Troops’ Gravestones Have Operation Names

The latest controversy of the Iraq War is rather thin indeed: the Veterans’ Administration is offering the families of fallen soldiers the option of putting the operations name on their tombstones free of charge.

Troops’ Gravestones Have Pentagon Slogans (AP)

Unlike earlier wars, nearly all Arlington National Cemetery gravestones for troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan are inscribed with the slogan-like operation names the Pentagon selected to promote public support for the conflicts.

Families of fallen soldiers and Marines are being told they have the option to have the government-furnished headstones engraved with “Operation Enduring Freedom” or “Operation Iraqi Freedom” at no extra charge, whether they are buried in Arlington or elsewhere. A mock-up shown to many families includes the operation names.

The vast majority of military gravestones from other eras are inscribed with just the basic, required information: name, rank, military branch, date of death and, if applicable, the war and foreign country in which the person served.


“It just seems a little brazen that that’s put on stones,” said Jeff Martell, owner of Granite Industries of Vermont. “It seems like it might be connected to politics.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it isn’t. “The headstone is not a PR purpose. It is to let the country know and the people that visit the cemetery know who served this country and made the country free for us,” VA official Steve Muro said.

Since 1997, the government has been paying for virtually everything inscribed on the gravestones. Before that, families had to pay the gravestone makers separately for any inscription beyond the basics.

It wasn’t until the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that the department instructed national cemetery directors and funeral homes across the country to advise families of fallen soldiers and Marines that they could have operation names like “Enduring Freedom” or “Iraqi Freedom” included on the headstones.

VA officials say neither the Pentagon nor White House exerted any pressure to get families to include the operation names. They say families always had the option of including information like battle or operation names, but didn’t always know it.

Earlier wars had obvious names unassociated with an operation name. If one put “World War II” on the tombstone, one didn’t need to include “Market Garden” or whatever other operation cost the soldier’s life. Ditto “Korea” or “Vietnam.”

Recent wars have had no such obvious label. The 1991 war to liberate Kuwait is generally known by the operational name “Desert Storm” or sometimes “The Gulf War.”

I tend to think of the current op in Iraq as, “The Iraq War” but there have actually been many of those, including the one I participated in in 1991. Ditto “Afghanistan,” which has been the site of many conflicts. The operational name is perhaps the best label.

To the extent this is controversial, it is that we are using silly propagandistic names to begin with. But that is not an invention of the Bush Adminstration.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Whatever happened with the method of choosing innocuous names for an operation if only for OPSEC reasons?

  2. John Burgess says:

    To answer the previous question, “D-Day” was known as “Operation Overlord” (among several other names) until it hit the newspapers. Ask a D-Day vet where he fought and, dollars to donuts, he won’t say “Overlord.”

    Now, the DOD is being proactive in shaping how those names will develop. They’re cutting out both the delay and the uncertainty in what a particular effort will be called by the public. Or at least that’s the intention.

    Incidently, for Arabs, Operation Iraqi Freedom is popularly called, “The Third Gulf War.” The first was the Iran-Iraq war, the second was Desert Storm.

  3. DC Loser says:

    I think the jingoistic names are an advent of CNN. Up until the Panama invasion the names were mostly innocuous words that didnt’ have a connection with the operation or gave a clue to where it was going to happen. In 1983, the Grenada invasion was called URGENNT FURY. In 85, the Libyan bombing retaliation was EL DORADO CANYON. But in 89, the Panama invasion was JUST CAUSE, just a little more PR like for the news people. From then on the names became more jingoistic – DESERT SHIELD, DESERT STORM, PROVIDE COMFORT, RESTORE HOPE, ALLIED FORCE, OEF, OIF.

  4. dutchmarbel says:

    I think the bit you left out of the quote is what irks most people:

    Nadia and Robert McCaffrey, whose son Patrick was killed in Iraq in June 2004, said “Operation Iraqi Freedom” ended up on his government-supplied headstone in Oceanside, Calif., without family approval.

    “I was a little taken aback,” Robert McCaffrey said, describing his reaction when he first saw the operation name on Patrick’s tombstone. “They certainly didn’t ask my wife; they didn’t ask me.” He said Patrick’s widow told him she had not been asked either.

    “In one way, I feel it’s taking advantage to a small degree,” McCaffrey said. “Patrick did not want to be there, that is a definite fact.”

    Country and date of death should be identifying enough IMHO, but if they only put it on the tombs of people who WANT it there it shouldn’t be a problem.

  5. Sneem says:

    I think the left is just trying to have it both ways as usual. Remember how President Bush was accused of “covering up” the deaths by not allowing pictures of flag draped coffins? Now he is accused of “advertising” the war by denoting those killed there on their tombstones. It takes a very small mind to get your underwear in a knot over this one. Those are honored dead and the operational name is not a political slogan. It is the official name of the war and will be identified as such in the history books. Just as WW II and WW I are the official names of those wars, Iraqi Freedom is the official name of the conflict currently on-going in Iraq. Why would it not be on the tombstone?

  6. nocoen says:

    Look deeper into the story and you will see an interesting thing.

    Nadia McCaffery, referred to in the AP story, is used to infer that the tombstone issue upsets her. DO A GOOGLE SEARCH ON HER NAME AND YOU WILL FIND THAT SHE IS ASSOCIATED WITH THE ANTIWAR PROTEST GOLD STAR MOTHERS FOR PEACE. She is spending time in Crawford protesting the President’s policies in the Middle East.

    It is a blatent attempt by the Antiwar Press (AP) to pass an op / ed piece off as hard news.

    If you fall into the discussion on the tombstone, you have fallen into the trap.

    You can see video of Nadia at:

  7. Anderson says:

    If anyone’s still looking at this thread, Wonkette has the best response: