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Assignment: Naming and the Rhetoric of War

posted: 3.29.11 by Traci Gardner

110319-N-7293M-003Twelve years ago, we were reading and watching news stories about “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo. Overwhelmed with the need to do something in response, I turned to writing and came up with Ten Rhetoric of War Writing Projects.

Those writing prompts came to mind recently when the United States launched Operation: Odyssey Dawn. It wasn’t that the United States was involved in yet another military action. It was the name. Where do they get these names, and what on earth are they thinking when they choose them?

A couple of days later I got my answer in Wired’sWhat’s in a Name? ‘Odyssey Dawn’ Is Pentagon-Crafted Nonsense.” Despite conjecture to the contrary, military officials say the name is meaningless. It’s just a code name created according to a formula that was developed in response to public relations problems caused by mission names in the past (like “Operation Killer” in Korea and “Operation Masher” in Vietnam).

The name Operation: Odyssey Dawn is not without controversy, however. Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC’s The Last Word criticized the name and launched “Rewrite Operation: Odyssey Dawn,” asking viewers to suggest alternatives. The video segment below explains the military’s system for naming missions, and touches on the difficulty of choosing names for anything:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

With connotation and denotation so squarely in the news, we have the makings of a great assignment here. My initial prompt is a revision from my list of twelve years ago:

Take a close look at the names that are used for events, people, and things related to the U.N. action in Libya. As a start, think about who uses the word war and who uses terms such as conflict or military action. Next, look at the official names for the action used by the military:

Canada: Operation Mobile
France: Harmattan
United Kingdom: Operation Ellamy
United States: Operation: Odyssey Dawn

Consider the connotation and the denotation of these names. To what audience are they directed? What tone does the writer or speaker want to convey? What conclusions can you draw about the writer’s rhetorical strategies? Can these names truly be meaningless, as U.S. military officials say?

Students can watch the MSNBC video and read the articles from Wired and MSNBC, as well as explore the articles they link to. For additional perspectives, ask students to read “In Choosing Its Battle Names, the Military Must Know Its Target Audience” (Washington Post), and “Libya No Fly Zone: Operation Gibberish Name Generator” (New York Daily News). Include “Operation Odyssey Dawn: Pundits Mock Our New War’s Name” from The Week for a roundup of other responses.

Conclude by asking students to analyze another instance of word choice related to military events—either another way people are talking about the events in Libya or names and word choice related to another current or past event. The Wikipedia list of military operations, for instance, has scores of other mission names you can analyze.

Alternately, you could try one of these assignments:

  • Based on what we’ve read and discussed, write a personal response to the name Operation: Odyssey Dawn, indicating whether it is a good choice.
  • Write a letter to the editor that persuades readers to accept or reject the name.
  • Write an essay that argues for an alternative name that fits the military naming conventions. Your piece can be serious or satirical. Just be sure that you provide support for the name that you propose.
  • Create a presentation that explores the connotations and denotations behind the name Operation: Odyssey Dawn. Your presentation can communicate your opinion on the appropriateness of the name, or you can present an objective exploration that asks viewers to draw their own conclusions.

As you explore naming and the rhetoric of war with these activities, I advise that you keep the discussion focused on analyzing language use. The goal is not to debate the validity of the military’s work—it’s to look at how the media, the military, and other government offices (as well as everyday people) are using language to communicate a message.

Debate may become heated at times, so be prepared to refocus discussion if necessary. You can shift to another related topic, like the naming of battleships and aircraft and the names of weapons. The image at the beginning of this entry can provide a starting place—Who is the USS Barry named for, and what underlying messages does the word Tomahawk communicate?

As always, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

[Photo: USS Barry fires Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn by Official U.S. Navy Imagery, on Flickr]

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