IN simpler times, wars were usually named while they were being fought or after they were over. In some cases the magnitude of the war determined the name, as in World War I and World War II. In other cases the name was determined by the length of time of the war, as in the Hundred Years' War, the Thirty Years' War, or the Seven Days' War. Some wars have been named after the participants, as the French and Indian War and the Franco-Prussian War; some for what they achieved, or sought to achieve, as the War of the Spanish Succession; some for incidents of the war, as the War of Jenkins' Ear, etc.
There was reasonably standardized language to describe the stages and nature of the action. Mobilization, invasion, victory, defeat, surrender, occupation, withdrawal, evacuation, and the like. United States marines, as standard procedure, embarked, and returning, disembarked, whether they had been to the ''Halls of Montezuma'' or to ''the shores of Tripoli,'' or to Nicaragua or Haiti.
Major military actions were called ''wars''; lesser ones, invasions, interventions, or occupations. This is not the current way. The change in usage may have begun when, following World War II, the name of the US military establishment was changed from the War Department, which had directed World War II, to the Department of Defense. Since that name change we have had no Pentagon-designated war.
Other nations, including the Russians, took up our line. Nations do not now declare ''war''; they declare ''national defense.'' ''War,'' the terminology and methodology, is now used in nonmilitary actions, as in the ''War on Poverty'' and on welfare; the ''War on Crime''; the ''War on Illiteracy''; and the ''War on Drugs.'' Without much in the way of historical or linguistic justification, the person put in charge of the ''War on Drugs'' is usually called a ''czar,'' while the leaders of the drug traffic are called ''kings.''
The first major post-World War II military engagement involving the United States occurred in the early 1950s. The action was officially labeled not a ''war'' but ''police action.'' It became an invasion, not in its original form, but after US troops moved north.
Early commitment in Vietnam, aid to the French, had no name. It was presented as a kind of neighborly help to the French. Subsequently in the Kennedy administration, it became an ''intervention'' in the civil war in the South; then a defensive action to repel an ''invasion'' from the North, followed by a kind of turnabout that accepted that two invasions were going on at the same time.
When the Vietnam action was extended into Cambodia by the Nixon administration, it became, in administration language, an ''incursion,'' a first in US history. The US had never suffered or experienced an incursion, or perpetrated one, if that is what is done with an incursion. There is no verb form of ''incursion.'' Neither a person or a nation can ''incurse''; therefore, neither can be held responsible. An incursion is existential, a kind of happening.
The action in the Dominican Republic by the Johnson administration was a simple ''intervention.''
In the Reagan administration, naming became more complex. Action in Grenada, against a mixed group of defenders, including Cuban construction workers, fell between an invasion and an incursion. It was distinguished by an application of an official, administration-approved label, more than a code name. It became officially ''Operation Urgent Fury.'' This followed the naming of the ill-fated attempt by the Carter administration to rescue the hostages, held in Iran, through ''Operation Eagle Claw.'' (The eagle is not known as a rescuing bird.)
The Bush administration followed the Reagan precedent, injecting a moral component, in calling the attack on Panama ''Operation Just Cause.'' That was in 1990. The naming of the military action in the Persian Gulf area was not left to chance, or uncertain events. It was labeled in advance as ''Desert Storm,'' and its one major military action was called ''Rolling Thunder.'' The media, especially the television media, immediately accepted the new name, even though in some ways it confused the weather reporters.
I have been told that persons in the Agency for International Development's post-''Urgent Fury'' projects in Grenada are advised to refer to the earlier military action as having been a ''visitation.'' Visitation is a word something like incursion. There is no verb ''to visitate.''
The Clinton administration is continuing the naming traditions of Carter, Reagan, and Bush, in calling our military action in Somalia ''Restore Hope,'' and that in Haiti ''Uphold Democracy.'' In Foreign Service words, what is going on in Haiti is not an intervention, or an invasion, or even an incursion, but an ''insertion.''