Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.
December 30th, 2016 by Benny Gray
A junior commander seeking to expand their knowledge, insight and emotional intelligence would do well to supplement contemporary examples with timeworn, but nonetheless enduring, lessons from antiquity. Interrogation of Homer’s The Iliad can serve to exercise and nourish the moral and intellectual components of fighting power, whilst also developing understanding of military ethos, providing examples worthy of emulation or avoidance, and contextualising the nature of war.
The multitude of blogs, papers and unit professional military education programs focus largely on events within the recent past, or perhaps within the confines of the 20th century. Interrogation of current techniques and trends is essential, however it is also important to review texts or events of the past, where enduring and time-tested lessons can be obtained. There is immense utility in the great classics as reference points for durable lessons in the art of war, as well as the development of an agile mind. Arguably, today’s officers may not be concerned with ancient texts, as there are more immediately appealing and modern narratives. However, individuals willing to study The Iliad will discover not just an exciting war story, but also gain insight into the minds of men in the desperate circumstances of war.
The classics are worthy of review and contemplation because they speak to the essential components of human nature, and endure because they touch on the unchanging truth of human experience. Ancient rumination or recent fact, the history of the world is the history of conflict, and The Iliad remains the original standard for appreciation of war’s human dimensions. Thinking and rumination is essential to the development of intellectual agility and the aptitude to contend with uncertainty; extremely desirable though normally neglected traits. Military and civilian educational institutions have become very specialised, with barriers between different fields of study, this stagnates an individual in gaining a broad understanding of different skills and specialisations. The Greeks held a different perspective where the walls between different fields of study where not as robust. The Iliad is not just a book about war; it is a contemplation of all wars and the characters that can be found within them. Not only is The Iliad, when combined with The Odyssey, the beginning of Western literature, it is also a reflection of human factors of war and conflict. It was also one of the principal texts that existed as the foundation of Greek formal and cultural education, and experts travelled between city-states and gave readings accompanied by explanation. A classic of Greece, it provides a set of linked tales and dramatis personae that provides instruction on what it means to be human and a soldier. A study of The Iliad will allow a student of war a mechanism for the contemplation of military ethos and values, leadership and character, and the very nature of war.
Synopsis of The Iliad
The Iliad is a narrative poem in dactylic hexameter, combining the collective history, myths and faith of the ancient Greeks. It was the first substantial work of European literature and has fair claim to be the greatest. An epic, it was authored ‘after memory and before history’, nesting within the human craving to bond the past to the current. The story of The Iliad focuses on the critical proceedings in the final year of the decade-long Trojan War, and culminates in Achilles’ killing of Hector. Homer’s theme is not simply the conduct of war or heroism, but rather the presentation of a generally tragic view of the world, suffering and death, and the human elements of war’s execution.
Broadly, the events described in The Iliad occur three thousand years in the past, during the final year of the Trojan War, a conflict in which Greek warriors sailed the Aegean to what is now Turkey and besieged the citadel of Troy for ten years. The trigger for the war was the Trojan prince Paris seducing and absconding with Helen, the wife of the King of Sparta; however the narrative only addresses the final events of the war. In the opening pages the hero Achilles clashes with the high king, Agamemnon, over a female slave called Briesis whom had been awarded to Achilles as a prize in recognition of his exploits. Agamemnon seizes the woman, causing Achilles to withdraw from fighting in a rage, and remains so for the bulk of the poem. During Achilles’ sabbatical, the Trojans, led by Hector, the champion of Troy and the King’s son to overwhelm the Greeks, almost burn their ships and drive them into the sea. However, Hector kills Achilles’ close friend, Patroclus, prompting Achilles to resume fighting; consequently the Greeks drive the Trojans back to within their walled city. Achilles kills Hector and in a rage mutilates the corpse, but in the final pages of the poem returns it to the Trojan King, Priam, for appropriate funeral honours. The Iliad concludes there, before Achilles dies from an arrow shot into his heel and prior to the Greeks entering Troy via a wooden horse; these events are addressed in The Odyssey. Throughout the poem key personalities such as Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus, Ajax, and Priam are examined, providing an in-depth and personal interrogation of feeling, motivations, values and obligations.
