What's in a name?
Robert Fisk – The Independent January 3, 2009
I am bemused by the name of Israel's latest military operation against Hamas (and the usual cull of toddlers) in Gaza. The Israeli military calls it Operation Cast Lead. Come again? "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.
Perhaps it's nostalgia for real history, but I always thought the armies of the Second World War had a better flair for names. Operation Overlord – D-Day on 6 June 1944 – was a real cracker. So was Operation Torch (the invasion of North Africa), though Operation Market Garden – the landings at Arnhem – pretty much reflected its dismal results.
Nazi Germany's ferocious Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 – was named after the 12th-century King Frederick of Germany and chief executive officer of the Holy Roman Empire. The much postponed and cancelled German invasion of England in 1940 would have been Operation Sea Lion – Winston Churchill must have appreciated that – although my graduate research into Irish neutrality in the Second World War revealed that Germany's tentative plans to invade de Valera's island was to have been called merely Operation Green. Well, it would, wouldn't it?
Churchill himself had strong views about such nomenclature. Indeed, a largely forgotten disquisition on the subject can be found in a memo he wrote to General Hastings Lionel "Pug" Ismay, his chief of staff, on 8 August 1943. "Operations in which large numbers of men may lose their lives," Churchill wrote, "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'."
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'."
Churchill preferred proper names, the heroes of antiquity, figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the constellations and stars, famous racehorses – was it a ghost of this idea that persuaded the Ministry of Defence to call its 1990 airlift of troops to Saudi Arabia Operation Ascot? – and the names of British and American war heroes. As usual, Churchill was a bit preachy. "Care should be taken in all this process," he wrote. "An efficient and successful administration manifests itself equally in small as in great matters." If only.
The Americans followed Churchill's advice when they decided to organise a coup to overthrow the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq of Iran in 1953. They called it Operation Ajax, though this might actually have fallen into Churchill's "despondency" bracket. Ajax was second only to Achilles in bravery, but he killed himself in a fit of madness. "Monty" Woodhouse, MI5's man in Tehran, chose a more prosaic name for the whole fandango: Operation Boot.
Muslim armies tend to be a little tiresome in their operational titles. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians named their attacks after prayers and then gave them numbers. The Fajr ("Dawn") operation was followed, I'm afraid, by Fajr Two, Fajr Three, Fajr Four and so on. Not very inventive. I guess the most frightening Middle Eastern name of all was Israel's Operation Grapes of Wrath, which reached its appalling end after Israeli artillerymen killed 106 Lebanese civilians – more than half of them children – in the south Lebanese village of Qana in 1996.
Operation Grapes of Wrath was no tribute to John Steinbeck but took its name from the blood-and-vengeance Book of Deuteronomy wherein chapter 32, the song of Moses before he dies leading his Jewish people towards the promised land, speaks of those who will be destroyed by the wrath of God. "The sword without, and terror within, shall destroy both the young men and the virgin, the suckling also with the man of grey hairs," announced verse 25.
Not a bad description of the Qana massacre. And this week, not a bad account of Israel's Gaza shenanigans. Maybe the Israelis should take a leaf out of Iran's book and call it Operation Grapes of Wrath Two.
Last updated 05/01/2009