movie…. Nothing’s more traditional than resistance.” The soldiers who captured Hussein, he remarked, “are Wolverines who have grown up and gone to Iraq.”

But…oh, never mind.]