How Military Campaigns Get Their Names

Research shows the names of Israeli military campaigns are cleverly designed to push the citizenry’s emotional buttons.
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Research shows the names of Israeli military campaigns are cleverly designed to push the citizenry’s emotional buttons.

Military campaigns have traditionally been named after geographical locations: The Battle of Gettysburg, the Siege of Troy. But that was the pre-Mad Men era, before national leaders realized the value of branding extends to armed incursions.

In recent years, we’ve had Operation Iraqi Freedom (which ascribed an idealistic motivation to our actions) and Operation Desert Storm (which suggested our force was ferocious). Such names are clearly chosen to influence public opinion back home; they pre-emptively frame how the campaign will be perceived by the public.

How do military marketing experts come up with these muscular monikers? That’s the topic of a new analysis by Israeli scholar Dalia Gavriely-Nuri. Writing in the journal Armed Forces and Society, and using her own nation as a case study, she reports the use of emotional allusions is both multifaceted and sophisticated.

A lecturer on culture and communication at Hadassah College Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University, Gavriely-Nuri analyzed 239 names given to Israeli military operations and weaponry between 1948 and 2007. She found 27 percent of them utilized names or concepts from nature, while another 38 percent alluded to the Bible.

The natural-world references position a military attack — which is, after all, a decision made by human beings — “as if were an integral part of the natural chain of events,” she writes. Terms such as Operation First Rain and Operation Lightning Strike depict the decision to go into battle “as an inevitable, natural event, rather than one worthy of public examination.”

Nature references also provide valuable euphemisms. Gavriely-Nuri notes that Operation Snow, the name given to the 1982-85 Israeli War in Lebanon, “refers to a phenomenon of great natural beauty, an impression strengthened by its association with the color white, denoting cleanliness and purity.”

The biblical references help legitimize operations in the public mind, by “representing these activities as direct continuations of biblical campaigns,” she writes. For example, Operation Yoav “reminds one of the heroism of King David’s military commander.”

“Most Israelis, religious and secular alike, study the Bible for at least 10 years, starting in kindergarten, as a compulsory school subject,” Gavriely-Nuri notes. “This semantic field clearly exploits a widely shared cultural resource.”

Through this sort of linguistically positioning, the government conveys the impression that its decisions to use force “are products of natural law or continuations of ancient traditions,” she writes. With that authority established, she adds, “questions relating to human choice, decision-making or responsibility” become inappropriate or irrelevant.

As Gavriely-Nuri notes, this tendency is hardly limited to Israel. Besides the previously mentioned Operation Iraqi Freedom, she points to Hezbollah’s Operation Truthful Promise, a noble-sounding name for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.

So the next time your government asks you to support military action, it’s worth thinking about the terminology being used, and considering whether you’re being manipulated. In the view of this Israeli researcher, these names add up to a “subtle inculcation of positive attitudes toward the use of violence.” The most rational response may be to implement Operation Skeptical Citizen.