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Geronimo! How not to name a mission


Naming is one of the hardest jobs a copywriter does. It’s made harder by the fact that a lot of people think it’s easy. Truly, it’s tough to pick a name that (a) communicates the right tone and level of cleverness, (b) achieves consensus, (c) hasn’t been used before, and (d) sticks.

Granted, that’s still way easier than killing Osama bin Laden.

My point is that the U.S. military does a lot of hard things very well, but when it comes to naming things, it often falls short. Consider Geronimo.

On the secret bin Laden raid, the military used the code word “Geronimo.” It seems clear at this point—after the president’s interview on “60 Minutes”—that Geronimo was the codeword for bin Laden himself, not the mission generally.

The real-life Geronimo was a legendary Apache warrior who lived from 1829 to 1909. In modern times, his name is sometimes used as a kind of war cry: U.S. paratroopers began shouting “Geronimo!” when they leapt out of airplanes in World War II.

Using Geronimo’s name as a code for a reviled terrorist was a bad choice. In the Washington Post, an advocate for American Indians observed that it shows, “how deeply embedded the ‘Indian as enemy’ is in the collective mind of America.” One American Indian veteran, reflecting a sentiment shared by many people, told the Native American Times, “What totally misguided member of the United States government came up with this hideous misrepresentation of the great Apache leader and warrior, Geronimo?”

Does Uncle Sam need better writers?

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We don’t know who in the U.S. government coined the name.

Trying to figure out how this works, I found a 1995 article on U.S. military naming, which says military commands create their own nicknames with the help of a DOD computer program called NICKA. NICKA itself is a nickname for “Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise Term System.” This system was established in 1975 to standardize operation nicknames using two-letter alphabetic sequences.

Guidelines tell namers to avoid terms “inconsistent with traditional American ideals or current foreign policy” or “offensive to good taste or derogatory to a particular group, sect, or creed.”

With the secret bin Laden raid, it seems they didn’t follow this process exactly.

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Some military operation names are real lemons. The 2003 mission to capture Saddam Hussein was called Operation Red Dawn, after a cheesy 1984 Patrick Swayze movie. (Timothy Noah on Slate wrote at the time, “Maybe it’s time for the Pentagon to create an Office for Rhetorical Competence.”)

The movie Hot Shots spoofed the military’s ineptitude at naming missions by sending its heroes on Operation Sleepy Weasel.

And, just like naming anything else, sometimes the wrong name sticks. Today you often hear people refer to the 1991 Gulf War by the nickname Desert Storm. A pretty good name, right? In fact, Operation Desert Storm was only supposed to refer to a narrow part the war, not the entire campaign. Wikipedia has a list of all the names employed by the U.S. military during the 1991 war in Iraq:

  • Operation Desert Shield
  • Operation Desert Storm
  • Operation Desert Farewell
  • Operation Desert Calm
  • Operation Desert Sabre
  • Operation Desert Sword

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Should the military have a team of elite copywriters charged with coming up with inspiring, memorable names for everything? That seems silly. They’d be better off training those writers to interpret Arabic. So we make do with the military names we get.

The easiest way to keep people from criticizing your dumb name is by being successful. Operation Geronimo—or whatever it was called—will be remembered as a triumph in spite of its name, not because of it.

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Bonus: Have fun coming up with your own secret names using the Code Name Generator.

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Photo: Geronimo, 1907, A.B. Canady via Library of Congress

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Politics

One comment

  1. John O'Connell says:

    Actually the codename for OBL was Crankshaft.

    As for the mission name, use your brain. Geronimo was difficult and crafty adversary whom adapted to changing circumstances.

    Hmmm, who could that relate to?

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