Homer uses the Trojan War as the background for the delivery of a story, but his underlying intent is to comment on human interaction, chance and a tragic perception of the world. It is equally important to note that The Iliad is a ‘foundation myth, not of man nor of the natural word, but of the way of thinking by which the Greeks define themselves, the frame of mind which made them who they were, one which, in many ways, we have inherited’. The Greeks believed the Trojan War as an historical certainty, and it is likely that they thought it to be in vicinity of the Dardanelles. However, the actual reason for the war was more likely to have been a contest between two unlike civilisations for trade/political domination, and the historical validity of The Iliad and the existence of Troy remains an ongoing archaeological debate.
In advance and undeniably, Homer is hard going and requires commitment, the nature of the prose and the need to contemplate the distilled themes and imagery add to the endeavour. It is important to note that for a junior leader to harvest lessons from The Iliad, it must be studied and not just read (though this would still be beneficial). Importantly, Homer does not deliverer any sage advice or guidance, rather the characters, events and tribulations provide multiple areas for discussion, self-introspection and the drawing forth of tangible and useful lessons.
Ethos and Values
Military ethos ultimately underpins the individual and collective loyalty, responsibility, and commitment of the members of the armed forces. In application, this can ostensibly be observed via professional and social demeanour, soldierly presence, and human interaction. A genuine understanding of ethos can only be gauged by the assessment of loyalty, drive and just action; infinitely difficult to assess and even more so to imbue. The Iliad allows an individual to revisit the base emotions that perhaps led them to join the military: pride, honour, comradeship and glory; building upon them with contrasting traits. For the Greeks, history was a mechanism by which individuals and groups could be taught lessons about social comportment, the nature of the world and how to live virtuously. Laced throughout their history, theatre and poems were subtle observations on both integrity and depravity. The intent was to provide examples of traits and perspectives worthy of emulation, evasion or discussion. The Iliad is a microcosm of the boiling emotions of war, combat and human fragility, and can greatly assist in permitting the junior leaders of today to understand the core values required of military service, and the repercussion of incorrect application.
The Iliad reaches a balance between romanticised imagery and visceral reality. Surprisingly, it can be received as a poem that both celebrates the glory of war and laments its tragedy. The narrative contains mass butchery, brutal individual death, desecration of corpses and violent revelry. But the context and subtle imagery evoke different emotions in the reader, providing inspiration regarding admirable soldierly qualities worthy of emulation – courage, loyalty, and comradeship. Homer uses the imagery of war as a mechanism to reflect on values and ethos of merit, emphasising the stress of combat on individuals, the need to boldly confront danger and gaze at providence unwaveringly. There are very few more appropriate settings for assessment of the human condition than war, and Homer uses the Trojan War as an apparatus to fully achieve this. The suffering, physical and emotional trials, conflict and moral ambiguity permits humanity to be exposed in its best and worst forms.
Both the Trojan and Greek heroes are forced to deal with courage and fear throughout the poem. Hector, as the primary Trojan hero, suffers continuous doubt over not only his leadership and military capability, but also the futility of the defence of Troy. Whereas his younger bother Paris exemplifies decadence, cowardice and weakness. The contrast between the two sons of Priam is obvious and permits a reader to explore the moral and physical weakness in human nature in war, and how it can be overcome. The Greek heroes provide numerous examples of implacable drive, reckless courage and harnessed anger, but this is balanced by unchecked pride, selfishness and egotism – Achilles, Ajax and Agamemnon all suffer this at various points.
Comradeship, teamwork and brotherhood are also explored in depth. The relationship between Paris and Hector is complicated and divergent, Achilles and Patroclus are devoted to each other, Agamemnon and Menelaus demonstrate mutually supportive kinship, coupled with customary sibling friction. Death, loyalty and honour are explored and not in all-positive light – individual obsession with honour, glory or pride is explored via interaction between characters. Achilles’ pride is extreme, easily identified as a major fault in his character. Agamemnon is no less flawed and is stricken by arrogance, hubris and toxicity. Priam is an interesting counterbalance to Agamemnon as a strategic leader in the way in which he commands Troy, but is as equally flawed in his judgement. War bonds soldiers via immersion within demanding conditions, and throughout the narrative Homer explores how the needs and desires of individuals and groups often contradicts their codes as a warrior, as well as their own self perception. In some cases combat presents an almost sardonic paradox, for whilst the dominant heroic code motivates via courage, loyalty, and the pursuit of excellence, it concurrently represses dormant yearnings and natural. Proclivities that do not accord with the harsh expectation of the group (forged through ten years of combat). An example is when Menelaus is inclined to allow a conquered adversary to live, however he is corrected by Agamemnon, who bluntly states that within the confines of the war there is little scope for clemency. The dichotomy of the warrior code, the tactical/operational needs and the individual desire to grant mercy is worth exploration – and tangible links can be drawn to similar predicaments in recent conflicts. That all events occur within the crucible of a war adds to the emotional intensity of the poem and the complex individual, cultural and moral obstacles that each character must confront. Interactions between characters and their own introspective dialogues compel a reader to contemplate the balance of moral and ethical needs, wants and aspirations.
