What's in a code name?

 

Although we've seen ample news coverage of the American raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, one question persists. Did the code name "Geronimo" refer to the overall operation or just to bin Laden? 

Discussing the exact meaning of a military code name might seem like an arcane pursuit, but the use of "Geronimo" has provoked ample criticism from the Native American community, with arguments that it demeans a great warrior.
 
Geronimo, who lived from 1829 to 1909 was a leader of the Chiricahua Apache, and he battled American and Mexican forces along the border. His Apache name was Goyahkla, "one who yawns."
 
"Geronimo" is a Spanish version of "Jerome," and Americans apparently picked it up from Spanish-speaking soldiers who, under attack by the Apaches, called on St. Jerome for help; the Americans thought it was the name of the leader of the opposing warriors.
 
Geronimo led a long and fierce resistance as his small band evaded hundreds of American and Mexican soldiers before his surrender in 1886.
 
 That he was a tough and resourceful warrior, there is no doubt. He was also an implacable enemy of the United States, which occupied his homeland, and there's no doubt about that either.
 
So was the code name an insult to Native Americans? You can find plenty of statements that it was. But military code names are just that, short locutions to simplify operational communications. Look back at D-Day in 1944 (code name "Overlord"), when Allied soldiers stormed Normandy beaches with code names like "Utah" (from the state, which comes from the Ute Indians) and "Omaha," from the Nebraska city named for an area tribe. I haven't read of any protests about those code names.
 
Perhaps military commanders should be more careful in picking code names for operations, but it seems to me that they have more important things to worry about. 

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colo.

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