🚧 Website Maintenance in Progress: Thank you for visiting! We are currently in the process of enhancing our website to serve you better. Please check back soon for our new and improved website.

The use of operational code names or nicknames to describe war or conflicts can have wide-reaching implications. For example, Haug (2010) notes how there is a constant creation of label names in the military, with most being relatively short-lived. However, he emphasizes that these kinds of labels “have an impact on the life and work of the armed forces: they provide perceptions of warfare and answers as to how the wars should be fought" (p. 1).

This idea of labels as an influence on armed forces members has been carried forward and into the public realm by military and political leaders where nicknames for major operations are also designed to shape the “domestic and international perceptions about the activities they describe” (Sieminski, 1995, p. 81) such as a humanitarian focus or the restoration of democratic authority.

For example, in an attempt to win public support for the war in the Persian Gulf, US military and political leaders concerned themselves with “fighting the war for public support at home by using all the classic practices of public relations, including political strategies, media relations, community relations, employee relations, and crisis management” (Hiebert, 1991, p. 108). As such, operational code names or nicknames describing war or conflict can have serious repercussions, such as shifting the legal and humanitarian rights of those people involved, and can even be a matter of life and death (Kirtley, 2003).

Because of these implications, this article will explore the impact of using these names in scholarly publications such as those of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS)--the Journal of Traumatic Stress or Traumatic StressPoints--and outline valuable lessons that authors and editors for ISTSS publications can learn from the long experience and wisdom of journalists in the field when it comes to using operational code names or nicknames in print.

Sieminski (1995) outlines the historical background of military code names and nicknames. He explains that classified code names began in World War I in the German military to protect the security of plans and operations, as well as to keep track of the sequence of operations; many countries followed suit. After World War II, these code names were sometimes declassified (then called nicknames) and were given to the press before the operations ended. Examples of some of these nicknames include Operation Barbarossa for the German occupation of Soviet territory,Operation Arc Light for the US bombing in Vietnam, or Operation Cast Lead for Israel's invasion of Gaza. Along with code words, for instance, the U.S. war department developed unclassified operational nicknames with unclassified meanings for “administrative, morale, and public information purposes” (p. 83). Using specific guidelines and even computer programs to create code names or nicknames, there is much discussion that takes place around naming operations (Barnes, 2014).

Dan Lamothe (2014), in a Washington Post articles describes the extent of attention these nicknames can have; he writes, “The OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] acronym became a part of the troops’ lexicon and was incorporated in everything from awards to bumper stickers.” Barnes (2014) also describes how different types of code names or nicknames can “evoke the Middle East . . . highlight the international coalition . . . influence public perception . . . get funding . . . [or] create unique medals for different operations to highlight breadth of service.” He emphasizes how the nicknames show the military’s commitment to, and ownership of the operation; and if an operation is not named well, it can be “a missed opportunity.”

For example, Arkin (2005) highlights how good nicknames can garner public support and funding for a specific war effort. When, where, and how these nicknames are used, endorsed, framed, or highlighted can have a significant influence over the reading or viewing audience, especially for news organizations reporting on war and conflict, or academic publications reporting on research with participants involved in warfare.

The International Press Institute (2014) cautions that using particular terms or names "can perpetuate stereotypes, can incite hatred or can simply deflect from more pressing issues" (p. 3). For example, using the expression ‘activity/action’ rather than ‘military operation/military action’ diminishes its confrontational or violent nature (A soldier was wounded while carrying out a routine activity.). More abstractly, the use of a particular label in discussing conflict affects the very manner in which we perceive it; the label moving from a term created often by political policy, to one that is normalized and accepted as a more objective truth (Reese & Lewis, 2009).

This is particularly concerning, given these terms often serve to reinforce particular power structures and political interests, and can present narratives of an "us versus them" mentality (Frank & Said, 2004; Reese & Lewis, 2009).

Research has demonstrated that international media coverage can influence the reading or viewing public's view of a given conflict, particularly their understanding of the countries in conflict, and their sense of fear about the consequences of war (e.g., spread of the war, war-related fatalities) (Willnar et al., 2004).

David Studer (Director of Journalism Standards and Practices, CBC News; personal communication, February 27, 2015) makes judgments based on journalism standards and ethics and is often asked for decisions on what wordings to use in various contexts. He notes how operational or project labels that exist in many professions (e.g., the Toronto police force project labels such as “Project Yellowbird” and “Project Traveller”) are used occasionally in news reporting. He points out how the long military tradition of using operational nicknames, such as Operation Overlord for the D-Day landing or nicknames currently chosen such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, seem “designed for the purposes of public relations and politics.” This is a perspective that CBC reporters try to avoid. However, he clarifies that journalists very seldom use ‘operation’ nicknames. He explains how nicknames could sometimes be “used in commentary (possibly ironically),” but for the most part journalists use common descriptions such as ‘Afghan war’ and so on.

Bruce Shapiro (Executive Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma; contributing editor at The Nation, and U.S. correspondent for Late Night Live on ABCNR; personal communication, February 27, 2015) agrees with this perspective, saying that he would caution journalists, “to use military nomenclature sparingly, [and] only when it is specifically relevant because of the context.”

Andrew Whitehead (personal communication, February 25, 2015), a recently retired editor of BBC World Service News, emphasized that nicknames such as Operation Enduring Freedom, are avoided for several reasons. First, he noted that, “if we are talking about a war or offensive or conflict or invasion, we call it that; to use a military/diplomatic code name would confuse most of our global audience.” Second, using these terms would be perceived as endorsing one side of the conflict and “would be failing to be objective.”

When journalists do consider using operational nicknames, it is usually for very specific reasons. For example, Whitehead noted that the BBC, on “rare occasions,” uses these labels in the context of “news making” such as when they occur in sound bites, as an important aspect of the story, or where the military operation itself is the topic of discussion. Shapiro agrees that using operational nicknames is acceptable if reporting, “specifically about how the Pentagon refers to its own tactical deployment.” He goes on to describe how the use of operational nicknames, “is wrong as a generic way of referring to the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which were just that, an invasion and occupation, which should not be euphemized; and which have all sorts of political, legal and human dimensions beyond the specific plans and strategies represented by an operational designation.” He also wonders if people in the general public would really know the differences between various operations if given the nicknames. This is especially true if people are given the nicknames for the various progressions of an operation where the name may change a number of times to designate its current status, such as Operation Enduring Freedom for war in Afghanistan being later revised to Operation Freedom's Sentinel (Eugene, 2015).

Journalists offered a number of suggestions for appropriate ways to address the use of nicknames for military operations “that emphasizes precision of language and universal accessibility without stomping on authors' fingers,” says Shapiro. He suggests the “old first-reference-and-explanation gambit: ‘The American war in Afghanistan, designated Operation Enduring Freedom by the Pentagon...’” As the bottom line for journalists everywhere, Cliff Lonsdale (co-founder of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma with more than 40 years experience as a reporter, editor, producer, and news executive; personal communication, March 2, 2015) cites the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law as the key publication for journalists related to writing style and as a top reference for using politicized terms such as operational code names.

One of the tenants of the Stylebook is to ensure that the language journalist’s use is short, concise and understandable everywhere (Christian, Froke, Minthorn, & Jacobsen, 2014). The editors consider the journalism style outlined in the Stylebook as supporting credibility, accuracy, and truth (Christian et al., 2014). Lonsdale explains how the language of objectivity comes from using “the plainest language possible” and especially in avoiding “terms which carry political or other baggage.” He notes how the Stylebookdeclines titles (use of a capital “W”) for ‘war’ but rather advocates for the use of the lower case “w” such as “Iraq war” when writing about conflicts such as this. Military code names or nicknames are most often “put in quotation marks to indicate that they are not in generally accepted use.” He emphasized that reputable journalists would not use military code names or nicknames in place of “Afghan war,” “Iraq war” and so on.

Although the context differs, researchers writing for academic and scientific publication may be able to benefit from learning about the ways that journalists have addressed this issue. It is notable that, in significant contrast to this guidance from very experienced journalists, manuscripts published in many of the journals in our field, including international journals such as the Journal of Traumatic Stress, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, and Lancet, show numerous authors using operational nicknames to identify the conflicts in which military members are involved.

For example, in writing about warfare involvement, scientific journal authors use nicknames such as military members “returning from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)” (Franz et al., 2013, p. 499), “deployments in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq (Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom [OEF/OIF]” (King, Street, Gradus, Vogt, & Resick, 2013, p. 175), or “veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF)” (Nazarian, Kimerling, & Frayne, 2012, p. 220).

A second way that authors use operational nicknames include identifying the veterans themselves such as “OEF/OIF veterans” (Dursa, Reinhard, Barth, & Schneiderman, 2014, p. 542) or “Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veterans” (Brown, Antonius, Kramer, Root, & Hirst, 2010, p. 496) rather than “Iraq and Afghanistan veterans” (Seal et al., 2010, p. 5). From the direction given by the journalists above, an international journal with an international audience should avoid the identification of war experiences through operational nicknames because they carry political bias.

The use of such terms threatens to limit the clarity of communication across cultures, in that readers outside of the US—or even within the US—may not know to what war or conflicts these operational nicknames refer. Further, the avoidance of naming the actual military activity or words related to the warfare deemphasizes the very heart of the violence, killing, and death that occurs in war as identified by the International Press Institute (2014) above.

As Hiebert (1991) states, “the effective use of words and media today . . . is just as important as the effective use of bullets and bombs. In the end, it is no longer enough just to be strong. Now it is necessary to communicate. To win a war today government not only has to win on the battlefield, it must also win the minds of its public” (p. 115).

Is this also true for the authors and editors of scientific publications, including those in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, who report on results of military-based research? What is the next step in ensuring that scientific publications are focused on the needs and perspectives of an international audience, and remain neutral and politically unbiased?

About the Author

Patrice Keats, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education (Counselling Psychology program) at Simon Fraser University in Canada.