Name That Mission

How did Operation Iraqi Freedom turn into Operation New Dawn?

Commanders in Afghanistan

The name of the U.S. military’s mission in Iraq changed on Wednesday from “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to the soap-sudsy “Operation New Dawn.” How does the military choose operation names?

It depends on the campaign’s importance. For a big deal like the Iraq War, staff officers compile a list of two-word nicknames that seem appropriate, and their commanding officer picks one, keeping in mind that it may be used to sell the public on the validity of the undertaking. Then he submits his choice to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for approval and then the Secretary of Defense for a final OK. When Central Command was planning the initial deployment of troops to the Gulf before the first Iraq War, staffers came up with three pages’ worth of possible names. General Norman Schwarzkopf chose Peninsula Shield, but the Joint Chiefs didn’t go for that—or for Crescent Shield, either. They chose Desert Shield instead. When the actual offensive started, Schwarzkopf played off this name to come up with Desert Storm.

There’s less leeway in naming minor operations. The Joint Chiefs of Staff assign each command agency in the Department of Defense a set of two-letter alphabetic combinations—Southern Command, for example, has BL and KE, among other pairings. (Or, at least, it did as of 2002. The document list is classified.) The first word of each nickname must start with one of these designated pairs; the second word is random. So when nicknaming the evacuation of military families from Panama in 1989, Southern Command used BL to come up with Blade Jewel. Another agency, delegated the letters “DI,” chose Divine Strake for a proposed bomb test in the Nevada desert. Any potential name must be checked against a master list to make sure it’s not a repeat, and sent up the chain of command for review.

Staffers coming up with Blade Jewel and the like also follow a set of taste guidelines. They’re supposed to ensure that the nickname does not express too much bellicosity, offend any particular group or sect, or use well-known commercial trademarks. As Lt. Col. Gregory Sieminski explained in the autumn 1995 issue of Parameters, these guidelines, as well as the two-letter method, date from the very end of the Vietnam War and were probably a response to overly aggressive nicknames from that conflict—including two airstrikes called Flaming Dart I and II and a Napalm-heavy sweep through the Bong Son Plain called Masher. The alternate system for major operations like Desert Storm can be traced back to 1989, when Southern Command chose the moniker Blue Spoon for the invasion of Panama (working from the same letter set as Blade Jewel). Believing the name lacked gravity, higher-ups came up with Just Cause (not to be confused with Just ‘Cause).

Explainer thanks Chris Perrine of the Department of Defense and Pat McNally of the Joint Staff.

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