Besides Democracy, the Greeks Invented "Shock and Awe"

Terrence Moore

March 1, 2003

War is a part of human experience and constitutes a large part of the history of the West. The first great work of Western literature, Homer’s Iliad, chronicles the decade-long Trojan War. The second great work of Western literature, Homer’s Odyssey, tells the story of how one of the Trojan War’s heroes, Odysseus, "the man of twists and turns," makes his way back to his home in Ithaca and how he must fight off his wife’s suitors to reclaim his throne. Many of the great works of literature have war as their theme or one of their themes: War and Peace, for example. And history has proven that more often than not great ideas must be resolved on the field of battle. How then should teachers approach the subject of war?

War, like any other subject, should begin at the beginning. To throw down a newspaper with a glaring headline before a high school student and to ask whether our current actions in Iraq are justified is tantamount to asking what his parents’ political opinions are. The way our Founding Fathers were introduced to war, as to the idea of constitutional government, was through their study of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Eighteenth-century schoolmasters taught war through the classics not merely because of antiquarianism but because Western Europe and America have inherited many techniques and assumptions about war that were alive in their own day, indeed that are now being played out on the sands of Iraq.

Consider the following characteristics of Greek warfare outlined by the classicists Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath in their book Who Killed Homer? "1. Advanced technology: the unsurpassed excellence of both weapons and armor. 2. Superior discipline: the effective training and ready acceptance of command by soldiers themselves. 3. Ingenuity in response: an intellectual tradition, unfettered and uncensored by either government or religion, which sought constant improvement in the face of military challenge. 4. Creation of a broad, shared military observance among the majority of the population: the preference for citizen militias and civilian participation in military decision-making. 5. Choice of decisive engagement: the preference to meet the enemy head on and to resolve the fighting as quickly and decisively as possible. 6. Dominance of infantry. 7. A systematic application of capital, Cicerossinews of war,to warmaking. 8. A moral opposition to militarism: the ubiquity of literary, religious, political, and artistic pressure groups who demand justification and explication of war, and so often question and occasionally even arrest the unwise application of military force. There is a notion of dissent, which begins with the Greeks, that war is not the preferred course of events but the great tragedy of the human condition."

All of these characteristics are worth pausing over as they relate to current events in Iraq, but three (1, 5, 8) stand out. The U.S. is currently employing the most advanced technology, including satellite-guided missiles in the air and armored columns on the ground, to produce "shock and awe" in the enemy. The hope is thereby to win the war more quickly and decisively. Roughly twenty-seven hundred years ago, the Greeks developed their own means to shock and awe, the heavy infantry charge of armed citizens, or hoplites. For over three hundred years, none but a Greek force could stand up to other Greeks, as the Persians learned at Marathon and Plataea. Though the technology has changed dramatically, the reasons for today’s version of shock and awe are much the same. When not fighting, according to Professor Hanson, the Greeks were farming. Preferring to be at home rather than abroad, they opted for a short, all-out, decisive engagement as opposed to a protracted war of Homeric lengths. Descendants of Odysseus need not spend twenty years away from home.

The democratic tradition of the Greeks also required leaders to justify entering into wars and to answer for the success or failure of a war. Often public opinion changed rapidly in response to events, as Pericles learned during the plague at Athens. Mr. Gallup’s precise polling methods had not been developed, but public opinion was one of the great forces military and political leaders had to take into account, as any reader of Thucydides can tell you. As a result, the Greeks waged war differently not only at the tactical level but also at the strategic and political levels. Apart from historians, I have met only one type of person who reads the works of Herodotus and Thucydides: thankfully, U.S. military officers.

Terrence Moore grew up and attended public schools in Texas. He studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His dissertation is entitled "The Enlightened Curriculum: Liberal Education in Eighteenth-Century British Schools." Dr. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools.