The World of Achilles: Ancient Soldiers, Modern Warriors

By Kaplan, Robert D. | The National Interest, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

The World of Achilles: Ancient Soldiers, Modern Warriors


Kaplan, Robert D., The National Interest


NOTHING IS great, writes Seneca, "which is nor at the same time calm." (1) In contrast to warriors, gladiators, he goes on to say, "are protected by skill but left defenseless by anger."

We should pay attention to Seneca, because the American statesmen of the future will need to control their emotions--for there will be much to be angry about. States and other groups that refuse to play by our rules will constantly be committing outrages. (*) After all, the terrorism that will arise from increased economic disparities, combined with social and cultural dislocation, will enjoy unprecedented access to technological resources. Overreaction to terrorist outrages will exact a terrible price, as technology allows us to more easily reach, and be reached by, the Middle East than ever was the case between the Middle East and Europe for all the centuries gone before. Every diplomatic move will also be a military one, as the artificial separation between civilian and military command structures that has been a feature of contemporary democracies continues to dissolve. We are reverting to the "unified" leaderships that characterized the ancient and early-modern worlds, reflecting what Socrates and Machi avelli recognized as a basic truth of all political systems: whatever the labels those systems claim for themselves, war and diplomacy are two facets of the same process.

The split between civilian and military commands emerged only in the 19th century with the professionalization of modern European armies. In part because the Cold War went on for so long, it created a military establishment too vast and well informed to retreat to the margins of policymaking. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is now a veritable member of the president's cabinet. The regional U.S. commanders-in-chief in the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific and the Americas are the modern-day equals of Roman proconsuls, with budgets twice those of the Cold War era, even as State Department and other civilian foreign policy budgets have dwindled.

The commingling of military and civilian high-technology systems, which increasingly puts the military at the mercy of civilian experts and vice versa, will magnify this trend. The short, limited wars, special forces operations and rescue missions with which we shall be engaged will go unsanctioned by Congress and the citizenry; so, too, will pre-emptive strikes against the computer networks of our adversaries and other defense-related measures that in many instances will be kept secret from the public. Collaboration between the Pentagon and corporate America is necessary, and will grow. Short of a response to the occasional outrage perpetrated against us, going to war will be less and less a democratic decision.

In an age when it took weeks to mobilize and transport armored divisions across the seas, it was possible for American presidents to consult the people and Congress about doing so. In the future, when combat brigades can be inserted anywhere in the world in 96 hours (and entire divisions in 120 hours), and with the majority of our military actions consisting of lightning air and computer strikes, the decision to use force will be made autocratically by small groups of civilians and general officers, the differences between them fading as time goes on.(2) Already, the difference in knowledge between generals, the most prominent of whom operate almost as politicians, and civilian specialists, who function in effect as military officers, is often insignificant.

Even if international law should continue to grow in significance through trade organizations and human rights tribunals, it will play less of a role in the conduct of war because war will increasingly be unconventional and undeclared, and fought as often within states as between them. The concept of "international law" promulgated by Hugo Grotius in 17th-century Holland, in which all sovereign states are treated as equal and war is justified only in defense of sovereignty, is fundamentally utopian. …

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