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The U.S. military’s nickname for the no-fly zone in Libya sounds like the beginning of a long adventure. But Defense Department officials insist that there’s no hidden meaning behind “Operation Odyssey Dawn.” It’s just the product of the Pentagon’s semi-random name-generating system.
Each command within the vast Defense Department apparatus is given a series of two-letter groupings that they can use for their operations’ two-word sobriquets. Under the system, the U.S. Africa Command, nominally in charge of the Libya strikes, was given three sets of words that it could begin the operation with.
"These words begin between the letters JF-JZ, NS-NZ and OA-OF, and those three groups give about 60 some odd words,” explains Africom spokesman Eric Elliott. “So, the folks who were responsible for naming this went through and they had done recent activities with NS and they went to O.”
Using the O series of letters, Africom officials picked out “Odyssey” for the first word. The second word is picked “as random as possible because that’s the goal of these operational names,” says Elliot. Africom pulled out “Dawn” for its second word and the resulting combination, “Odyssey Dawn,” is devoid of any intended meaning, Elliott insists.
The modern system for assigning names to operations, exercises and the like came out of bad PR experiences in the Korean and Vietnam wars, according to Lt. Col. Gregory Sieminski’s brief history of “The Art of Naming Operations,” published in Parameters in 1995. Nicknames like “Operation Killer” during the Korean war and Vietnam’s “Operation Masher,” Sieminski wrote, caused controversy when reported in the press. As a result, the Pentagon issued its first guidelines restricting how nicknames can be formed in 1972 and created the two-letter system in 1975.
Combatant Commands still have to be careful about what words they pick under the two-letter system. Official guidelines prohibit “well-known commercial trademarks” in operation nicknames, as well as ”exotic” or “trite” choices. Nicknames can’t be spelled similar to or sound like codewords.
Some lesser operations, like a 2004 roundup of insurgents in Kirkuk called “Operation Slim Shady,” also don’t seem like they would have passed through the Defense Department’s official guidelines.