I would have liked to be a fly on the wall in the Situation Room at the White House when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Barack Obama put the finishing touches on the decision to take out Libya’s air defense systems and keep Libyan warplanes on the ground by enacting and enforcing a “No-Fly Zone” over the country.
“What are we going to call this operation?” Obama might have asked one of the generals as he signed his name to the executive order.
“How about Operation Enduring Freedom,” another general would pipe in.
“Already did that one,” the President replies.
“Why don’t we call it Operation Kick Kadafi’s A**,” joked Vice President Joe Biden. “At least people will know what the hell we’re talking about.”
“Yes, Mr. Vice President, but we don’t really want people to know what we are talking about,” said a third general. “The most important weapon we have is obfuscation. If they don’t know what we’re doing, they won’t know what hit ‘em. Why not call it ‘Operation Odyssey Dawn’?”
“What does that even mean?” asked the President.
“Perfect,” the third general replies.
As communicators, we use to language to either clarify or disguise our meaning and intent, but it is hard to disguise the intent of incoming missiles – even if they arrive at Dawn, as advertised.
History recorded the United States’ last official war declaration as beginning on December 11, 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Declaration of War against Germany, three days after signing a similar declaration against Japan the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
It is hard to imagine another word in the English language that is clearer in meaning than the word war. After Congress and Roosevelt declared the two-nation war, the newspapers declared in massive front-page headlines: “It’s War!” or even more simply just “WAR!”
The clarity of such a declaration really became fuzzy during the Vietnam “conflict,” when we sent “advisors” into Vietnam in the early 1960s. After a US navy ship was reportedly fired upon by the North Vietnamese, President Lyndon Johnson asked for – and received – the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress, which authorized armed conflict against the Republic of North Vietnam. Even after a decade of guerilla warfare, incessant bombing, napalm and more than 55,000 American deaths, Vietnam would never be an officially declared war.
President Richard Nixon’s effort to expand the war in Vietnam without the full consent of the Congress exacerbated the growing constitutional crisis over which branch of government had the ultimate authority to declare war against another nation.
The drift toward obscurity and obfuscation is largely rooted in this tug-of-war between the President and the Congress. Now, U.S. presidents seek the advice and counsel of Congress leaders and the support of its allies before launching an offensive. Congress no longer declares our nation to be at war; it simply consents to opening the treasury of the United States which over the past decade has been drained of more than one trillion dollars to support the undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I am not being critical of the decision to try and level the playing field in Libya to give the rebels a fighting chance. It is hard to stand by and watch the premeditated murder of innocent civilians by their so-called leader and not do something to stop it. But let’s call it what it is. It is a military intervention, at the very least, and it is a run-up to war in a worst-case scenario. Operation Odyssey Dawn? Last night David Letterman said it sounded like the name of a stripper.
Over the weekend, my 15-year-old son Michael and I were distracted from our ritualistic watching of the NCAA basketball tournament by news of the bombardment by coalition forces on Libyan military targets. While the images on TV were the incessant firing of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) from US Navy ships into the dark early morning skies off the coast of Libya, the on-screen caption read “Coalition seeks to establish No-Fly Zone over Libya.”
Establishing a No-Fly Zone seems fairly innocuous until you see the SAMs taking flight with their deadly payload.
I thought of my three sons yesterday while sitting on the train home, talking to one of my oldest son’s friends who described how a mutual friend of my son’s was activated two days ago to fly missions over Libya. Call it what you will, but you can be certain that his parents believe their son is somewhere over Libya fighting a war.
And just how long will the Libyan operation continue, one journalist asked a British military officer in search of some clarity.
“How long is a piece of string,” he responded.
It is a clever, if misleading, response that serves to remind us that it is often better to leave a difficult question unanswered rather than responding in a way that will provoke and anger our audience.