When President Bush dropped the word "crusade" last weekend, in talking about how the U.S. will fight terrorism, I wrote it off as a slip -- he probably didn't realize the term was fraught with historical pain for the world's billion-plus Muslims. In fact, spokesman Ari Fleischer quickly apologized.
When Bush said that our goal was to "rid the world of evil," I said to myself, "Well, he's angry, and he's never been very good at impromptu verbiage, and he can't possibly imagine actually meaning what he said, so it's not worth getting too upset about."
But the words of war keep getting wackier. Today, as U.S. planes began to be deployed to the Persian Gulf in the now-inevitable buildup of forces in the region, we learned the Pentagon's code name for the operation: "Operation Infinite Justice."
I'm sure our leaders want to inspire us for the challenges ahead. Justice, that's something worth fighting for. But we're also, I think, looking for some reassurance that the conflict we face is not infinite -- that Bush's team can define a reasonable set of achievable objectives so we can declare victory some time in our lifetimes, preferably sometime soon. Wasn't that Colin Powell's pragmatic doctrine?
At first the operation's moniker rang in my ears of comic-book superheroes (Justice League of America, anyone?), but if you plug the phrase "infinite justice" into Google you find a spate of references from the disputations of Christian theologians (or at least you did, until references to the new military operation displaced them at the top of the search results). The crusade, it seems, is on again.
Quibbling over a label may seem petty, but in the media age, these code names aren't clandestine at all, they're P.R., and they carry psychic weight. "Infinite Justice" had barely escaped the military's code-word hatcheries before it turned up on the cable networks' logos and news-site home pages, and before we know it, it will be inescapable.
We can do better. "Operation Desert Storm," for example, may have been pumped up with its own grandiosity, but at least it offered an out -- once a storm is over, the sun shines again. "Operation Infinite Justice" sounds like a thriller you don't want to see, or a video game you can never win. It's all worked up with nowhere to go. It's scary to us, not to our enemies.
CNN reported that the label was "tentative," so maybe there's still time for the military to change course and come up with a more sensible name before President Bush addresses the nation Thursday night. Please! Something traditional and martial would be fine: "Operation Blue Eagle," or "Operation Mountain Hawk," whatever -- anything that doesn't make us feel like the war we're embarking on has an impossible goal and an unreachable end.
Update 9:30 a.m. Pacific time Thursday: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a press conference that the Pentagon was considering finding a new name for Operation Infinite Justice after hearing from Muslim clerics that the term was offensive.