Battlefield transgressions have been occurring as long as organised conflict; Homer addresses warcrimes and desecration of the dead in detail. The desire to retaliate for a comrade’s death is reasonable, and when coupled with exhaustion and fear become all to simple. Homer’s portrayal of the unchecked rage of Achilles’ assists a junior leader to understand this, but also the need to control it. Hopelessness, exhaustion, fear and anger are a ruinous combination when combined with the perceived squandered death of a comrade; desire for revenge can become a catalyst for warcrimes, mistreatment of prisoners and reprisal attacks on civilians. The violent excess of Achilles after the death of Patroclus serves as a warning against the common and severe indiscretions of recent wars. Examples in the recent past such as My Lai in Vietnam and Abu Ghraib in Iraq are evidence that when pressed, humans have not evolved morally as much as it is popular to consider, and that there are aspects of war and human nature that are unchanging. Crucially, The Iliad cautions that emotions of soldiers must be tempered by discipline, guided by leadership and reinforced by institutional values that abhor such acts.
Leadership and Character
The failures and success of military leadership, and the consequences, are catalogued throughout history, however the human emotions that have led to failing are not. The Iliad provides multiple examples of vice, arrogance, pride, rage and selfishness. All traits that if not appropriately counter-balanced will contribute to, or be the catalyst for, a toxic command environment and undermine effective leadership. The Iliad demonstrates the manner in which the ancient Greeks maintained a far more nuanced perspective in regards to history, avoiding the polarised assertions of today. The moral flexibility of both the characters and narrative in The Iliad permits a student to learn from all, rather than just morally immaculate notables’ espousing views directly aligned to current popular attitude. The flawed nature of the chief protagonists in The Iliad forces a reader to weigh and measure their own perspective on individual actions or events – judgment is easy when the events are black and white, but arbitration within moral ambiguity results from the desirable skill of intellectual flexibility.
All junior leaders have had to contend with the friction of a commander who exhibits misplaced pride, arrogance or narcissism. Homer explores this in all his characters. The Greek concept of Hubris is given particular attention, and refers to excessive pride and self-confidence; exemplified in The Iliad by Achilles. In the initial book, Achilles’ pride is marred by Agamemnon, and removes himself from the battlefield, condemning the Greeks to a succession of painful losses. Toxic leadership and narcissism is explored via Agamemnon whose arrogance, egotism and selfishness are damaging throughout the entire narrative. All such moral imperfections arise as leadership and command issues, fragmented group aspirations and disharmony. A concept of the poem is that of discord via disruption of the chain of command, personality clashes, subversion, and even mutiny. A junior leader of today will note a major difference in Homer’s depiction and judgment of events to the way in which the easygoing moral classifications of modern western culture has developed to understand its own wars. Nowadays, the conversation is polarised and war is assumed to involve the identification of a particular malevolent individual or group against whom the forces of virtuousness can direct just liberal principles to solve the problem. Popular media and commentary feel the need to identify a great and evil protagonist, that can be confronted and defeated by the forces of right – but this is rarely so, and The Iliad reflects this. For civilians and popular society, a black and white perspective is arguably acceptable, and in some ways makes it easier for a population to be manipulated by politicians. However, military leaders must exist in an environ of realism and fact – nothing is ever simple, actions are never without consequence and war is friction, moral ambiguity and the continual selection of the lesser evil. This Iliad provides a vignette that demonstrates constant moral ambiguity and delivers a vehicle for a junior leader to explore their own bias, judgment and adjudication.
