The question of how are wars named comes up quite
often. Let's take a look at how naming conventions for wars and
military conflicts has worked throughout history.
The naming wars and conflicts are a hodgepodge of
conventions and methods. While the names of most wars (or at least
the names that stick and are put into history books and school
textbooks) change with time, there are several basic methods that
have been used in history.
1. Name the war after your enemy:
Examples include the Boer Wars, the Apache Wars, the Yaqui War,
and so on. A popular term in Britain for that war where they lost
the American colonies was "The American War." In Vietnam, the
Vietnamese wars against foreigners from the 1940s to the 1970s are
called, respectively, the French War, and the American War. Note
that these war names reflect the who the enemy was, and,
obviously, are not widely used in other countries. The Romans
liked to name their conflicts this way, as in the Jewish Revolt,
and the Punic Wars ("Punic" was the Latin word for Phoenician; the
Roman foe, Carthage, was founded by Phoenicians).
2. Name the war after the two main
combatants: Many examples exist of this convention, as we see
with the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, various
Anglo-French wars, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Russo-Japanese
2a. A subset of this naming convention
would cover a naming a series of wars connected by the same
belligerents. The Arab-Israeli Wars, the Anglo-French Wars,
the Russo-Polish Wars are serial conflicts fought over
sometimes very large spans of time between nations almost
continually in conflict with each other. Within each series of
wars are smaller conflicts with unique names, such as, in the
Arab-Israeli example, the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition,
the Yom Kippur War/Ramadan War, or the Lebanon War. Note that
most of these wars are named according to other listed
3. Name the war after the location in which
it occurred: Geographic names are handy, in that it places the
war in a certain spot in the world, and is popular also in that it
is easier to use when there are multiple belligerents on both
sides (or multiple sides, as often happens). Examples include the
Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Crimean
4. Name the war for the cause of the
conflict: While the causes of wars are not always obvious,
sometimes the main reason for the war is clear enough to use in
the name. The War of the Spanish Succession, or other "Succession"
wars (Austrian, Polish, etc.) are clear; these wars were fought
over who would claim power, or "Succeed" to the thrones of the
various nations. Sometimes, the public reason for a war, such as
when the Spanish cut off the ear of a British sailor named Jenkins
led to that Anglo-Spanish war being called the War of Jenkins'
4a. The mirror image of this naming
convention would be naming the war after the result of the
war: Wars of independence fit well into this category. The
American War of Independence, the Algerian War of Independence,
and so on.
5. Name the war for a leader in the war:
The most well-known example is the series of wars called the
Napoleonic Wars. While this is not the name of a single war, the
wars waged by Napoleon is a handy and accurate name for a string
of wars involving the diminutive French leader. Other examples
include the Bar Kohba revolt in ancient Israel, and the American
colonial conflicts known in the British colonies as Queen Anne's
War, and King William's War. This also works for a war having a
"nickname" as it were. The American Civil War is sometimes
referred to as "Mr. Lincoln's War," while American participation
in World War One is sometimes called "Mr. Wilson's War," after
President Woodrow Wilson.
6. Name the war for a time period or
year: Not used for modern wars very much, and definitely these
names often were created by historians after the fact. The
best-known examples include the Hundred Years War, the Thirty
Years War, and the Six-Day War. Also, the War of 1812 fits into
7. Name the war after a unique feature or
aspect of the war: Many of the big wars are named this way:
World War One, World War Two, and the Cold War among them. The
world wars clearly encompassed most of the nations and regions of
the world, and the Cold War was unique in that the main
belligerents (Americans and the Soviets) never officially fought,
and was the opposite of a "hot war."
8. Naming a war after the type of war:
This one can be complicated, as it depends on the point of view.
Words appended to a nation's name or location to describe the war
include; rebellion, insurrection. revolt, revolution, uprising,
intervention, coup, and border, among others. Also in this
category would be civil wars. Examples include the Philippine
Insurrection, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Russian
Again, these descriptors are controversial, as
the terms used change over time, and are dependent on whose side
the observer favors. For example, the American Civil War has been
called (often by those involved in the war, but also afterwards),
as the War of the Rebellion, the War Between the States, the War
of Northern Aggression, the Brothers War, and the War of the
Secession, among others.
9. Naming the war with an operational code:
In modern times, wars, campaigns, and battles are given
official designations by the governments waging the wars.
Operation Desert Storm (i.e. the Gulf War to Americans), Operation
Iraqi Freedom (i.e. the Iraq War to Americans, Opération
Licorne (Operation Unicorn, for the French intervention in the
Ivorian Civil War), or Operation Palliser (British intervention in
the Sierra Leone Civil War).
10. Naming the war for propaganda
purposes: Actually, to a degree, many of the other naming
conventions also fall into this category, though certain war names
are more clearly propaganda-related than others. The
Soviets/Russians referred to their participation in World War Two
as "The Great Patriotic War," and the United States started out
referring to the wars and battles against al-Qaida, the Taliban,
Iraq, and others as "The Global War on Terror."
Humans like to categorize and name things, and
wars and military conflicts are no exception. When you come across a
war in reading or viewing historical or even current events, keep in
mind that what it is called now, has likely changed over time, and,
in reality, will change again. Yesterday's Great War became the First
World War. Today's Global War on Terror will likely be called
something else a generation or two from now.