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'Odyssey Dawn': A military operation, or a gift to late-night comics?

Stephen Colbert said it sounded like a “Carnival cruise ship.”
Jon Stewart likened it to the name of a bad “Yes” album.

Comedy Central

Jon Stewart mocks the name Operation Odyssey Dawn on his show, saying, "You really name a combat operation after a 'Yes' album?" Click on the photo to watch the video.

And shortly after the first missiles were launched Saturday comedian Andy Borowitz asked, via Twitter, “Am I the only one who thinks Odyssey Dawn sounds like a stripper name?”

In the Pentagon, Operation Odyssey Dawn is the name of the U.S. military engagement in Libya.

The task of creating such names falls to the military command leading the initiative. In the case of Libya, that’s the United States Africa Command, one of the nine Unified Combatant Commands, and best known as AFRICOM.

Spokesman Eric Elliot laughed when he was reached by phone Tuesday in Stuttgart, Germany, where AFRICOM is based, and said the command had gotten a lot of questions about the name of the operation. He explained to there is nothing significant about the name at all and that it is actually meant to be completely random.  

“The Joint Staff actually has a naming convention in place for naming exercises and operations. These are used for most of the day-to-day things we may be doing,” he said. “Each military command is given a series of letters that they can use for the first word of a name of an operation...The goal is to have a two-word nickname that is unclassified that can be used in an unclassified setting to describe something that is classified.”

Elliot explained that the naming convention is based on a series of letters assigned to different branches of the military.

“AFRICOM has been assigned, for the first word [that] the first two letters have to be between JS and JZ, NS and NZ, and OA and OF. So ‘Odyssey’ falls into the OA and OF category,” Elliot explained.
“So what they did was, they took the list, and they had done something with Js and Ns and so they went to O. They marked off all the words that had been used before and they chose ‘Odyssey.’” Once they have the first word, they can use anything for the second word. “They basically sit around and brainstorm something that sounds good with it,” Elliot said.

He added that, of course, there are certain criteria, “They can’t use anything that may have a trademark or a copyright, they can’t use anything that may be offensive, or has the potential to be misrepresented, and it can’t be something that would be overly aggressive.”

From there, the recommendation has to go through the chain of command at AFRICOM and gets the final stamp of approval at the Pentagon.

Not meant to convey the ‘Dawn of an Odyssey’
What about the irony that the term ‘Odyssey’ suggests a long saga, like Odysseus’ 10-year journey, the opposite of the message President Barack Obama is trying to convey about the mission?

Elliot said the name was meant to be “completely random. The goal is that if I go down the street in New York and say ‘Odyssey Dawn’ that it would not give any indication of what it is or where it is.” 

He did admit that the terminology has created some confusion. He said he’s gotten several calls from French journalists because when the words are translated, they get flip-flopped and become the “Dawn of an Odyssey” – exactly the opposite of the short, concise, precision military mission advocated by the United States. 

Rewrite: The Last Word's Lawrence O'Donnell explains how Operation Odyssey Dawn got its name.

What do the folks at AFRICOM HQ who came up with the name think of all the jokes?

“Honestly I think they would be pretty flattered,” said Elliot. “They do a lot of these and most of them are small operations or small exercises – things that really don’t have much national or international limelight. I didn’t realize they are making fun of it on late night TV; I’ll have to tell the guys down the hall. We’ve all been overseas for so long…”

Related link from Parameters in 1995: The Art of Naming Operations