Category Archives: Historical Interpretation

Musings on the Western War Machine

Thomas Cahill marks the beginning of “the Western war machine” from the time of Homer, the 8th century B.C. In the Iliad Homer tells the story of the 12th century Trojan War. The latter was a time of disparate Mycenaean aristocratic societies, “where all decisions of peace and war were made by powerful chieftains who could lead their followers into whatever dangers their whims might prompt them to.”1

Although this is how the Greeks embarked upon the Trojan War in the first place and largely how they conducted themselves once at Troy, Homer retrojects into his narrative armored hoplites engaging in phalanx warfare, an innovation unknown to the time of the Trojan War. “Despite the many descriptions of confrontations between the two [individual] opponents,” writes Cahill, “warfare is largely conducted as an affair of massed charges of armored infantry…chinking and clunking forward like an unwieldy but inexorable machine.”2 As Homer himself puts it, the soldiers march into battle

tight as a mason packs a good stone wall,
blocks on granite blocks for a storied house
that fights the ripping winds—crammed so close
the crested helmets, the war-shields bulging, jutting
buckler to buckler, helm-to-helm, man-to-man massed tight
and the horsehair crests on glittering helmet horns brushed
as they tossed their heads, the battalions bulked so dense.

This “brutal innovation,” so unlike previous warfare in the Ancient world, was constituted of “a mass of men no longer individuals but subject to an iron discipline, technologically superior to their opponents, their generals having learned that wars must be managed artfully, each battle planned and played out in the mind before the armies are engaged, and that, insofar as possible, the time, the place, and the conditions of battle are to be chosen beforehand to enhance one’s own position and put the enemy at a disadvantage.”3 According to Cahill’s reading of the history of war, it is from this time in the 8th century B.C. that “the Western war machine is operational, its objective to field a force so lethal as to inspire abject terror in all opponents.”4 Further, “Western soldiers march through history no longer exemplars of aristocratic valor but as the component parts [of the machine] they actually are.”((Ibid.)) The doctrines of overwhelming military force,” of “cold calculation and rational planning, not heroic rhetoric or mystical faith,” can be traced from the time of Homer through Alexander the Great’s campaigns, Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the Conquistadors, and the devastation of Europe during World War II.

To be sure, stories of individual bravery and lofty heroic ideals abound in Western literature (especially in Homer), but as Cahill reads things this is not the norm after the Trojan War. After that conflict, the shape and scope of war, and of the Western military machine more generally, changes dramatically, becoming far more mechanistic, impersonal, technologically-oriented, and artistic (in the sense of artificial)—not to mention far more brutal. The battles depicted in the Iliad, as well as much later in Herodotus’ Histories and Thucydides’ narrative of the Peloponnesian war are savage, gory affairs carried out precisely by clanking, clunking, battle-hardened, frenzied and heartless war machines.5

By contrast, we may consider (very generally speaking) Medieval warfare, which, though possessing much of the post-Trojan War ethos described above, yet also retained deep personal connections and connotations in the form of its Christian feudal context. Medieval warriors may have marched in tight armored ranks of glittering helmets and shields, but as a general rule they did not fight, like Achilles, for abstractions like “glory” and “honor,” or, to put a more distinctly contemporary face on the question, for “their country.”6 Much brutality, much evil, can and has been done in the name of preserving (or capturing) the flag, a goal which fits well with the abstract, impersonal, technologically-driven, mechanistic world of the Modern. I have noticed a trend in popular culture (e.g., Kiefer Sutherland’s 24) in which the preservation of the impersonal nation-state is given the status of Ultimate Priority, so that all manner of moral violations, including torture and the use of innocents as decoys in battle, may be excused in the name of “national security.” War is hell, and hell seems to be peopled by men who have sold their humanity for the mess of pottage that is “patriotism.”

But if the violence and of the Western war machine is the same across post-Troy eras, what about the end result of the wars? If Achilles is doomed to find out, as we read later in the Odyssey, to bitterly wish “I’d rather slave on earth for another man / some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive / than rule down here over all the breathless dead,” where “the senseless, burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home,” to what horrific Hell is the dead Modern soldier, incessantly told that he is but a cog in a great national Machine, doomed? One is reminded of W.H. Auden’s poem The Shield of Achilles, in which a Modern army doesn’t even know why they are going to war. The rallying speech of the leaders “Proved by statistics that some cause was just” seems fit only for the army to be “enduring”, its cold logic moving their feet, but not apparently their hearts, “somewhere else, to grief.”

One thing may at least be constant on the level of the soldiers, however, and that is seeing the ultimate end of their warmaking as being able to return home to normal life. Cahill makes this point by way of an intriguing contrast between the hero of the Iliad, Achilles, and the hero of the Odyssey, Odysseus. Achilles is offered the peace of a stable, loving home life, but instead chooses war and death in the name of having his praises sung for millennia afterwards—only to be bitterly disappointed by the actual conditions of “ruling” in the underworld. Odysseus, on the other hand, leaves the peace of his stable, loving home life to go to war, but his ultimate goal is to return home to his wife and child.7

Cahill thinks highly of Samuel Johnson’s editorial on the Odyssey: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every desire prompts the prosecution.”8 Further, consider men such as General Patton, who loved war and the battlefield more than their very lives, Cahill cites Patton observing a battlefield littered with dead, “I love it. God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life.”9 Contrast such a sentiment sharply with Herodotus’ pithy remark, “No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace: in peace children bury their fathers, while in war fathers bury their children.”

To return to the earlier point, Cahill cites Victor Davis Hanson, an expert on Ancient warfare, on the Greek view of war as “terrible but innate to civilization—and not always unjust or amoral if it is waged for good causes to destroy evil and save the innocent.”10 Another contemporary military commentator, Robert D. Kaplan, has even gone so far as to write a book called Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, which apparently argues that modern warfare needs to get away from Judeo-Christian constraints and back to the glory-seeking savagery of the Ancient Greeks. Some interesting discussion could be had on this point by examining the fundamental “ontology of violence” that drove the Ancient world’s mythology and sociology, but for the moment it is interesting enough to note that Cahill again cites Hanson, this time saying that Homer’s idea of war is similar to rap lyrics that “glorify rival gangs who shoot and maim each other for prestige, women, booty, and turf.”11

One last thing on this subject: Cahill asks speculatively whether the Greek tradition of war, seemingly so integral to Western warfare, has not reached the end of its usefulness, given that in our own age decentralized, international, unpredictable terrorism—“a war in which the enemy has no territory to defend and cannot be met on any known battlefield, a war in which all initiative lies with the enemy and every shadow may contain a hideous surprise”12—seems to be the biggest foe with which we must reckon.

  1. Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (New York: Doubleday, 2003), pg. 48 []
  2. Ibid., pg. 44. []
  3. Ibid., pg. 45. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. One cannot help but think here of Tolkien’s depictions, born of his reflections on the trenches of World War I, of the banging, grinding, fire-and-smoke belching, hard, unyielding steel-and-gear industrialism of the war machines of Isengard and Mordor. []
  6. I am indebted for this particular point to my former history professor at New St. Andrews, Chris Schlect. []
  7. Ibid., pp. 65-69. []
  8. Ibid., pg. 68. []
  9. Ibid., pg. 34. []
  10. Ibid., pg. 46, citing Hanson’s An Autumn of War. []
  11. Ibid., pg. 41. []
  12. Ibid., pg. 47. []