Junior leaders of today exist within military culture and base society that perceives itself extremely differently than that depicted in Homer’s epic. But it is important to remain aware that the foundation upon which much of western systems of thought, morality and the basic principles of human interaction were based upon that of the Greeks. Drawn from the various systems of government, philosophies of each polis and political ideologies of the ancient world. Much of the military ethos that the armed forces of today aspire to can trace their roots back to base moral principles that are explored in The Iliad. Human interaction, when exacerbated via the furnace of war, is the core business of junior leaders. Harnessing passion, directing energy, tempering emotion, and fostering moral judgment is an integral component of military leadership. The Iliad is excellent substance to fuel debate, reflection and meditation on the difficulties and attributions of leadership and command.
Nature and Character of War
The Iliad speaks to the junior leader about the unchanging nature of war. It provides a distillation of the character of war, and as one of the initial reflections on this, demonstrates that despite the passing of approximately 3000 years there are constant uniformities. Now and in The Iliad, war is but a duel on a grander scale, and its nature remains that of a violent clash of wills. As such, The Iliad via the interactions of the main characters, events of the story, and the consequences, a junior leader may learn about the character and confines of their profession. The Iliad draws itself from the culture and society that is the foundation of the Western Way of War. The Hellenic concept of hoplite warfare and land possession led to militias drawn out of the polis and generated the idea decisive infantry battle waged by citizen-soldiers over land and sovereignty. The current aspirations of Australian soldiers in many ways can be traced back to the early Greek conflicts and characteristics of battle and the unchanging human dimension of the military profession links the warriors of The Iliad to that of soldiers today.
Homer’s work is considered to be fiction and conceived history, however it embodies the aspirations and principles of an important culture, and form the basis for significant historical truth. It is a foundation upon which junior leaders can build and expand their horizons. As an example, to understand the literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, students are inducted initially into Shakespeare, Marlow and Sophocles. Literary works don’t exist within a void; rather they build on the body of work that has occurred previously. Understanding of war and conflict is the same; how can today’s leaders be expected to develop an understanding of the motivations and realities of the contemporary battlespace if they do not understand its historical and cultural origins? War is principally a violent clash aimed at compelling an adversary to do our will, it is a human endeavour and both the military execution and the civilian comprehension of both historical and contemporary instances are not simple to summarise.
The Iliad is an excellent vignette to review the assertion that war is a chameleon. Adapting characteristics to differing circumstances, but maintaining principal features of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity. Despite its 3000 years, Homer’s epic endures in shaping perceptions about war, and his broad concepts continue to manifest in strategic works. Homer’s impassive description of war is of great worth – pandemonium is sovereign, savagery is customary and accepted by commanders, subordinates and the gods. There are ‘many graphic descriptions of spearing, disembowelings…[as] veins, arteries, tendons, and vital organs’ described in detail as numerous lives are lost. This is very supportive of the concept that war has an enduring nature as a violent clash of wills, within the context of passion, the play of probability and chance, and reason. The culture of the combatants and their societies, the technology, visceral motivations behind the conflict, and the competition between the great princes of both sides contribute to both a compelling story and interesting reflection on the character of the conflict. The nature of war is enduring, however character remains very fluid and each generation is the recipient of a new embodiment. The Iliad serves to provide an enduring example on how the character of war is ever changing.
The Iliad is principally a reflection on the human condition, and secondly a story regarding the conduct of the final days of the Trojan War. The story itself has endured because it is conveyed in both a raw yet imaginative way as it reflects on weaknesses and strengths of its protagonists. Examination of Homer’s The Iliad will assist to train and sustain an intuitive and agile mind, cultivate military ethos and contextualise the nature and character of war. Thinking and rumination is essential to the development of intellectual agility and the aptitude to contend with uncertainty. Crucially, a junior leader looking to expand their study will find in The Iliad an instrument for the scrutiny of military ethos and values, leadership and character, and the nature of war. The Iliad provides instruction on enduring lessons in the art of war and is the standard for contemplation of war’s human dimensions.
About the Author
Major Benjamin Gray is the Senior Instructor of Combat Command Wing, and has served in a range of operations and training appointments within the Australian Army, including overseas service in the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan. He is a graduate of the Australia Defence Force Academy, the Royal Military College – Duntroon, and the Australia Command and Staff College. He holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters of Strategy and Security from the University of New South Wales, and a Masters of Military and Defence Studies from the Australian National University.