Putting a pin in Operation Warp Speed

Or, how things get misnamed

Operation Warp Speed has stalled. The work of vaccinating the United States against COVID-19 is still under way, of course, but the Biden administration is referring to it as simply Covid Response.

It turns out that leading with how quickly you were able to make a vaccine isn’t the best way to convince a hesitant population to roll up their sleeves. 

Why, though, did we have an Operation Warp Speed in the first place? The name was initially suggested by Dr. Peter Marks, an official at the Food and Drug Administration and Star Trek fan. In that science-fiction franchise, the warp drive allows spacecraft to travel at many multiples of the speed of light. (Dr. Marks’ pop-culture knowledge is multidimensional: He also described the FDA’s job as being like when M gives 007 a world-saving mission.)

Here on Earth, the thrill of a code-named operation knows no borders. In 2016, poet Moez Surani published a book-length list of every operation carried out by members of the United Nations from 1946 to 2006. His حملة Operación Opération Operation 行动 Oперация is a chronicle of the battle between logistics and language. As expected, logistics are better prepared.

“I was most interested in how nations use these names as a linguistic branding that overlays the violence they do,” Surani explained. “As the military operation names began to accrue, and as I arranged them by date, I got the sense that these strange words constituted a collaborative poem that the 192 UN member countries were writing.”

They weren’t all violent, even if they borrowed the language of brutal efficiency. Surani singles out Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. relief mission to Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, named after the Japanese word for friend. But as every bully knows, brawn beats brains — hence Russia’s 2008 Operation Forcing Georgia to Peace.

Perhaps worst are the gentle, evocative names for the truly horrific operations, like County Fair.

“It makes me think of a carefree weekend without any pressures or stress at all,” Surani said. “But it refers to an American operation in Vietnam that is akin to the My Lai massacre. That name (and the images I came across) have stayed with me.”

Of all the countries surveyed, who is best at the poetry if not the purpose of their operations? “The Pakistani names tend to be dramatic in an elemental way – Full Moon, Thunderstorm, Lionheart,” Surani said. “It seems like the same rhetorical mode as Wuthering Heights.”

And if Warp Speed had chosen a different gear?

“Warp Speed focuses on the process, but it could have been helpful to focus on the aim of the vaccines instead. So something like Operation Communal Safety could have helped by embedding three essential ideas into the name: that the vaccines are remarkably safe, that it requires wide buy-in to succeed, and that one person’s safety enhances the safety of another.”

Ultimately, it may be better just not to operate. Last fall, a study from the University of British Columbia on how democracies have successfully communicated during the pandemic specifically recommended “avoiding militaristic metaphors that are hierarchical and limit space for agency.”

So instead of rallying those on the frontlines to beat back the invisible enemy, emphasize the need for collective action. Don’t say “we’re all in this together,” as that phrase has been neutered by income inequality, and definitely avoid “Stronger Together,” a slogan that angry voters have rejected around the world. Maybe don’t sloganize it at all. It’s not an operation, a campaign, or a battle. It’s commonplace action for the common good. If we must Trek, forget warp speed and just make it so.


Quick quips; lightning

“Vaccination is the medical sacrament corresponding to baptism.”
Samuel Butler

“There is no limit to how complicated things can get, on account of one thing always leading to another.”
— E.B. White

“Fate, if it slips us a bit of good with one hand, is pretty sure to give us the sleeve across the windpipe with the other.”
— P.G. Wodehouse

Retort Court 

In this corner: Tom Stoppard, born Tomáš Straussler, prolific playwright, Great Wit, inveterate smoker, one-time owner of a bespoke piece of luggage that allows him to travel with 30 books at a time.

In that corner: Don McLean, writer of the song American Pie but none of the films, driver of Chevys to various levies, recovering paperboy, arch-nemesis of Andy Breckman.  

The quip in question: After the early success of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Stoppard was supposedly asked what the play was about. His response:

“It’s about to make me very rich.”

After the success of American Pie, McLean was supposedly asked what it meant. His response:

“It means I don't ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

The verdict: Obviously we have to give this one to Stoppard. Shorter, pithier, doesn’t say mean things about Winnipeg, more interesting luggage.

You just made GWQ No. 85 so. Moez Surani’s latest poetry collection is called Are The Rivers In Your Poems Real and I can vouch for Moez — he’s not the kind of guy who would fabricate a body of water, unless it was absolutely necessary to make an artistic statement. My book, on the other hand, was called Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting and I wrote it on the muddy banks of the Wittyssippi. Operation Heart Tap begins with the ♥️  below.