See, it is about the oil

Operation Ivy Lightning…or OIL

I totally missed this. So did the guys who should be on the lookout for this sort of thing. It’s been widely rumored that Operation Iraqi Freedom was going to be Operation Iraqi Liberation until someone noticed that would lead to OIL. Phil Carter notes

The division plans team (of which I was a member) names every operations plan using a convention that incorporates either Ivy or Ironhorse into the name — e.g. Operation Ironhorse Venture or Operation Ivy Lightning. Unfortunately, this means that every 4ID operation that ends in “L” will result in the acronym “OIL”.

He also links to a great article on the practice and history of naming military operations. It’s long, but at the end are some pointers for current planners:

First, make it meaningful. Don’t waste a public relations opportunity, particularly where highly visible operations are involved. If the Gulf War has taught us anything, it has shown us how powerful words and images can be in shaping perceptions. But in the pursuit of a meaningful name, avoid those that border on the propagandistic. It is one thing to name an operation with a view to gaining public support first; it is quite another to put a label on an operation that insists upon its morality. However righteous an operation might appear to be, a name like Just Cause can be distasteful to the media and general public, not necessarily because they disagree with the justness of the cause, but because they resent having such words put (literally) in their mouths. The more prudent course is to find names that reinforce policy objectives by emphasizing the mission and its rationale. Such an approach is likely to satisfy all critics except those who view any government public relations effort as propaganda.

Second, identify and target the critical audiences. While it has been pointed out that “in the global media environment, the information provided to one audience must be considered available to all audiences,” it is seldom possible to effectively target all potential audiences using a two-word nickname. Thus, one must chose one’s target carefully. The first impulse might be to consider only the morale of the troops and the support of the American public, but two other audiences should be considered as well: the international community, including allies and coalition partners; and the enemy.

In certain situations, even the enemy can be the critical audience, since operation and exercise names can send clear signals of US intentions. For example, Earnest Will was the name of the operation to escort reflagged oil tankers through the Persian Gulf, a name which conveyed to the Iranians the firmness of US resolve in defending the vessels. An amphibious exercise mounted before the Gulf War was dubbed Imminent Thunder, a name clearly designed to intimidate the Iraqis.

Third, be cautious of fashions. Operation nicknames enjoy periods of popularity just like personal names. The current fashion in nicknaming operations is to make the names sound like mission statements by using a verb-noun sequence: Promote Liberty, Restore Hope, Uphold Democracy, Provide Promise. (“Provide” is the most popular verb, having been used in the names of six different operations during the 1989-1993 period.) There is value in this approach because it tends to keep the mission foremost in the minds of the troops executing it, and it reminds domestic and international audiences why the mission was undertaken. But there is also a certain formulaic monotony about such names which makes them less memorable than they might otherwise be. Like having a 1950s classroom full of Dicks and Janes, it’s hard to tell the Provide Hopes and Comforts apart.

Finally, make it memorable. To shape perceptions, nicknames must gain currency, something that can happen only if they cling to the cobwebs of the mind. This was one failing of the name Productive Effort; if the Joint Staff couldn’t even remember it, how would it affect the general public? The name had three strikes against it: it lacked uniqueness (all operations are efforts, and one hopes that all are productive); it was abstract (what is a productive effort anyway?); and it was too long (five syllables).

To avoid these failings, start by identifying unique attributes of the operation. Try to capture those characteristics in specific terms with a metaphor or with words that evoke an image. Try to keep each word to two syllables or less. Sea Angel, the name that replaced Productive Effort, has all the traits of a memorable name: it is unique and specific; it evokes a clear image in more than one culture; and it has only three syllables. Desert Shield and Desert Storm share those traits. It is no accident that the latter name is so frequently substituted for the name Gulf War. People remember it.