Washington First the U.S. military operation to lash out at Osama bin Laden was officially nicknamed Infinite Reach. Then Noble Eagle. Then Infinite Justice. By late this week, that last name was being rethought because some Muslims might find it offensive, according to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
What shall we call it, then? In another time, David Letterman's Top 10 List writers would have had a heyday with the question.
Not now. The language of war is a serious, singular, often inscrutable and important art.
"People have such complex associations with words," says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "I'm not surprised that some Muslims objected to 'Infinite Justice.' It shows that the associations are not always predictable."
Giving nicknames to operational thrusts is a relatively new pursuit in the history of warfare, going back to the middle of the 20th century. Nowadays, the choice of operation names is made using computer-suggested terms, says a Pentagon source.
Since 1975, the process has been aided by various software called the Code Word, Nickname and Exercise Term System. "Basically what happens," says the Pentagon source, "is that each of the theater CINCs the commanders in chief, that is the admirals and generals in charge of regional theaters is given a database of words."
He continues: "A name is randomly selected, normally a word that is pertinent to that region like 'desert' in Desert Storm and Desert Shield," for operations in the 1991 Gulf War.
The commanders are then presented with a new database of words. They choose another word they like and pair it with the first.
The officers then send that two-word phrase "up the chain of command," the source says. Unacceptable phrases are weeded out, one after another, by people in charge. Ultimately the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense pick one.
Between 1975 and 1988, names were pretty meaningless, Gregory Sieminski wrote in the August 1995 issue of Parameters, the U.S. Army War College quarterly. The 1986 Libyan raid was named Eldorado Canyon and the 1988 airstrike campaign against Iranian ships and oil platforms was dubbed Praying Mantis, as a guarantee against embarrassment.
In his 1991 book "The Commanders," Bob Woodward writes that when Gen. James Lindsay, head of the Special Operations Command, learned in 1989 that the United States planned to invade Panama, he discussed the name with Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, on the Joint Chiefs staff.
Lindsay told Kelly he didn't want the campaign to have a silly name: "Do you want your grandchildren to say you were in Blue Spoon?"
Afterward, Kelly summoned his deputy, Brig. Gen. Joe Lopez.
"How about 'Just Action'?" Kelly said.
"How about 'Just Cause'?" Lopez suggested.
Sieminski wrote: "Since 1989, major U.S. military operations have been dubbed with an eye toward shaping domestic and international perceptions about the activities they describe." For example: Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti.
Sieminski offered four guidelines for future naming operations: Make it meaningful; identify and target the critical audience; be cautious of fashions; make it memorable.