Boy, do the Americans know how to christen a war. Odyssey Dawn is the latest in a theatrical line of military operation monikers. From Iraq: Scorpion Sting, Desert Thrust, Clean Sweep, American Tiger, Arrowhead Blizzard, Bulldog Mammoth, Iron Justice, Wolfback Crunch, Iron Fury, Grizzly Forced Entry, Wolfhound Fury, Unified Fist, Raging Bull II, Relentless Hunt, Patriot Strike. I swear I did not make one of those up.

The Pentagon insists that the naming process is random and meaningless - the department chooses words to match specific combinations of letters. But then the Canadians and Brits used a similar system to find a name for the Libyan operation and came up with Mobile and Ellamy, respectively - both of which seem somewhat more random and meaningless than Odyssey Dawn. In a way, you have to admire the Americans' gall. They don't pretend that war is clinical; they take the inherent drama and ramp it up. It's a computer game, a movie, the greatest show on earth (apart from Wolfback Crunch, which sounds more like a chocolate bar).

Blame the Greeks (if in doubt, always blame the Greeks). The Odyssey is, of course, Homer's epic poem charting the ten-year journey home of the first superhero, Odysseus. An odyssey today describes an arduous journey, a battle against the odds, triumph over adversity. We use it for such things as cricket ("England's winter odyssey" at the World Cup in Sri Lanka) and cars (Honda makes the Odyssey minivan). I can't help thinking Odysseus would be a little disappointed that his exhausting travels and unlikely survival have been immortalised as a seven-seater bus.

When we remember The Odyssey, we think of glory and romance - the hero's return to the arms of his wife, Penelope. We forget that his companions were drowned and that he murdered all Penelope's suitors who had tried it on while he was away. Heroism, it seems, comes at a price. And here's another thing: Odysseus does not mean "journey" in Greek. It means "he who causes anger". Perhaps those Greeks were trying to tell us something after all.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?