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  Philip Durbrow The War Name Game
by Philip Durbrow
March 27, 2006

Wars need names to gain critical support, just as companies, products, and other initiatives need names that appeal to their key audiences.

Throughout history, war names have been based on a leader (the Napoleonic Wars), on changes in leaders (the Spanish and Austrian Successions), on the scale of the war (World Wars I and II), on national upheaval (the Russian, French, and American Revolutions), on an oxymoron (the Civil War), and on avoiding the word “war” (the Korean Conflict).


Sometimes wars are grouped together under an umbrella brand (the Crusades). Some war names could have only been created after the war was over, which is too late for a relevant communication effort (the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Seven-Day War). It also makes you wonder what these wars were called while they were still going at it.

Have you wondered why our first war in Iraq (couldn’t have called it that then) was not called the “Iraq War”? Well, we couldn’t call it the Iraq War because we weren’t after the Iraqi people. We were after Saddam Hussein. If we had called it the Saddam Hussein War, we would have made him a legend and the US a bully.

We couldn’t call it the Kuwait War, because Americans can’t relate to Kuwaitis, at least not enough to have our sons and daughters killed on their behalf. We couldn’t call it the Arabian War, because many Arabs are our allies, and we needed their support in the war. Some refer to it as the 100-Hour War, but we would have had to wait until it was over to call it that, and CNN needed a name to promote its coverage at the time. Saddam took a crack at it and called it the “Mother of All Wars,” which it turned out not to be. But he should be credited for creating scary copy when he said, “Americans will swim in their own blood.”

So, we called it the Gulf War, because it conveyed the general geographic area, it was a relatively empty body of water, and it would not threaten or alienate anyone important. Think of it: We were at war with water. Desert Shield, the first sub-brand of the war, positioned us as protectors, not aggressors. Desert Storm, another sub-brand, gave our troops confidence and intimidated the enemy.

I thought the tagline “Shock and Awe” competed effectively against Saddam’s scariness in ways that were more appropriate for an upscale audience, but I can’t remember what we initially called the second war in Iraq. This bothers me. I feel like I should know. At some point, the second war in Iraq became the War on Terror, yet I’m not sure when that war began or when it will end. Ever-changing brand extensions like the Central Front in the War on Terror tend to weaken the brand. Although Secretary Rumsfeld seems to appreciate the power of brands, he is getting questionable advice, such as the recent effort to rename the War on Terror with six words (the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism), and to rename insurgents with six words (Enemies of the Legitimate Iraqi Government). Any identity pro could have told him a six-word brand can’t compete with a one-word brand—like “peace.”

   Philip Durbrow is chairman & CEO of Marshall Strategy, international identity strategists headquartered in San Francisco.

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