Homer as Military Thinker

Homer (not assuming anything about the existence of any single author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, or real identity of such a person if such a person existed) is amongst many other things at the beginning of thinking about war in the sense of doctrines, strategies and theories of organised violence. The Homeric epics, particularly The Iliad, not only give a strong impression of what it might be like to part of violent struggles, but also have ideas of how war is organised and conducted, and what methods can be used to win wars. Accordingly Homer is discussed in military academies and in the work of writers on military matters. I’m appending a very preliminary sketch of the relevant later classics of military thought at the end of this post, at the end because it distracts from the flow of discussion of Homer, but it is there for those who would like a bit of context on the history of military thought.

Homer evidently represents a kind of unity that cannot exist now between poetry and various forms of knowledge, so the Homeric epics just as much anticipate war fiction and poetry of a kind that refers to experience of war rather than military thought, as they anticipate works on tactics, strategy, and doctrine. As the Homeric epics include ethics in the sense of moral assumptions and wonder, if not systematic thought, along with the kind of political and justice themes I have been discussing, it also anticipates discussions of the possibility of just war, pacifism, laws of war and the ethics of war. Here I am concentrating on the way a deep and continuous existential encounter with death and war combines with elements of military thought, partly because of the conjunction of experienced violence and thoughts about organising violence.

The Iliad is straightforwardly a poem about war, even if there are many other aspects of this literary work. To some degree we can take it as an account of the horror and intoxication of fighting for your own life and fighting to end someone else’s life, but within this we see more than just an immediate play of passions, compelling thought that is. The passions are seen to come into tension with thought about how to win the war.

The periods in which the Trojans are close to a complete defeat of the Greeks are also shown to be very dangerous as they may lure the Trojans into becoming over-extended and vulnerable to counter-attack. The ebb and flow of the battle is shown as largely due to the divine interference which is a constant in Homer, nevertheless debates take place between the mortal characters which show an interest in the balance in war between aggressively following up on an advance and avoiding either a deliberate trap or a more accidental stretching out of troops, which might lead to catastrophic defeat in the midst of an apparently triumphal offensive. This also raises important points about focusing forces to achieve a breakthrough and the potentially contradictory gaol of enveloping an enemy who has advanced too far by using a breadth of military line to surround and confuse the enemy.

Odysseus and some Greek companions go on a spying mission behind the Trojan lines and encounter a Trojan with similar plans but turned on the Greeks. The Trojan is killed because he is a spy and an offer of ransom is refused, revealing some ambiguity about how covert intelligence gathering, a necessary but not very honourable part of war. the honour ethic of the Homeric warriors, strong as it is, comes under various qualifications and that is one of them. For current purposes the important point is that war includes intelligence gathering as well as direct violence, though some forms of intelligence gathering through deception are likely to be punished by violence if discovered.

The understanding of battle can be clarified by thinking about the consequences of this or that advance or withdrawal, but is also the product of a confusing unpredictable interaction. Many centuries later Clausewitz refers to the ‘fog of war’ even while emphasising the possibility of rational analysis. This idea is illustrated in Homer in a very literal way when mist descends on the battlefield of Troy.

The picture of the Trojan War is only completed in The Odyssey where we learn about the Trojan Horse that was used to achieve the final Greek victory. That is Odysseus plan to pretend to withdraw from the war, leaving a wooden horse as a peace offering. The horse contains Odysseus, and other Greek heroes, who climb out, start slaughtering the Trojans, and let in the main Greek army during the night. I have seen this referred to in a video of discussion between senior American army officers as an example of ‘deceptive ruse’ in war, bringing us back to Odysseus’ main contribution to war, which is not that he is the greatest warrior, but he is the greatest thinker on how to win in war.

‘Deceptive ruses’ in war are important in the last books of The Odyssey  in which Odysseus lands at Ithaca disguised as a vagabond. This disguise enables him to engage in extensive intelligence gathering and then manipulation of his enemy, the Suitors (the lords consuming the wealth of his palace while trying to make his wife Penelope remarry) so that he can attack them on terms convenient to himself.

Other points which come up in Homer are: the importance of leadership so that available forces are integrated and deployed with the maximum effect, the importance of political leadership to keep everyone committed to the war and its goals, the capacity to perceive patterns in the ‘fog of war’ and manoeuvre forces in reaction to changing situations, the advantages of fighting in a  nothing to lose situation in which soldiers know losing the battle means losing everything that motivated them to fight in the first place.

Appendix

Amongst ancient writers who discussed military affairs, there is as far as I can see only Thucydides (writing on the Peloponnesian War), Polybius (writing on the Punic wars, that is the wars between Rome and Carthage), Livy (on various wars, but particularly the Punic Wars) and maybe Tactitus (on the wars between Rome and the ‘barbarian’ tribes of Britain and Rome) who have similar importance. We can even very reasonably put Homer on an all time list of military thinkers, which in the west includes Niccoló Machiavelli (The Art of War, but also his writings on politics), Carl von Clausewitz (On War) and Carl Schmitt (Theory of the Partisan) as the most widely read, along with those whose appeal is a bit more specialised, so I won’t get into them right now, though I may return to this as I think military theory is important to political theory in a way that is generally under appreciated.

In the east there is of course Sun Tzu’s Art of War at the beginning (like Homer, it is not clear that the name refers to a single author), and then oddly enough the most widely read thinker of war is Mao Zedong whose theories of guerrilla war (also known as insurgent or asymmetrical war) have now clearly outlasted his attempts at Marxist political theory as an influential body of work. After that my knowledge is very shaky, but Hagakure’s seventeenth century Book of the Samurai is an influential book, though rather anti-intellectual on military doctrine and more based on a retrospective idealised view of the samurai in Warring States Era Japan than accurate analysis of military affairs.

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